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United Arab Emirates


The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a federation of seven emirates: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, Umm ul Quwain and Ajman. It is situated in the eastern corner of the Arabian peninsula and is bordered in the north by the Persian Gulf, in the east by the Gulf of Oman and Oman and in the south and west by Saudi Arabia. Six of the seven Emirates lie on the coast of the Persian Gulf, while the seventh, Fujairah, is situated on the eastern coast of the peninsula and has direct access to the Gulf of Oman.

The total area of the United Arab Emirates is about 83 600 km, of which 77 700 km is mainland surface area, where the population lives. The total area of the many -and generally uninhabitedislands is about 5 900 krn2. Over 90% of the land is desert. In 1994, the agricultural area was estimated at 72 374

ha, of which 66 682 ha were available for agricultural production, while the remaining 5 962 ha were occupied by farm buildings and surrounding wasteland. In 1993, the total cultivated area was estimated at 54 512 ha, of which 21 683 ha consisted of annual crops and 32 829 ha of permanent crops.

The total population is about 1.9 million according to UN estimates (1995), of which only 16% is rural. According to the 1995 national census of the Ministry of Planning. the population was about 2.4 million, including both nationals and foreigners. Unofficial estimates suggest that over 80% of the population is made up of nonnationals. The table below shows the distribution of the area and the population, including resident foreigners, over the different Emirates in 1993.

TABLE 1 - Basic statistics and population

Physical areas:
Area of the country 1995 8 360 000 ha
Cultivable area 1993 66 682 ha
Cultivated area 1993 54 512 ha
- annual crops 1993 21 683 ha
- permanent crops 1993 32 829 ha
Total population 1995 1 904 000 inhabitants
Population density 1995 23 inhab/km
Rural population 1995 16 %
Water supply coverage:
Urban population 1995 100 %
Rural population 1995 100 %


Mainland area and population by emirates (estimate by the Ministry of Planning, 1993)

Emirate Mainland area (excl. islands) (km) As % of total area No. of inhabitants including foreigners As % of total population Population density (inh./km)
Abu Dhabi 67 340.0 86.7 871 000 41.8 12.9
Dubai 3 885 0 5.0 548 000 26.3 141.1
Sharjah 2 590.0 3.3 342 000 16.4 132.0
Ras Al Khaimah 1 683.5 2.2 141 000 6.8 83.7
Fujairah 1 165.5 1.5 68 000 3.3 58.3
Umm Al Quwain 777.0 1.0 30 000 1.4 38.6
Ajman 259.0 0.3 83 000 4.0 320.5
Total 77 700.0 100.0 2 083 000 100.0 26.8


TABLE 2 - Water: sources and use

Renewable water resources:
Average precipitation   100 mm/yr
    8.36 km/yr
Internal renewable water resources   0.15 km/yr
Total (actual) renewable water resources 1995 0.15 km/yr
Dependency ratio 1995 0 %
Total (actual) renewable water resources per inhabitant 1995 79 m/yr
Total dam capacity 1995 80 106 m
Water withdrawal:
- agricultural 1995 1 408 106m/yr
- domestic 1995 500 106m/yr
- industrial 1995 200 106m/yr
Total water withdrawal   2 108 106m/yr
per inhabitant 1995 1 107 m/yr
as % of total (actual) renewable water resources 1 405 %  
Other water withdrawal   - 106m/yr
Average groundwater depletion 1995 1 495 106m/yr
Wastewater - Non-conventional water sources:
- produced wastewater 1995 500 106m/yr
- treated wastewater 1995 108 106m/yr
- reused treated wastewater 1995 108 106m/yr
Desalinated water 1995 385 106m/yr

By far the largest emirate is Abu Dhabi and Abu Dhabi City is the capital of both the emirate and the whole country. It also has the largest population numerically, but at the same time the lowest population density among the emirates. Dubai, which has the highest population density, is considered the business capital and the most important port in the country. Over two-thirds of the total population are concentrated in these two emirates. Average annual population growth has been estimated at over 3.5%, including both nationals and foreigners. The male population accounted for over 66% of the total population in 1995, mainly because of male immigrant labour force.

In 1994, agriculture employed an estimated 9% of the labour force and accounted for less than 2% of the country's GDP. The main source of income is the revenue from oil exports. The last five-year plan concentrated on the manufacturing sector, in order to attain a balance in growth with other industries and a diversification of sources of income. Besides development planning at the federal level, each emirate follows an independent development strategy. The federal government is the driving force behind the economy through large public spending.



The climate is arid with very high summer temperatures. The coastal area, where the bulk of the population lives, has a hot and humid climate in the summer (May-October) with temperatures and relative humidity reaching 46C and 100% respectively. Winters are generally mild with temperatures between 14 and 23C. The interior desert region has hot summers with temperatures rising to about 50C and cool winters during which the lowest temperature may fall to 4C.

TABLE 3 - Irrigation and drainage

Irrigation potential 1993 66 682 ha
1. Full or partial control irrigation: equipped area 1993 66 682 ha
- surface irrigation 1993 25 382 ha
- sprinkler irrigation 1993 3 748 ha
- micro-irrigation 1993 37 552 ha
% of area irrigated from groundwater 1993 100 %
% of area irrigated from surface water 1993 0 %
% of area irrigated from non-conventional sources 1993 0 %
% of equipped area actually irrigated 1993 81.7 %
2. Spate irrigation area   - ha
3. Equipped wetland and inland valley bottoms (i.v.b.)   - ha
Total irrigation (1 +2+3) 1993 66 682 ha
- as % of cultivated area   122 %
4. Flood recession cropping area   - ha
Total water managed area 11 + 2 + 3 + 4) 1993 66 682 ha
- as % of cultivated area   122 %
- increase over last 10 years   - %
- power irrigated area as % of water managed area   - %
Full or partial control irrigation schemes: Criteria
Large-scale schemes > 5 ha 1993 0 ha
Medium-scale schemes 1993 0 ha
Small-scale schemes < 5 ha 1993 66 682 ha
Total number of households in irrigation 1993 21 194  
Irrigated crops:
Total irrigated grain production 1993 1 052 tons
as % of total grain production 1993 100 %
Harvested crops under irrigation (full or partial control) 1993 54 512 ha
- permanent crops: total 1993 32 829 ha
- annual crops: total 1993 21 683 ha
. vegetables 1993 12 927 ha
. fodder crops [alfalfa, green fodder) 1993 7 808 ha
. wheat 1993 567 ha
. potatoes 1993 174 ha
. other annual crops 1993 207 ha
Drainage - Environment:
Drained area   - ha
as % of cultivated area   - %
- drained areas in full or partial control irrigated areas   - ha
- drained areas in equipped wetland and i.v.b   - ha
- other drained areas   - ha
- total drained area with subsurface drains   - ha
- total drained area with surface drains   - ha
Flood-protected area   - ha
Area salinized by irrigation   - ha
Population affected by water-borne diseases   - inhabitants

Mean annual rainfall is about 100 mm, ranging from less than 40 mm around Liwa in the southern desert to 160 mm in the north-eastern mountains. Almost 90% of rainfall occurs during the winter (October-March) and the wettest month is February. Spring and summer witness only occasional concentrated heavy rainfall. The rainfall distribution is highly variable over space and time. Rainfall tends to be more reliable in the north-eastern mountain region.

Water resources

The total annual surface runoff produced from rain is about 150 million m, but there are no perennial streams. The average annual groundwater recharge is about 120 million m, most of

which comes from infiltration from the river beds. The total groundwater abstraction during the year 1995 is estimated at l 615 million m. This means that groundwater depletion probably amounts to almost 1500 million m/year. However, this figure does not consider the possible annual recharge of groundwater entering from neighbouring countries (for example from the Eastern Arabia Aquifer), as no figures are available. In any case, the over-extraction of groundwater resources has led to a lowering of the water table by more than one metre on average during the last two decades, while sea water intrusion is increasing in the coastal areas.


To increase the groundwater recharge a number of dams have been built at various locations in the country. There are about 35 dams and embankments of various dimension having a total storage capacity of 80 million m. While most of these dams are basically built for recharge purposes, they also provide protection against damage caused by flash floods.

Figure 1 - Water withdrawal (total: 2 108 million m in 1995)

Desalinated water and treated wastewater

The first desalination plant was installed in Abu Dhabi in 1976 with a total capacity of 250 m/day. Because of a rapid increase in domestic and industrial water demand more plants were installed, particularly in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. At present there are 35 desalination plants in the UAE, with a total installed capacity of l 922 m/day or 700 million m/year, while total actual production is 385 million m/year.

It is estimated that about 500 million m of wastewater were produced in the urban areas during 1995, of which 108 million m were treated and reused.

Water withdrawal

Total water withdrawal was estimated at 2 108 million m in 1995 (Figure l). Over 76 % of the total water withdrawal was groundwater. Agricultural water withdrawal for crops was estimated at about l 300 million m/year (all from groundwater), while landscape irrigation used 108 million m (all treated wastewater). Total water withdrawal for domestic and industrial purposes was estimated at 700 million m, of which 385 million m, or 55%, consisted of desalinated water and the remaining part of groundwater (Figure 2).

Figure 2 - Origin of water used by sector (total: 2 108 million m in 1995)


The UAE has very limited potential for agricultural development since over 90% of the land is desert, there are no perennial surface water resources and rainfall is meagre and erratic. However, in spite of the harsh weather conditions and soil and water constraints, remarkable progress has been made in the agricultural sector, particularly during the last two decades. The cultivable area increased from 15 050 ha in 1977 to 66 682 ha in 1994. The land is usually developed by transporting suitable soil to areas where water is available and for this reason the term 'cultivable land' is somewhat relative and may change over time. For the same reason the irrigation potential can be estimated at 66 682 ha but may change over time. The main agricultural areas are located in the north-east (Ras Al Khaimah), in the east along the coast from Kalba to Dibba (Fujairah), in the south-east (Al Ain/Abu Dhabi) and in the central region (Dhaid/Abu Dhabi).

Figure 3 - Irrigation techniques f/p (total: 66 682 ha)

In 1994, the total water managed area was 66 682 ha (equal to the cultivable area), of which 41 300 ha were equipped with modern irrigation systems (sprinkler irrigation and micro-irrigation), while on 25 382 ha surface irrigation (basin and furrow) was practiced (Figure 3). All irrigation water is groundwater.

Prior to the introduction of modern irrigation systems all the agricultural land was irrigated by traditional flood and furrow methods. Extensive research was carried out during the period 197681 to select suitable irrigation systems and a pilot farm was established in 1983 to introduce sprinkler irrigation and micro-irrigation systems and a subsidy was given to the farmers. These irrigation systems are believed to have saved about 60% of the irrigation water.

Apart from the government's experimental farms, nurseries, afforestation schemes and public gardens, all the agricultural land is owned and developed by private owners. There are 21 194 farm holdings. The government provides subsidies, extension services and other incentives to the farmers. All crops are irrigated and the main crops grown are dates, fruits, vegetables and fodder crops (Figure 4). In 1994, the actually irrigated area was 54 512 ha, or 82% of the equipped area. Every year a part of the total equipped area is left fallow, a kind of shifting cultivation being practiced.

The cost of irrigation development has decreased considerably during recent years, mainly due to the local production of pipes and irrigation equipment. The average cost of irrigation development is about $US 3 250/ha and the annual operation and maintenance cost is about $US 400/ha. There are no irrigation water charges levied by the government, but the farmers pay for the drilling of boreholes on their farms and the pumping of the groundwater.

Figure 4 - Irrigated crops f/p (total: 54 512 ha)

Over-abstraction of groundwater leads to a rapid fall in the water table, especially near the coast, resulting in increased salinity of the soil and water. Encroachment of sea water had already been reported in 1982, when it apparently penetrated as far as 20 km inland in the northern emirates. As a result, several farms are going out of production.


There are five main institutions involved in water resources management:


Groundwater has been affected adversely, both qualitatively and quantitatively, due to overabstraction. At present, all water used to irrigate agricultural products is groundwater, while treated wastewater is used for landscaping purposes. Future irrigation development using groundwater is very limited and attempts are being made to alleviate the problem of water scarcity by constructing desalination plants and dams, the latter mainly for the recharge of groundwater.

Local food production currently satisfies about one-fourth of UAE's food demand. The emirates are now self-sufficient in some winter vegetables and, in fact, a surplus is produced at certain times of the year. Overall, the government will continue to encourage agriculture, but is also aware that complete self-sufficiency in food is impossible.

Within the national strategy for water management, priority is given to sustainable and economically viable agricultural products and to research on the growth of salt tolerant crops. Utilizing all the possible options, the ultimate aim is to maintain the present level of growth if further development is obstructed due to water scarcity.


Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Department of Statistics. 1993. Statistical Bulletin.

Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Department of Soil and Water. Annual Hydrological Reports 1982-1993.

Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Department of Soil and Water. 1993. Meteorological Yearbook No 3.

Ministry of Planning. Annual Statistical Abstracts 1992-1993.

Mohammed Saqr Al Asam. 1995. United Arab Emirates Water Resources Use in Agriculture and Conservation.

Water and Electricity Department, Abu Dhabi. 1995. Development of Desalination Plants in the United Arab Emirates.

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