Massey PhD student working to increase food and water security in Abu Dhabi

Wednesday 10 August 2022

PhD student Mansoor Al Tamimi, based in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is working to solve the issue of food security and water conservation in one of the hottest climates in the world.

OnlyfromNZ Project Manager Lesley Kennedy discussing the field conditions with PhD student Mansoor Al Tamimi prior to installing devices

Last updated: Thursday 11 August 2022

The UAE has a hyper-arid climate with little rainfall, extremely hot summers, and no surface-water resources. Groundwater is the only available resource for agricultural irrigation in the UAE and the groundwater in Abu Dhabi is also saline, particularly in farming areas.

Mansoor’s proposed solution is the Integrated Agriculture Aquaculture System (IAAS), which strives to preserve UAE’s main source of water, groundwater, by using rejected brine from desalination units in the desert to irrigate crops.

“The IAAS combines fish farming saline water with cropping, in conjunction with desalination units that can reduce the saltiness of the groundwater. The freshened groundwater can then be used for irrigation of high-value crops. The reject brine can be used for fish farming, and effluent from the fish tanks, known as Aquabrine, can then be used to irrigate halophytic (salt-tolerant) food and fodder crops,” he says.

The halophytic crops initially utilised were quinoa, blue panicum and salicornia. After the first pilot study, Mansoor found that salicornia is the best halophytic crop to continue within the study.

“Salicornia is a versatile crop in that it can be used for food, fodder, and biofuels, so if we can effectively utilise highly saline wastewater to produce this crop in an environmentally sustainable manner (minimising environmental impacts), then we are providing a solution that furthers some of the food security and environmental objectives of the UAE.”

Mansoor intends to maximise the utilization of the rejected water from desalination plants on farms to provide additional value through growing food and fodder crops.

“The national system for sustainable agriculture, through the combined efforts of all governmental and non-governmental agencies seeks to increase self-sufficiency from the targeted crops to 5 per cent annually and achieve a 15 per cent annual reduction in water used for irrigation,” Mansoor adds.

The project and its success will be presented to the responsible authorities in the country, such as the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, which is responsible for the food security file, as well as the local authorities in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi responsible for agriculture such as Abu Dhabi Agriculture and Food Safety Authority (ADAFSA).

OnlyFromNZ Project Manager Lesley Kennedy, Dr Ahmed Muaini and PhD Student Mansoor Al Tamimi start excavation to prepare fluxmeter

Mansoor is a doctoral student in a research programme run by Massey University and Plant & Food Research. This is part of a Government-to-Government (G2G) collaboration between the New Zealand government and the UAE government.

The key UAE entity and funder is Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD), with the New Zealand partners being Plant & Food Research and OnlyFromNZ. The research is being carried out in partnership with the International Centre of Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) near Dubai.

His PhD Co-Supervisor, Head of Agriculture and Environment, Professor Paul Kenyon says the partnership is producing vital research that benefits the agricultural industry globally.

“This type of collaborative post-graduate programme and research project utilises the skill sets of both countries to address an important environmental issue with the long-term aim of allowing UAE to be more sustainable in food production and water use.

These types of collaborations with industry partners enhance the reputation of both Massey University and Plant & Food Research as innovative research and educational organisations, with the capability to address international issues- on the ground overseas,” he says.

Mansoor values being a part of the programme. “This PhD partnership gives me access to some of the best agricultural scientists while applying our academic knowledge to real field work here in the UAE,” he says.

Principal Scientist at Plant & Food Research and project Lead, Dr Brent Clothier has nine years of experience with G2G, researching water use policies and practices in the UAE to conserve fragile water resources. Lesley Kennedy, a Director with OnlyFromNZ, is the Project Manager.

Dr Clothier applies his knowledge of environmental physics to aid Mansoor with his hands-on research project in the UAE using newly developed technologies to measure the leaching through the root zone with flux meters, and the soil water content of the saline soils by modified Time Domain Reflectometry (TDR).

“My colleague Dr Steve Green and I are using our TDR devices to measure soil water content changes and changes in salinity along with Mansoor. We are also using our drainage fluxmeter devices with him to measure water drainage and salt leaching under the Salicornia crop,” Dr Clothier says.

With remote learning, a trademark of Massey University, Doctoral Co-supervisor, Professor of Pasture Science Peter Kemp is confident in Mansoor’s success despite being in the UAE.

“The supervisory support of UAE PhD students is an excellent example of international collaboration. Massey provides experienced supervisors as well as putting guidance and support in place to assist with the production of an international standard PhD.

The supervisors from Plant & Food provide supervisory support and scientific leadership in the UAE and New Zealand and the local UAE supervisor in EAD ensures there is continuous local support and context. Of course, with internet communication, no one is far away,” Dr Kemp says.

The Government-to-Government Partnership

The UAE and New Zealand signed their first environmental Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in 2013, formalising a partnership between New Zealand organisations and EAD, as well as other UAE authorities concerned with food security and natural resources.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise collaborated to create New Zealand G2G (Government to Government) which facilitated the project. Plant & Food Research and OnlyFromNZ provide scientists and expertise to help Environment Agency Abu Dhabi work with ICBA to investigate more sustainable use of water for crops, and to minimise environmental impacts, namely salt leaching back to groundwater.

Massey University is the institution providing doctoral supervision to Mansoor Al Tamimi alongside Dr Brent Clothier from Plant & Food Research with project management by Lesley Kennedy from OnlyFromNZ.

Project Manager Lesley Kennedy, Dr Mohamed Abdel Hamyd Dawoud, New Zealand Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and Qatar Matthew Hawkins, PhD Student Mansoor Al Tamimi, Groundwater Project Manager Wasel Abdelwahid Abou and Dr Brent Clothier

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