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A garden of hope lives in the face of a barren future

posted on 27/12/2006: 2504 views

With the world's deserts encroaching on civilisation and United Nations chiefs issuing stark warnings of environmental perils, the two glass pyramids of the Sheikh Zayed International Desert Botanical Garden have developed a symbolic significance in mankind's struggle against the elements.

The late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan gifted the 2,800sq m desert range to the botanical gardens at the University of Hamburg in 2003. Sporting pyramid structures shaped like dhow-boat sails, the garden appeals to the 300,000 visitors who attend the site in Germany each year.

As the United Nations International Year of Deserts and Desertification draws to a close, and with the threat of dryland expansion "destabilising societies the world over”, Sheikh Zayed's garden remains as important as ever.

"We were extremely grateful to have received this garden because, for us, it is the best possible symbol for the research we have been conducting,” says the University of Hamburg's Prof Norbert Jürgens. "Even the concept created by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan to divide the two pyramids into thematic zones was taken up by us.

"One pyramid is used as an exhibition to show how over utilising the environment results in the degradation of natural resources – which is the definition for desertification. The other pyramid is used to convey a positive message that it is possible not only to establish sustainable systems that can help avoid desertification taking place, but that it is even possible to restore degraded systems.” The UAE sent the plant collection to take part in the International Garden Exhibition in Rostock, Germany, in 2003, and then gave it to the University of Hamburg when the event finished.

Although most plants survived being dug up, transported and re-planted, the date palms died en route to their new home.

With a selection of flora that can survive the harsh and arid conditions of drylands, such as the willow-leafed pear, the pomegranate and the tamarisk, Sheikh Zayed's garden has proven a key research tool for the university's botanists.

Head gardener of the Sheikh Zayed section, botanist Volker Köpke, says thousands of visitors pass through the glass pyramids every year and learn about the dangers posed by desertification.

"For the past two years on World Desert Day, June 17, we have had big celebrations, when many people visit the desert garden. They are very interested in learning about the desert and desert plants, and also about the role of Sheikh Zayed who, by many people in Europe, is not particularly well known.

"They learn about what Sheikh Zayed did to green the landscape of the Emirates and why he was so important for the country. And while the visitors are using the desert garden as a window to the deserts, there are many professors at the university who use the desert garden as a window to the deserts for their scientific studies.”

Sheikh Zayed is widely lauded as a keen environmentalist and responsible for spearheading farming projects and greening across the Emirates. His often-cited phrase on the topic: "Give me agriculture and I'll warrant you a civilisation” has become synonymous with the development of the UAE.

At the inauguration of the desert garden in Hamburg last year, Emirati official Mohammed Al Sayed said recent decades had seen more than 150 million trees planted in the UAE – using traditional and innovative irrigation techniques and the latest technology in desalination, sewage treatment and farming.

"It all started more than 50 years ago and today skyscrapers embedded in opulent green gardens are seen. "There was at that time only a vast expanse of sand, with some huts and Bedouin tents dotted around, surrounded by an even greater expanse of sand,” he said.

"This is how one can best explain the success in transforming a huge desert landscape into fruitful agricultural land and urban areas.” Desertification has been on the world agenda for 50 years but efforts to arrest the problem have been chronically under-funded, and the situation is getting demonstrably worse every year, according to United Nations analysts.

The UN International Year of Deserts and Desertification ended this month with experts warning about the expansion of uninhabitable zones and an increase in climate-driven migration. A GROWING THREAT Desertification – the expansion of desert areas, caused by growing populations and climate changes – is one of the most important global issues, UN Under Secretary-General Hans Van Ginkel said at the start of a three-day conference in Algeria earlier this month.

"It has become more and more evident that desertification is one of the most important global challenges, destabilising societies the world over,” said Van Ginkel, who is also rector of the United Nations University (UNU).

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, host of the conference, said that desertification "affects a third of the surface of our planet, more than the surface of China, Canada and Brazil combined” and is a threat to world peace.

Around two billion people live in areas threatened by desertification. The implications for human migration are huge, with estimates currently showing that migrants uprooted primarily by environmental factors now exceed the number of political refugees, according to a UNU statement.

It is still not known precisely how fast the process is unfolding, much less how best to address it.

Karl Harmsen, director of UNU's Ghana-based Institute for Natural Resources in Africa, notes estimates that Africa may be able to feed just 25 per cent of its population by 2025 if the decline in soil conditions continues on the continent.

But Prof Jürgens, from his offices beside the Sheikh Zayed desert garden in Hamburg, says an answer to the world's desertification problems could lie in the Biodiversity Monitoring Transect Analysis in Africa project (Biota).

Using satellites, aircraft observation photographs and ground-level observations, more than 300 researchers from 69 institutions across 13 African nations are currently monitoring the spread of the deserts within their borders.

"Our goal is to not only understand the natural processes but to investigate them with local land users in order to be better able to transfer scientific advice,” he says, adding that botanists are teaming up with social scientists to understand what government measures can be used to halt the spread of the deserts.

"With factors like climate change, expanding humanity and globalisation, we should expect things to get worse if we do not take action,” says Prof Dr Jürgens. (Emirates Today)


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