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United Arab Emirates

Irrigation and drainage

Evolution of irrigation development

The UAE has limited potential for agricultural development since over 80 percent of the land is desert, there are no perennial surface water resources and rainfall is very low 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 decade. The total water managed area increased from 66 682 ha in 1994 to 226 600 ha in 2003 (Table 6). The main agricultural areas are located in the northeast (Ras Al Khaymah), in the east along the coast from Kalba to Dibba (Fujayrah), in the southeast (Al Ain/Abu Dhabi) and in the central region (Dhaid/Abu Dhabi).

Prior to the introduction of modern irrigation systems (sprinkler and localized irrigation), all agricultural land was irrigated by traditional flood and furrow methods. Extensive research was carried out during the period 1976–81 to select suitable irrigation systems, a pilot farm was established in 1983 to introduce sprinkler and localized irrigation systems and a subsidy was given to the farmers. These irrigation systems are believed to have saved about 60 percent of the irrigation water. In 2003, the total equipped area for full or partial control irrigation was 226 600 ha, of which 195 500 ha used localized irrigation, 27 100 ha surface irrigation and only 4 000 ha sprinklers (Figure 3). All irrigation water is groundwater.

Apart from the government’s experimental farms, nurseries, afforestation schemes and public gardens, all the agricultural land is owned and developed by private owners. In 2003, 61 percent of the farm holdings (23 421 units) owned modern irrigation systems (Table 7). More than 86 percent of the farms with modern irrigation systems are in the Abu Dhabi Emirate, and 9, 4 and 1 percent in the Central, Northern and Eastern zones respectively (Environmental and Agricultural Information Centre, 2007).

Role of irrigation in agricultural production, the economy and society

All crops in the UAE are irrigated. In 2003, the harvested irrigated cropped area was 228 590 ha (EAIC, 2007) consisting mostly of palm trees (81 percent), green fodder (13 percent) and vegetables (3.5 percent) (Table 6 and Figure 4). Palm trees produced 757 601 tonnes, which is 97 percent of the total production from fruit trees. Green fodder covered 91 percent of field crops area and alfalfa 8 percent. The main vegetables were tomatoes (22 percent of vegetable areas) and onions (8.5 percent) producing 76 and 23 tonnes/ha respectively.

In 2003, almost 90 percent of the harvested irrigated cropped area was in the Abu Dhabi Emirate (EAIC, 2007). In this Emirate, agriculture is generally dominated by two perennial crops, dates and Rhodes grass, with some seasonal plantings of short season annual vegetable crops. A limited amount of cereals and fruits is also grown. Most agriculture is on small private farms that have been established in relatively recent times, but there are also small areas of traditional date palm gardens, and larger government forage production units. Traditional date palm gardens in Al Ain Oasis consume about 10 million m3/year of groundwater for around 375 000 date palm trees and occupy an area of 350 ha. There is also a limited area of protected horticulture where greenhouses and cloches are used (Brook et al., 2006).

In 2006 the average cost of irrigation development was estimated at US$3 800/ha and the average cost of operation and maintenance at US$700/ha/year in public schemes. 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 groundwater. With increasing water scarcity, more farmers are adopting modern irrigation systems. The latter cost around US$8 500/ha for bubbler and US$10 000–13 000/ha for drip irrigation, excluding head stations. Sprinkler systems tend not to be used because of water salinity problems.

Exact figures regarding water application by farmers for each crop and the related irrigation efficiency and productivity are lacking as there is no monitoring system for water use, either at the farm level or at that of aquifers or regions. Figures of excessive water use in the region of 25–30 percent have been given and this concerns essentially traditional irrigation systems. Farmers irrigate frequently and apply large amounts of water. All soils are of light texture (gravel, loamy sand and sandy loam) with high infiltration rates and hence prone to high percolation losses.


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       Quote as: FAO. 2016. AQUASTAT website. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Website accessed on [yyyy/mm/dd].
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