Dubai: Long before the need for sustainable development became widely recognised, the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan was achieving an environmental miracle: he was transforming the desert into a green haven.
Hamdi Tammam, in his book Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan: The Leader and the March, wrote that the former president devoted much of his time making enquiries about the topography of the region.
After much research, Shaikh Zayed discovered that 15,000 years ago, the Arabian Peninsula was a very different place. Enveloped in thick forests and full of greenery, the land got transformed to a desert only after it was exposed to a long spell of drought that also forced its inhabitants to move in search of water. In time, the forests were buried and gradually transformed into the region's black gold or oil.
Shaikh Zayed charted a course to return the desert to its greener origins by increasing the number of trees, farms and palm orchards.
And so began the leader's enduring quest. From promoting agriculture and wildlife conservation to literally pushing back the desert, he changed the face of the UAE and gave the country an environmental conscience.
Shaikh Zayed's primary motive was to offset the effects of desertification, which studies revealed were dramatically affecting Abu Dhabi. A process in which desert sands drift onto plantations and farms and stifle the growth of crops, desertification spelled bad news.
Shaikh Zayed developed extensive projects to level dunes and sand hills and cover surface areas with mud. He set up green belts around farms to protect them against the wind and to stabilise the soil. Additionally, he worked to protect cities against sandstorms and restrict humidity ratio by ensuring that forests were set up around city borders.
In 1946, Shaikh Zayed launched a pioneering project for the development of a water resources management system that was centred in Al Ain. By using both the traditional 'aflaj' or underground canal system of irrigation and modern technology, he was able to raise productivity in existing agricultural lands and introduce new varieties of produce in farmlands.
Water was UAE's most precious natural resource, according to Shaikh Zayed. He encouraged finding new mechanisms for effectively conserving water and was always looking for ways to boost ground water reserves.
Agricultural experimentation played a key role in transforming the desert landscape, especially in Al Ain and Abu Dhabi's Al Sa'adiyat islands. Pilot experimentation stations were established in these areas in the 1970s, with more than 283 farms initiated in different locations in Al Ain.
However, the visionary leader knew that all efforts to expand greenery would be rendered useless if the desert continued to encroach on productive land. He encouraged the introduction of indispensable measures, by erecting dams, taking care of ground water, using fertilisers, building fertiliser factories and growing salt-tolerant plants.
One of the most visible and enduring results of Shaikh Zayed's efforts can be seen on both sides of the road between Abu Dhabi and Al Ain. A tree-planting project that began at the end of the 1960s continues to prosper even today, with more than a 100 million trees currently existing within the borders of the UAE.
The city of Al Ain alone has more than 75 modern forests, each with an average area ranging between two to three square kilometres. The variety of trees planted were chosen carefully and assessed for their ability to survive in the harsh summer climate of the region, with greater emphasis on local breeds. It is no wonder Al Ain is known as the "Garden City" of the UAE.
Along with protecting the land, Shaikh Zayed shouldered the responsibility of building nature reserves and conserving wildlife. Often commended as his greatest achievement in this regard, Sir Bani Yas Island is a haven for endangered species such as gazelles.
Under his directives, breeding programmes in Al Ain Zoo helped increase the number of the Arabian oryx from four in the 1960s to its present number of 2,500. Such programmes were also extended to birds such as falcons and the Asian Houbara Bustard.
What began as a vision has now transformed into a reality. Additionally, about 20 per cent of the world's date palms exist in the UAE with a myriad species of plants and flowers.
As for sustainable development, Shaikh Zayed said it best: "On land and in the sea, our forefathers lived and survived in this environment. They were able to do so only because they recognised the need to conserve it, to take from it only what they needed to live and to preserve it for succeeding generations."
Timeline: Zayed's directives
- 1970 Established an agriculture experimental station in Al Ain.
- 1973 Visited Dalma Island to establish agricultural projects.
- 1974 Visited Sila'a to establish agricultural projects.
- 1975 Under his directives, the number of farms in Al Ain rose up to 319.
- 1977 He banned fishing in Abu Dhabi to counter over-exploitation.
- 1977 He ordered Al Ain Zoo to begin breeding programmes for the Asian Houbara Bustard with the aim to breed 10,000 annually and release them into the wild.
- 1983 He ordered the planting of forest trees such as the lotus jujube, Salm, Samar and Al Ghaf. The trees now number more than 5 million.
- 1984 125 farms were established and distributed to UAE nationals.
- 1985 He ordered public parks to be introduced along Abu Dhabi and Al Ain. A total area of 53 km was grown with palm trees.
- 1992 He received a Japanese delegation to conduct a comprehensive survey for developing water resources and utilising them in agricultural expansion.
- 1993 The Federal Environment Agency was established to oversee environmental issues on the federal level.
- 1995 Shaikh Zayed Falcon Release Programme for releasing falcons began.
- 1996 The Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (formerly the Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency) was set up to help achieve sustainable development.
- 1997 He ordered all farmers in Al Ain to grow 400 palm trees, each.
- 2000 The total area of planted forests amounted to around 300,000 hectares where the number of trees reached 600,000.
- 2002 The total number of palm trees in the UAE reached 41 million, with the production of 40 million tonnes of dates.
- 2002 Under his orders, several environmental conservation initiatives were launched, including the Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative (ADGEI), which was designed to collect relevant environmental data at home and abroad.
- 2003 UN Agreement for Desertification Combating Conference was held in Abu Dhabi.
- 2004 He issued a federal decree whereby the UAE joined the International Treaty on plant gene resources.
- 2004 The UAE also joined the Arab Water Council in Cairo, which is concerned with conservation and protection of Arab water resources against waste.
— Source: Environment Agency Abu Dhabi website : www.ead.ae