June 2016

In an interview with the UAE Permanent Mission in Vienna, Dr. Shoaib Ismail, Director of Research and Innovation at the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA), talks about how nuclear science and technologies enhance the UAE’s agriculture sector. Dr. Shoaib Ismail has been with ICBA since its inception in 2000 when he joined as a Halophyte Agronomist. He was promoted to Senior Scientist and, in 2015, assumed the leadership of the Research and Innovation Division. Before joining ICBA, he was an Associate Professor at the University of Karachi, Pakistan, and prior to that he has been associated with research and teaching activities in the same University. Dr. Ismail holds a Ph.D. in Agronomy, and has extensive experience of over 36 years in saline agriculture research and development, specifically management of salt-affected land agronomy. His current research interests also include climate change and its impact on food security, as well as environmental resource management. He has published more than 80 research publications in peerreviewed journals, book chapters and proceedings.  

Dr. Shoaib Ismail: “Nuclear techniques play a unique role in providing information essential to developing strategies aimed at improving agricultural practices.”

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Dr. Shoaib Ismail knows that use of nuclear technologies in agriculture production provide rapid and supplementary information that result in more efficient planning, and that’s why the ICBA Director for Research and Innovation recognizes the importance of the IAEA’s assistance, especially in the field of seawater intrusion and ground water assessments in the UAE.


Talking about nuclear technologies, Dr. Shoaib Ismail says, “Conventional methods for assessment of land and water resources are relatively slow and require a lot of human resources, though they may be accurate. Use of nuclear technologies has been tested and demonstrated to provide rapid and supplementary information that help in better planning during the up-scaling process.”  


Dr. Ismail is the Director of Research and Innovation of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA), one of the few leading Centers of Excellence globally focusing on salinity and marginal environmental issues.


Since its founding in 1999, through visionary leadership of the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) and the Governments of the United Arab Emirates, the ICBA has led the way in research on problems and solutions for agricultural productivity in saline conditions.


“ICBA contributes to the attainment of the global sustainable development goals by working on a number of technology developments including the use of conventional and non-conventional water and land management technologies,” says Dr. Ismail.


“This includes saline and other forms of marginal resources that need careful assessments, sustainable plans for implementation and up-scaling with appropriate monitoring and evaluation plans in place.”


“For up-scaling, the assessment of land and water resources are every important both for short- and long-term investment in marginal areas.”


“Unfortunately, most of the global databases do not provide this information and hence in spite of technological advances in the field of saline agriculture for growing food, feed, fuel and fiber crops, the advancement is at a slow pace.”


"Conventional methods are relatively slow and require a lot of human resources,” he says. “Ground water assessment and recharge, hydrological studies, sea water intrusion, mutation breeding are few examples of technologies that needs both conventional and modern tools for rapid results.”


“Nuclear and isotopic techniques play a unique role in providing information essential to developing strategies aimed at improving agricultural practices.” 



“The UAE has been working with nuclear technologies to some extent in collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) but would be looking for more assistance, especially in the field of seawater intrusion and ground water assessments for the UAE,” Dr. Ismail says.  


“The first cooperation with the IAEA started with the launch of a project on sustainable utilization of saline groundwater and wastelands for plant production in 2000.”


“In joint efforts we looked at sustainable plant production systems in highly saline environments for improving economic returns. As a result, many plant species were introduced and adapted to UAE’s harsh weather conditions, which then became the resource materials for many other projects in UAE and other regions.”


In the past fifteen years of technical cooperation with the IAEA, many enhanced agricultural outputs were achieved using nuclear technology.


“In developing effective practices for combating desertification, three model farms were established in Mezaira, Madinat Zayd and Ghayathi in the Western Region of the Abu Dhabi Emirate to introduce biosaline agricultural technologies,” Dr. Ismail explains.  


“Another project in collaboration with the Ministry of Environment and Water has evaluated the quinoa as an alternative crop for salt-affected areas and found that quinoa holds great promise as an alternative crop for diversification of the agricultural production systems.”


Years later, an important study was carried out in cooperation with the IAEA Technical Cooperation (TC) programme and the Ministry of Climate Change & Environment on using environmental isotopes and natural radioactivity in the assessment of groundwater quality.


“The downstream area of Wadi Al Basseerah faces a variety of hydrological problems like coastal salinity, efficacy of the percolation dam and recharge and contamination issues,” says Dr. Ismail. “The isotope and chemical analyses offered two important findings: i) ground water in the study area are primarily replenished by precipitation recharge either through the hill ranges or by direct recharge on the plains; ii) contribution of the storage water from the dam was insignificant so no highly enriched isotopic signatures of storage water were seen in the groundwater samples in the vicinity,” describes Dr. Ismail.  


In 2015, the ICBA signed a Practical Arrangement with the IAEA to set a framework for cooperation between the parties in the areas of desertification and land degradation, as well as soil, water management, and agriculture research.


“Although ICBA is proud of its achievements in the past sixteen years, there is still much to be done.”  


“Considering the expected population growth by 2050 globally, it is imperative to use all available resources of land and water to increase agricultural production to maintain a population of 9.1 billion.”


ICBA contributes to the attainment of the global sustainable development goals and today places its priorities in having an efficient agricultural system with advanced technologies to address the harsh weather conditions, especially during the peak of a summer heat that lasts from 6 to 8 months.


“This would mean to have technologies that could clean groundwater (saline) efficiently to be used in agriculture; irrigation technologies that are crop-demand based to avoid loss of moisture; different types of soil amendments to retain moisture; and introduction of high-value crops that are tolerant to heat and salinity,” concludes Dr. Ismail.  


Interview by Jennet Orayeva: jennet.orayeva@uae-iaea.org



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