The UAE plans to increase its use of treated waste water , which is about half as cheap to produce than desalinated water.
Yet, almost half of it is currently being dumped into the sea instead of using it for landscaping or planting crops.
Beside landscaping, Golf courses and district cooling, highly treated waste water could also be used to plant crops, at least fodder crops. To balance out peaks and troughs in agricultural water consumption a storage system for treated waste water is suggested.
The UAE has launched a new aquaponics projects with the help of the Khalifa Fund. It combines tilapia aquaculture with vegetable hydroponics by using the waste of the fish as fertilizer.
The recent rise in global food prices, particularly animal feed like corn and soybeans, impacts on the UAE, which has the highest pass-through of international prices in the GCC according to a Word Bank paper.
The UAE’s system of food price controls will come under pressure because of this. Either the government starts to give subsidies to retailers as it has already done with partly government owned Agthia, or retailers will withdraw certain items from sales should they perceive necessary cross-subsidies as excessive. A black market would develop.
Jeddah, like Abu Dhabi, now also plans for a strategic water storage.
Abu Dhabi would run dry within 48 hours if its desalinization plants would be damaged (e.g. because of an oil spill or a sabotage act). A strategic water storage is meant to mitigate this threat.
Possibly it will also provide an opportunity to use and effectively store intermittent solar energy more efficiently as GCC countries increasingly eye solar based desalination.
Some time ago Abdul Rahman Al Sultan quipped in an op-ed in ‘ Al-Ru’ya al-Iqtisadiyya that listening to GCC politicians he would have the feeling he was living in “Bangladesh or Chad”. After all there was enough food and Gulf countries had the money to buy it on world markets albeit possibly at a higher price he argued.
There seem to be indeed more pressing food security issues in the Gulf than the hypothetical war or crises situations that politicians plan for when debating food security.
These problems stem from an abundance of calories, not lack thereof. The Gulf countries have one of the highest obesity and diabetes rates per capita in the world (around a third and 13 percent respectively) as Alpen Capital pointed out in a report in 2011.
Weight loss surgeries are on the rise. “Because of my weight, I could not sit in the car of my dreams. Now I feel my Lamborghini is approaching,” said one patient in the UAE after undergoing bariatric operation.
There is clearly a need to improve diets in the Gulf by awareness campaigns and taxing unhealthy fast food.
Sweetened beverages and fast food have also been blamed for calcium and Vitamin D deficiencies, beside lacking exposure to sunlight.
Vitamin D deficiency is gender specific. It reaches 70 percent among Saudi women and 40 percent among Saudi male as an article in Nature recently found out.
Beside increased exposure to sunlight it could be treated by increased consumption of dairy products and drinks instead of sweetened beverages. More fish and dairy consumption would also tackle the calcium deficiency and the increased occurrence of osteoporosis.
The food security challenge in the Gulf often has unexpected angles and solutions to it might be found on a less geo-strategic plane than is often assumed.
The UAE has decided to ban groundwater exports to foreign countries. It was not divulged in which form and to which countries such exports occur. It is likely that any such exports are not high in comparison to the substantial domestic consumption.
Agriculture is the main consumer of predominantly fossil water. Date cultivation and green fodder production for the two million animals or so are major culprits. Desalinated water provides the majority of drinking water in the cities. It is used lavishly because of extensive subsidies for extended car washing sessions and landscaping.
The Abu Dhabi Water Resources Master Plan estimates that about 11 percent of the expensive desalinated water ends up for agricultural purposes and argues that the real number is likely to be “far higher.”
Against this background the export ban for groundwater exports looks like activism in order to shun the tough the tough decisions that have to be made, i.e. reduction of water subsidies.
Just awareness campaigns and recitation of ‘Our Water, Our Life’ poems by children will not be enough.
On the supply side Saudi Arabia, like Qatar, is pushing forward solar based desalination. But demand reduction and management remains a politically sensitive topic as cheap or free water is regarded as an entitlement by citizens.
Organic farming in greenhouses is on the rise. In the UAE it reached 2,196 acres in 2010 compared to 110 acres in 2007.Abu Dhabi also aims to reduce the input of chemicals and pesticides in agriculture by a quarter by 2013.
After the rumblings of the Saudi agro-business people about lagging implementation of the King Abdullah Initiative for Saudi Agricultural Investments Abroad (KAISAIA) (http://www.al-jazirah.com/20110112/ec1d.htm) another indication that the failure of the Sudan bread basket strategy of the 1970s might just repeat itself.
Sudan is urging the UAE to begin developing the vast expanses of farmland it has acquired in the country, as the north loses the majority of its oil revenues following the independence of South Sudan.The country, ravaged by years of conflict, is now turning its focus to its agricultural sector, as it desperately tries to generate cash.