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Inside the $100m plan to transform desert farming

Desert farming Shutterstock/ChameleonsEye
Land scarcity calls for innovative approaches to make desert farming a success and aid food security
  • New scheme focuses on Arabian peninsula
  • $100m needed across 8 countries
  • Predicted 85% cut in fresh water use

Total cropland in Mena countries decreased by 2.4 percent between 2003 and 2018 – the sharpest drop in the world – according to satellite imagery.  

In response, a Beirut-based multilateral is seeking $100 million for a new programme to enhance innovation to increase farming productivity in a region that already had the lowest cropland in the world on a per capita basis

The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (Icarda), is in talks with governments across the GCC and wider region to raise funds to launch trials aimed at using technology and best practice to improve output. 

Its Integrated Desert Farming Innovation Programme (IDFIP) initially focuses on the Arabian Peninsula. 

After five years, Icarda estimates the IDFIP could result in a 90 percent reduction in energy consumption, including the conversion of 100,000 greenhouses to solar power, and an 85 percent cut in fresh water use.

Aly Abousabaa, director general of Icarda, said discussions about funding are progressing with Gulf governments including Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

“We are talking to the countries that can benefit the most. And we are seeing a lot of interest from Morocco, Egypt, the Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as Jordan, which is a very water scarce country,” he said.

Desert farming irrigationShutterstock/SkyMediaPro
A desert irrigation project in Dubai. IDFIP hopes to move beyond such intensive projects

He estimated $100 million would be needed initially to support projects in about eight countries, with billions required to take it to every country in need around the world. Funding has already been secured for a test case to start in Egypt, he said.

In May, the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate, a joint initiative between the US and the UAE, announced the IDFIP as an Innovation Sprint, which aims to speed up investment from non-government partners. 

Abousabaa said that the UAE’s hosting of Cop28 later this year should give the desert farming programme a “major boost” by raising its profile.

Facing up to land scarcity

The IDFIP has been launched at a time when many Mena countries are land poor, and increasingly so. In a region that is 84 percent desert, there is less and less land left for growing food while pressure grows to accommodate the region’s growing urban population. 

According to the World Bank, the total urban land area in the region may have to increase by 50 percent to accommodate population growth by 2050.

Ferid Belhaj, the World Bank vice president for the Middle East and North Africa, said: “Quite simply, land matters. Mena’s growing population and the impact of climate change add urgency to addressing the land crisis.”

Abousabaa, an Egyptian, said that while he has been disappointed by the response from countries about the urgency of climate change, he is buoyed by the level of interest in the IDFIP. 

“The pressure [on food imports] will always be there for the foreseeable future,” he said. “But I am optimistic that the right technologies will help us cope and mitigate the negative impacts of climate change. It is not going to be a doomsday.”

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