DUBAI -- Running a farm is not easy in the Middle East, part of a region, along with North Africa, defined by the World Bank as the most water-scarce in the world.
Farmers in Abu Dhabi are now working with the government on ambitious new plans to cut agricultural water use in half by 2014 to conserve water and ensure sustainability.
According to the Abu Dhabi Quality and Conformity Council, as reported last month by a local English-language newspaper, The National, the emirate annually uses 275 billion liters of water, or 73 billion gallons.
Experts estimate that more than 70 percent of all water used in the emirate goes into irrigation for agriculture and urban parkland.
The Farmers Services Center, a government agency formed in 2009 to improve farms in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi, introduced a pilot program in 2010 to provide water conservation technology to 1,500 farms. The program has since been expanded to include 6,200 farms, while 1,000 farm workers, mainly from the Indian subcontinent, have been trained to use the equipment.
"Our task now is to refocus farmers on the fact that agriculture uses a lot of water, which is in short and declining supply," said Ray Moule, technical director of the center. "We have to be efficient in using resources and applying water to crops to make farming sustainable and get the best economic returns."
Saving water is a unique challenge in the United Arab Emirates, not least for farmers trying to produce economically viable crops under innately hostile natural conditions of searing heat, low rainfall and barren desert soil.
Cultivars suited to the extreme climate conditions include date palm and Rhodes grass, used as an animal feed and a soil stabilizer.
Farmers also grow vegetables including tomatoes and cucumbers in greenhouses year-round.
"Currently, Abu Dhabi relies on groundwater for the majority of agriculture and its contribution to food security, making the protection and conservation of groundwater vital," said Mohamed Yousef al-Madfaei, executive director of the Integrated Environment Policy and Planning Sector of the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency.
However, he noted, "groundwater supplies could be exhausted very soon, and its conservation is a strategic government priority."
In a bid to make an innately artificial farming sector as sustainable as possible, upgraded irrigation systems have been installed in 1,200 farms, including date palm plantations, with plans to roll out more this year.
"Our task is to link the market with the producer and supply on a year-round basis, moving the farmers away from a narrow season of production by introducing new production techniques," Mr. Moule said. "It's about creating an open value chain and linking production with plans to supply for longer periods of time, as efficiently as possible."
Beside the challenges of a hostile climate, local farmers also face huge competition from imports, with as much as 90 percent of produce consumed in the emirate currently imported from abroad, according to Mr. Moule.
"There are too many suppliers of similar products in the area who can produce cheaply, so the market is actually well-supplied most of the year," he said. "So we have to deal with a market that is oversupplied anyway with products from neighboring markets which, although of lower quality, and are cheaper than our products."
Still, the government is prioritizing the development of Abu Dhabi's nascent farming industry in a bid to improve food security without overstraining increasingly scarce water resources even as the population grows and global climate change advances.
It considers support for a domestic farming industry to be strategically important in order to protect against any sudden cutoff in supplies as a result of either political or natural causes.
Among other considerations, projections by the International Food Policy Research Institute point to world market price increases of as much as 50 percent for cereals and other basic food commodities over the period to 2050. Markets in Africa and Asia are likely to be particularly affected as temperatures rise and natural disasters, including floods, in countries like Thailand, India and parts of Africa become more frequent, forcing traditional farming methods to change.
A research report released last month by the U.S. National Climate Assessment said: "Critical thresholds are already being exceeded. Many regions will experience declines in crop and livestock production from increased stress due to weeds, diseases, insect pests and other climate change-induced stresses. Climate disruptions to agricultural production have increased in the past and are projected to increase further."
With the Gulf region reliant on imports from countries that are vulnerable to climate change for some 90 percent of its food consumption, the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority, established in 2005, is working to strengthen awareness about food safety, environmental protection and good agricultural practices through workshops for farmers and the general public.
"We do not believe we can change the way things are just by rigorous enforcement" of water conservation, said Mohamed Jalal al-Rayssi, the authority's director of communication and community service. "We have an entire department dedicated to organizing awareness drives, targeting different segments of society."
The control authority focuses much attention on reducing the use of water in irrigation through high-technology irrigation techniques and water metering.
"Saving water is especially important in the arid climatic conditions of the emirates, and conserving precious water resources is crucial to all sustainability efforts," Mr. Rayssi said. "Given the fact that groundwater renewal is meager here, coupled with the ever increasing demand for water for agricultural purposes, we need to seriously think about the coming generations."
Rising water salinity in the Gulf, as a result of decades of salt dumping by desalination plants producing freshwater for human consumption, adds to the complexity of the challenge.
As a result, the idea of reusing treated sewage water is gaining ground. Metito, a water treatment and management company with global headquarters in Dubai, specializes in this area.
In the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, "we have the highest usage of water in the world and the lowest amount of renewable water in the world," said Fady Juez, managing director of Metito. "There aren't any rivers, and the groundwater is for the most part not renewable, so the region is forced to focus on unconventional ways to supply requirements."
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the emirates' renewable water resources have decreased 42 percent in the past 15 years, with more declines projected in the near future.
"A lot of money is spent on desalinating water, and now reusing treated sewage water is also becoming a more popular, cost-efficient option," Mr. Juez said, noting that several residential neighborhoods in Dubai now used recycled water for parkland irrigation.
Agricultural water supply "is an issue that will just continue to get worse; water quantity and quality is of concern for just everybody now," Mr. Moule of the Farmers Services Center said. "Our approach is to conserve on wastage or overuse of water, stop leakages, and educate farmers to use irrigation more efficiently, before it's too late."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.