Next stop: United Arab Emirates (UAE). I have visited the UAE 4 times previously to attend date conferences, expos and to look at characteristics of some varieties. This trip I wanted to follow up on a couple of projects.
Drifting sand dunes
I first met Tony Portman who works for the Abu Dhabi Farmers Centre (ADFSC) a couple years ago when he was still with the Western Australian Department of Agriculture. His job now involves assisting local date growers to become better farmers through education - providing materials and contract labour to improve irrigation, fertilization and pest and disease control services. Tony speaks Arabic so he is just the person to speak to about the latest plantation management and cultural practices.
The ADFSC also has a marketing division which sells the farmers' produce. ADFSC has been successful in raising the national standards particularly in the area of irrigation efficiency and these acheivements have been recognized with being awarded this years Khalifa International Date Palm Award.
I deliberately timed my visit to coincide with the Liwa Date Festival. I have fond memories of this festival from my 2009 visit and was keen to return. Liwa is a small regional town 3 hours drive from Abu Dhabi on the Saudi Arabian border. It is also at the start of the Empty Quarter which is some of the most hostile desert country on the planet - hot and dry with drifting sands.This photo: Tony Portman and I at the Liwa Date Festival
The Liwa Date Festival is a celebration of the heritage of the traditional people and the intrinsic connection they have with the date palm. Before the modern era of oil, people of these desert regions relied on the date palm for their very existence.In a very hostile environment the date palm grows, providing food, shade, shelter, building material, firewood and fodder for livestock. This is why the date palm is so highly respected and has earned its reputation as the 'Tree of Life'. It holds a sacred place in the country's national identity. This photo: Date palm furniture
The Liwa Date Festival coincides with the start of the date harvest and there is great excitement over the arrival of the new seasons fruit. There are a number of categories of fruit which are judged at the festival. There are many entries in the competition and the winners for each variety and the heaviest bunch win a brand new 4 wheel drive vehicle each.Heaviest bunch competition winner - 110kg
There is also a competition for dwellings built from date palm fronds - which is the traditional way people lived. There are a few different styles of dwelling - this depends on whether they are designed as permanent residences or nomadic shelters. The date palm is truely a very resourceful tree. I enjoyed my time at Liwa.
Next day I spent with Tony and other staff from the ADFSC and had very useful discussions on the latest irrigation recommendations. Also had interesting discussions on the marketing of fresh dates into high value markets and how the Australian counter-seasonal fruit could potentially be available at a time when there is little northern hemisphere product around. I would like to thank Tony Portman and staff for very kindly hosting my visit and transporting me to Liwa.
The following day I travelled by bus 1 and 1/2 hours to Dubai to visit the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA). This centre focuses on practical production practices in saline environments. It is more than just another research institute that runs interesting research trials. The ICBA is involved in rolling out on-ground projects in the UAE as well as many other countries - empowering local people through education, demonstration and the supply of drought hardy/saline plant species.
The ICBA employs a wide range of scientists, economists, researchers and irrigation specialists etc. Their well respected work is mostly on fodder crops for livestock grazing systems such as grasses, legumes, shrubs and trees. They have many Australian native plants in their working collection.
They also have well established salinity trial work on date palms which of course is my main interest. Our own irrigation water quality from the Gurra Gurra Lakes has at times been terrible - up to 5500 (EC) electrical conductivity units. I know date palms are salt tolerant from our own experience but what has the ICBA got to say about salinity tolerance?
The ICBA runs trials growing date palms at 5, 10 and 15 decisemens so with one decisemen equal to 1000 EC units, that conversion equates to trials at 5000, 10000 and 15000 EC units. Upon visual inspection of the 5000 trial there were some signs of leaf scorch on lower leaves, possibly from salinity burn, but palms were still producing fruit at high levels. However the same couldn't be said for the 15000 trial - palms were noticably smaller in height and canopy, and on some varieties was near zero fruit whilst other varieties still demonstrated reasonable fruit yield. It can be concluded that some varieties are more salt tolerant than others.
I had the opportunity to meet with many of the staff and shared in a valuable exchange about productive saline agriculture. After talking to these scientists/specialists and seeing the trials, it has strengthened my views on our current irrigation methods in the Riverland. Sure we as a region are 85% irrigation efficient which is outstanding, however we are still wasting much of the remaining 15%. Worse than this, we are paying for it to be collected through the existing drainage systems already in place then pumping it along with its moderate salinity load, back onto floodplain environments or to evaporation basins where the majority of this water soaks into the ground and heads back toward the River Murray. My understanding is this irrigation drainage water amounts to several gigalitres regionally and the quality is variable but in general terms is well within the tolerance levels for date palms and some other crops.
It is hard to believe that with the water shortage throughout the Murray Darling Basin, we are still wasting this volume of Riverland drainage water and disposing of the salinity within this drainage water, back into our river environment. At the same time Government is spending millions of dollars building salt interception schemes to remove salt away from the river system. We have a lot to be proud of as an irrigation community but not utilizing our drainage water is preventing us from taking our regional irrigation efficiency from 85% to perhaps 95% or even higher.