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Seagrass beds in Gulf 'key to food security'.

By Bonnie James/Deputy News Editor Unesco Doha Office, along with its partners in the Gulf, is in the process of formulating a proposal to use seagrasses under seawater irrigation in coastal salt-deserts (sabkhat) to assist food security in the dry lands. Gulf Times "The seagrass beds in the Gulf are known to be among the highest productive ecosystems on our planet," Unesco Arab Region's ecological sciences adviser Dr Benno Boer told . Seagrasses have superb carbon sequestration capacity like mangroves and salt marshes. They store in their biomass and soil as much carbon as all the terrestrial plant biomass combined. Seagrasses, which are flowering plants, thrive and develop their entire reproductive cycle in the marine environment under full strength seawater salinity. "During a recent canoe trip at Al Dhakeera towards the north of Qatar, I came across a very rare sight of seagrasses exposed to the air due to an extremely low tide. It was a combination of Halodule uninervis and Halophila stipulacea seagrasses," he recalled. On account of the very high primary productivity of the seagrasses, Dr Benno said the sight illustrated the beginning of the food-web, and the immense productivity of the marine ecosystems of Qatar, in an otherwise hyper-arid and low productive dry land sub-region. Dry land countries suffer significantly from food insecurities, fluctuating market prices and often depend on substantial food imports, which are costly and have high carbon intensity. Qatar, which currently imports more than 90% of its food, is striving to improve the country's food security and has established the Qatar National Food Security Programme, which in turn launched the Global Dry Land Alliance. "Many dry lands do have vast natural resources available, which are currently not being used for food production, but can potentially be used, provided the required methods are developed and the necessary research and experiments conducted and documented," according to short scientific paper prepared by Dr Boer and his colleagues Mark Sutcliffe and Chanthy Huot. Dry lands have tens of thousands of square kilometres of hyper-saline soils (sabkhat), which are believed not suitable for agriculture. In addition there are at least 2,200 salt-tolerant plant species (halophytes) in the world, and the seagrasses in the Gulf are among them. The seagrasses, currently not used for human consumption or agriculture, are the staple diet of marine reptiles, mammals and fish. One of the possible contributions to enhance food security is through developing prototypes of seagrass terraces in non-productive salt-deserts. Three seagrasses known to occur in the Gulf are tolerant to full strength seawater and do not require any freshwater. "It is theoretically possible to grow seagrasses in coastal sabkhat, provided they remain permanently submerged, receive adequate light and temperature and sufficient nutrients," Dr Boer said. Seagrasses produced in such man-made biosaline agro-ecosystems could be used for the production of fish, livestock fodder (camel, goat, sheep), poultry (ostrich, turkey, chicken) and possibly other cash crop products (floor carpets, mattress fillings, insulation materials and others). "The Asian rice-terraces could provide an inspiration for the design: seagrass terraces could be established perpendicular to the coastline in the vast stretches of coastal hyper-saline sabkhat," the Unesco expert suggested. Seawater could be pumped permanently from beach-wells under the coastal oceans through non-corrosive irrigation pipes inland, until reaching the highest point of the seagrass terraces. The power required for pumping could be provided by solar or wind energy. The seawater could be released from the pipes and flow into the seagrass terraces, to provide the required moisture and water-flow, following gravitation until finally returning to the sea. This way, salt-accumulation through evaporation would be avoided. "Research needs to be conducted in order to unfold and measure the full potential. Prototypes should be developed and studied," Dr Boer urged. Pointing out that carbon emissions and other related issues were discussed at the United Nations Climate Change Conference hosted recently in Qatar, and seagrasses are well known for their potential as atmospheric carbon sinks, he stressed that the natural seagrass beds should receive adequate conservation protected by laws. Seagrass terraces should also be studied for their carbon sequestration potential, versus methane emission. "Unesco's aim is to inspire serious investors to provide the necessary funding for scientists to try and turn non-productive salt-desert dry lands into highly productive systems enhancing food-security based on available resources," Dr Boer added.

Gulf Times Newspaper 2013

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Publication:Gulf Times (Doha, Qatar)
Date:Feb 9, 2013
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