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Forests in the desert: more than just a pipe dream

Planting trees in the sand has been done before and can be done again, but when water is so scarce it is a remarkable challenge, says Valentina Pasquali

The lush mangroves of Abu Dhabi The lush mangroves of Abu Dhabi grow naturally in the coastal wetlands but further inland trees are more difficult to cultivate Husain Al Hosani/Shutterstock
The lush mangroves of Abu Dhabi grow naturally in the coastal wetlands but further inland trees are more difficult to cultivate

Temperatures in the UAE have crossed the dreaded 50-degree mark and, as my family and I hunker down for our first summer in Dubai, we have already learned that nothing beats the shade of a leafy tree – well, except for air conditioning.

At a time of widespread awareness about Earth’s growing environmental challenges, consumers are putting a premium on any greenery in their neighbourhoods, let alone real woodland. 

It is no surprise then that developers are working to ensconce new housing in forest-like settings designed to look as if they belong here like they do in British or American suburban communities.

The thing is: planting trees in the desert has been done before and can be done again. The effect is stunning, a bit of an oasis – or perhaps the mirage of it – amid the dunes and dust. 

I have seen it with my own eyes in Dubai and Sharjah, and have listened to the tales of pioneering environmentalists who came to sow the seeds of a greener UAE just as the then near-empty desert expanse was getting started as a nation. 

The question, however, is: should we do it? The answer relies entirely on how we want to use the little water available here. Because the truth is, there doesn’t seem to be a tipping point at which forests in the desert become self-sustaining ecosystems, at least for now. 

David Pryce, who was involved in perhaps the earliest attempt to plant trees in the UAE, told me: “In places where you have more natural rainfall, like northern Europe, the northern US, Canada, if there has been damage done to the environment and you can reforest properly, you’re going to have a much greater impact because the natural environment will support what you’re trying to do.  

“Unfortunately, here the natural environment is against you, you’re fighting that all the time.”

80,000 trees

Planted in the 1970s, gone by 2018

If you still want to feel optimistic, there’s worse you can do than visit Masaar by Arada in Sharjah. Already, the finished third of the ongoing development is a sight to behold. During a recent visit, birds were chirping through woodland arranged to appear like it was here all along, the houses fitted in it only recently. 

Only a peek behind the curtain, or the barriers that separate the parts that are done from those that aren’t, reveals that there’s only dust and construction equipment into the great beyond. 

“Trees play an absolutely vital role in every Arada community, and it’s no exaggeration to say that we as a developer see the spaces between our homes as being just as important as the homes themselves,” Ahmed Alkhoshaibi, Arada’s group chief executive, told AGBI

Not only does “lush” landscaping provide aesthetic and health benefits to residents, it is also known to increase the value of surrounding properties, an effect already visible at Masaar only three years after the project launched, Alkhoshaibi said. 

David Pryce came to Abu Dhabi in the 1970s to plant 80,000 trees 260km from the capital

This and other existing and planned projects are not the UAE’s first go-rounds with trying to entrench tree cover. If you haven’t guessed already, the story often does not end well.

David Pryce was among a handful of idealistic foreign adventurers who came to Abu Dhabi in the mid-1970s to plant 80,000 trees 260km south-west of the capital, in an area that Google maps suggests remains no-man’s land today.

It was part of the vision of the nation’s founder, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, an early environmentalist and falcon lover who thought woodland was both good for the country and a statement of its rising ambitions.

The seeds took, turned into saplings and thrived for decades as mature trees. Pryce went back to visit the site in 2009 and was thrilled to see that about 80 percent of what his team had planted was still standing. And yet, upon a second visit in 2018, very little remained.

“I could have almost cried,” he told me recently. 

Pryce doesn’t know exactly what happened. But he says he noticed the irrigation pumps were disconnected, and imagines that at some point the municipality must have decided that it wanted to do something else with the huge amount of water that was going into the trees.

According to Pryce, as well as Jean-Claude Melone, who participated in the same tree-planting push, the drip-irrigation system quickly stressed the aquifer and wells had to be dug deeper and deeper into the ground.

“The water got more and more brackish and to get a reasonable level of salinity, they had to install a reverse-osmosis plant, which for a forest did not really make commercial sense,” Melone said. 

In 2010, Dubai launched its own push to plant one million trees, but the land allotted for it soon came on developers’ radar, leading to bureaucratic and legal battles that eventually killed the trees. 

Woodland in Arada’s Masaar, and other projects, has a few advantages. It has a commercial dimension: as long as people are willing to pay for it, developers’ profit motive and environmental ambitions align for the benefit of the trees. 

Perhaps even more important, these new afforestation efforts also rely on recycled sewage water treated by facilities on site, making them more sustainable, and sensible, than if they were to use the aquifer or desalination. 

But the irrigation needs are still staggering. Arada told me that they expect 6,000 cubic metres a day will be required to maintain the tree cover once Masaar is completed. One cubic metre is 1,000 litres.

At a nearby nursery where the developer is growing 130,000 trees for this and other projects, an agricultural engineer said that each tree typically receives 40 litres of water per day during the hot summer months and half that the rest of the year.

It’s a fragile situation. A strategic redirection by the developer, a change in consumer preference, or even making toilet flushes more efficient, thereby reducing the amount of sewage water available for treatment, would endanger these woodlands.

Ultimately in a place like the UAE, where fertile soil has not been lost to careless over-farming and trees to greedy over-logging, there is no real way to reclaim land permanently from the desert, at least for now. We can at most borrow from it, for so long as we are willing to pay the hefty interest rate of water consumption.

Forested developments in the UAE

In development
Masaar by Arada: The planned community of 3,000 townhouses and villas in Sharjah is about a third-built and people are starting to move in. At completion in 2026, Masaar will encompass 70,000 trees of various species, hand-picked because of their adaptability to arid lands and highly salinated waters. These include the native Ghaf tree; the Indian almond tree with its large, glossy leaves; and the flame tree and its cover of red or yellow flowers.

AlJurf by Imkan: An eco-friendly villa community along the coast between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Its publicly accessible nature reserve, the AlJurf Gardens, serves as a protected area for deer, antelope and other wild animals.

Next in the pipeline
Ghaf Woods by Majid Al Futtaim: Announced in early June, it will comprise 7,000 units set amid 35,000 trees right off Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Highway, by Global Village. It will provide residents with a wealth of air-quality benefits, according to the developer. 

Well established
Al Barari by the namesake family-owned developer: A nature-focused residential community off of E311 in central Dubai, with its own wooded areas, botanical gardens and plant nursery. It commands some of the highest house prices and rents in Dubai.

Other newer communities such as Sustainable City by See Holding, as well as older ones, such as The Greens, Springs and Lakes, by master developer Emaar, have plenty of trees and greenery, though not quite as dense as the tree cover planned at Masaar and Ghaf Woods.

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