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How Sheikh Zayid Turned the Desert Green

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When visitors land at the Abu Dhabi International Airport, then drive to the heart of the city some 22 miles away, they are overwhelmed by flowers, shrubs, date palms, and other trees lining both sides of the multilane thoroughfare. Not many travelers who see all this greenery know that this is a recent phenomena. A little over a quarter century ago, not only Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but the whole country consisted of towns built of adobe atop a landscape covered with sand.

Today, camel tracks have become six-lane highways, greenery dots the once barren sands, and ancient dirt-trodden souks are now air-conditioned plazas. The towns, with their clusters of dirt huts, have been transformed into cities of luxurious villas and hotels, overshadowed by elegant apartments and skyscrapers. Where migrating birds used to fly over inhospitable, barren terrain, they now stop and breed in countrysides dotted with dams, man-made oases, and ever-expanding farms.

Farms and forests cover 4.5 percent of the land, and more than 200 of the UAE's islands have been partially "greenified." There are 6,313 greenhouses and 21,700 farms spread throughout the country. Around the Liwa Oasis alone, more than 100,000 acres of desert have been converted into cultivated land. Using a variety of ultramodern and traditional irrigation techniques, orchards, grain and vegetable fields, flowers, and forests now flourish in every corner of the country.

With the proliferation of small farms, incentives given to farmers by the government, and the adoption of modern agricultural techniques, tremendous progress has been made in the production of fruits and vegetables. UAE-grown citrus fruits, avocados, grapes, guavas, strawberries, tomatoes, and cut flowers can be found as far away as the markets of Europe.

Toward food self-sufficiency

These small farms are becoming the basis for steadily increasing national food production, which has reached 1 million tons. Food processing facilities are being set up. Hundreds of artesian wells have been drilled, and 25 dams have been built, with more planned or under construction. The aim is for the UAE to become self-sufficient in food in the near future.

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