Pairing watermelons with fish

UAE: City of Al Ain farm tackles food and water security

In the scorching sands of Al Ain’s desert there is now a strange, symbiotic relationship between fish and watermelons. Abdulrahman Al Shamsi is growing both, while using 10% of the water and producing up to three times the yield of conventional farms, using integrated farming techniques.

The method has gained momentum over the past decade in the horticultural world. At its core, integrated farms try to identify and align the nutritional demands and by-products of farmable organisms. In the case of watermelons, the fruit grows best when fertilised with nitrogen and nitrates that are the waste from, and often the environmental argument against, fish ­farming.

The technique has allowed the Emirati to improve his yield of goods by up to 300% and reduce his water use by 90%. While leaving a small carbon footprint, Mr Al Shamsi also provides nutritious food that few traditional desert farms produce: fish.

On his farm in Al Wagan there are no greenhouses, now a common method of desert farming. Mr Al Shamsi’s reasoning is simple. More than half of the water used in greenhouses is for cooling. The temperatures inside can be 10°C to 20°C warmer than outside. In a country with 50°C summers, the greenhouse is beginning to lose its prevalence. Farmers are now looking to replace them with overhead covering that can protect sensitive plants from the scorching sun.

According to, climate change has recalibrated the challenges anyway. In the Arabian Gulf it is much more urgent, with research indicating the average summer heat in the region will rise by more than the predicted 2°C global increase by 2050. Combined with a lack of freshwater sources and a population boom, growing food in the GCC will require methods that waste little or no resources. That will take technological advances and willingness by all to adapt.

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