In the deserts of Dubai, salmon farming thrives

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Salmon are raised in tanks at a Fish Farm facility in Dubai on October 15, 2019. From a control room in the middle of Dubai's desert, Norway's sunrises and sunsets and the cool currents of the Atlantic are recreated for the benefit of thousands of salmon raised in tanks despite searing conditions outside. (AFP)
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Bader bin Mubarak, chief executive of Fish Farm, throws food pellets into the tank at a Fish Farm facility in Dubai on October 15, 2019. (AFP)
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Bader bin Mubarak, chief executive of Fish Farm, walks through tanks containing salmon at his facility in Dubai on October 15, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 21 November 2019

In the deserts of Dubai, salmon farming thrives

  • The farming of salmon in the desert is “something that no one could have imagined,” said Bader bin Mubarak
  • Fish Farm produces 10,000 to 15,000 kilos of salmon every month

DUBAI: From a control room in the middle of Dubai’s desert, Norway’s sunrises and sunsets and the cool currents of the Atlantic are recreated for the benefit of thousands of salmon raised in tanks despite searing conditions outside.
Dubai is no stranger to ambitious projects, with a no-limits approach that has seen a palm-shaped island built off its coast, and a full-scale ski slope created inside a shopping mall.
But the farming of salmon in the desert is “something that no one could have imagined,” said Bader bin Mubarak, chief executive of Fish Farm. “This is exactly what we’re doing in Dubai.”
Inside the facility, waters flow and temperatures fluctuate to create the most desirable conditions for the salmon living in four vast tanks.
“We provide for them a sunrise, sunset, tide, a strong current or a simple river current — and we have deep waters and shallow waters,” Mubarak told AFP.
Even for a country known for its extravagant ventures, building Fish Farm, located along the southern border of the emirate, was a challenging endeavour.
Salmon usually live in cold waters such as those in and off Iceland, Norway, Scotland and Alaska — which is why the farming of Atlantic salmon in a country where temperatures can reach up to 45C (113 degrees F) is a stretch to say the least.

“Creating the (right) environment for the salmon was the hardest thing we faced,” Mubarak told AFP.
“But we came up with the idea of dark water that resembles deep water, a strong current like the ocean with the same salinity and temperature of the Atlantic.”
Fish Farm bought some 40,000 fingerlings — or juvenile fish — from a hatchery in Scotland and thousands more eggs from Iceland to raise in open tanks in Dubai’s southern district of Jebel Ali.
Salmon are born in freshwater but live in salt water for much of their lives before returning to freshwater to spawn.
At their home in the United Arab Emirates, the tanks are filled with sea water that is cleaned and filtered.
Fish Farm produces 10,000 to 15,000 kilos of salmon every month.
It was established in 2013 with the support of Dubai’s Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, to farm salmon and other fish including Japanese amberjack, which is used to prepare sushi.
Mubarak said that because of the technical challenge, salmon-raising remains the “greatest production” of the farm, which supplies to Dubai and the rest of the United Arab Emirates, where the population includes millions of expatriates.
“The UAE imports around 92 percent of its fish from abroad, and the goal today is to be able to fulfil (that demand) for imports internally, so that we have food security,” Mubarak said.
“In case there is an interruption, cyclone or floods, the UAE will be able to supply itself. This is the main objective.”
Another goal is to be environmentally friendly and, in a move also motivated by the high cost of electricity, Fish Farm has plans to go solar-powered.
The ecological pros and cons of farming fish on land, compared to raising them in rivers and seas, are hotly debated, as is the alternative of harvesting wild fish.
“There are animal welfare concerns about keeping fish whose natural behavior is to swim freely in seas and rivers in closed tanks,” said Jessica Sinclair Taylor, from Feedback Global, a London-based environmental group.
“There are also concerns about the energy requirements and therefore carbon emissions.”
But she said that on the plus side, land-based farming prevents water pollution in lakes or seas where salmon farms are sometimes sited, and where waste and run-off can damage marine ecosystems.
According to the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the UAE imported 2.3 billion dirhams ($630 million, 570 million euros) of fish products, crustaceans and molluscs in 2017 and exported 280 million dirhams’ worth.
Fish Farm, the UAE’s only fish farm, hopes to meet at least 50 percent of the country’s needs within two years, said Mubarak.
In April, Fish Farm began selling its products in supermarkets. Despite its decidedly unnatural origins, the salmon is marked “100 percent organic” because of the fish feed and the absence of antibiotics in a closed environment.
“It is (more expensive), but I also think about the quality — I’ve tried different salmon before and this is less greasy and my family prefers this one,” said Katja, a German residing in Dubai.
She said that UAE is “making really great efforts to produce not only fish but vegetables and other foods locally, and I think I should really support that.”


Water-scarce Gulf states bank on desalination, at a cost

Updated 12 December 2019

Water-scarce Gulf states bank on desalination, at a cost

  • For Oman and other Gulf states dominated by vast deserts, obtaining fresh water from the sea comes at a high cost
  • In Sur, water for residents and businesses comes from a large desalination plant

SUR, OMAN: “We have water, and it’s the most important thing in a house,” says Abdullah Al-Harthi from the port city of Sur in Oman, a country that relies on desalination plants.
But for Oman and the other Gulf countries dominated by vast and scorching deserts, obtaining fresh water from the sea comes at a high financial and environmental cost.
In Sur, south of the capital Muscat, water for residents and businesses comes from a large desalination plant that serves some 600,000 people.
“Before, life was very difficult. We had wells, and water was delivered by trucks,” the 58-year-old told AFP. “Since the 1990s, water has come through pipes and we’ve had no cuts.”
But these benefits — relying on energy intensive processes that produce carbon emissions — do not come without a cost, particularly as global temperatures rise.
The United Nations says 2019 is on course to be one of the hottest three years on record.
And there is another impact: the desalination plants produce highly concentrated salt water, or brine, that is often dumped back into the ocean.
Researchers say more than 16,000 desalination plants around the globe produce more toxic sludge than freshwater.
For every liter of freshwater extracted from the sea or brackish water, a liter-and-a-half of salty slurry is deposed at sea or on land, according to a 2019 study in the journal Science.
All that extra salt raises the temperature of coastal waters and decreases the level of oxygen, which can conspire to create biological “dead zones.”
The super-salty substance is made even more toxic by the chemicals used in the desalination process.
Oman’s bigger neighbors produce the bulk of the brine.
More than half comes from just four countries — Saudi Arabia, at 22 percent, United Arab Emirates with 20 percent, and smaller shares by Kuwait and Qatar, according to UN data.
“Brine production in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait and Qatar accounts for 55 percent of the total global share,” according to the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health.
It said new strategies are needed “to limit the negative environmental impacts and reduce the economic cost of disposal.”
This would help “to safeguard water supplies for current and future generations.”
At the Sur plant, “almost no chemicals” are used during the pre-treatment phase, as the water is naturally filtered through the cracks of karst rocks, said Mahendran Senapathy, operations manager at French company Veolia which runs the plant along with an Omani firm.
There are other ways to safeguard freshwater supplies, from encouraging savings and efficiently to recycling wastewater.
Antoine Frerot, chief executive of Veolia, said wastewater recycling will help resolve the problem of water scarcity.
He also pointed out that “reused water is less costly,” nearly one third less than that won through desalination.
Omani authorities continue to mount campaigns urging people to use water wisely, mindful that other demands — especially the energy sector — also guzzle up large amounts.
Across the Gulf, huge amounts of water are used not just for homes, gardens and golf courses, but also for the energy sector that is the source of the region’s often spectacular wealth.
On the edge of the Arabian peninsula’s “Empty Quarter,” the world’s largest expanse of sand, lies the Khazzan gas field, operated by BP and the Oman Oil Company.
The method used to extract the gas here is hydraulic fracturing — more commonly known as fracking — said Stewart Robertson, operations manager at the site.
The method requires huge amounts of water. The site is supplied by a facility that provides 6,000 cubic meters of water a day, extracted from an underground aquifer 50 kilometers (30 miles) away.
Fracking involves directional drilling and then pumping water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to fracture rock and release the hydrocarbons.
The rock formations that hold the gas are “like a big sponge with lots of little holes in it,” said Robertson, explaining that fracking is the process “to open those holes slightly to take the gas out.”
So the more the region extracts oil and natural or shale gas, “the more they need water,” said Charles Iceland of the World Resources Institute.
“The Middle East is projected to need more and more energy,” he said. “So that means the situation is going to get worse.”
“On the other hand,” he said, “if they can produce power using solar photovoltaic technologies, which are getting reasonably priced in the Middle East, that would take care of a lot of the problem because solar PV doesn’t need much water.
“You need just some water to clean the solar panels.”