Soil conservation is key to environmental sustainability – particularly in fragile environments like Qatar

    25 Dec 2021

    Soil conservation is a key to environmental sustainability. It helps protect natural resources and watersheds, restores habitats for plants and wildlife, improves water quality, and makes soil healthier.

    The soil ecosystem plays a vital role in climate change as it regulates soil carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emissions.

    A significant objective of conservation of the soil is maintaining its biodiversity of inhabiting eco-communities that contribute to its fertility in their own ways. They add organic matter, split perished organisms to release nutrients, improve water infiltration, and aeration. Ensuring proper conditions for living bodies in the earth is vitally essential for vegetation that grows there since microorganisms adjust the organic matter for plant needs.

    Different types of soil conservation methods prevent earth runoff, pollution, sedimentation in water objects, and protect bare surfaces from cracking and erosion due to water, wind, and excessive heat.

    The World Soil Day, which falls on December 5, is observed by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) to bring together communities to raise awareness on the importance of healthy soil and advocating for the sustainable management of soil resources.

    The World Soil Day 2021 and its campaign ‘Halt Soil Salinization, Boost Soil Productivity’ aims to raise awareness of the importance of maintaining healthy ecosystems and human well-being by addressing the growing challenges in soil management, fighting soil salinization, increasing soil awareness and encouraging governments, organizations, communities and individuals around the world to commit to proactively improving soil health.

    Qatar occupies a peninsula of a total area of 11,437 square kilometre with highly flat but variable terrain. Notable geomorphological features include coastal salt pans, elevated limestone formations (the Dukhan anticline) along the west coast under which lies the Dukhan oil field, and massive sand dunes surrounding Khawr al Udayd region. The mineral composition of Qatari soils varies generally from predominantly sandy to heavy calcareous clay. Properties of soils in Qatar reflect generally arid and hyper-arid environments: they are generally shallow, saline, alkaline (high pH), compact, and have extremely low fertility.

    “Soil conservation is very important particularly in fragile environments like Qatar where anthropogenic activities and harsh climate increase the risks of degradation and desertification,” said Dr. Helmi Hamdi, Research Assistant Professor, Center for Sustainable Development, College of Arts and Sciences, Qatar University, while speaking to The Peninsula.

    The Center for Sustainable Development at Qatar University through its multidisciplinary research team has been conducting advanced research on sustainable practices that support the national strategies of soil resource preservation. These include for instance the valorization and reclamation of marginal soils through soil enrichment with organic matter, nutrients and growth promoters, and the reduction of chemical contamination.

    “Qatar shares similar environmental challenges to those identified globally and regionally, in particular those challenges related to rapid industrialization, climate change, invasive species, water scarcity, desertification, and ultimately food security. Soil resources in Qatar are originally limited and have been more and more subjected to natural and anthropogenic pressure.

    Like in most ecoregions around the world, the terrestrial biodiversity in Qatar depends largely on biomass development, that is, the amount of native plants that cover soil surface,” said Dr. Hamdi. 

    Landforms and soil properties largely influence vegetation distribution. Qatar is mostly constituted of barren terrain with scattered native vegetation. Five major landform/soil subdivisions have been recognized in Qatar, namely, depressions, wadis, rocky and conglomerate hamada surfaces, sand dunes, and sabkhas. Depressions have the richest and most diversified plant cover in contrast to bare sand dunes. Sabkhas have simple and less diversified flora composed mostly of halophytes (plants that tolerate salinity). Historically, most of the agricultural activities in Qatar occurred on clay loam soils locally known as Rawdhat. These limited arable lands are generally found in depressions where fine sediments rich in nutrients have accumulated on the long term under the action water runoff and wind.

    According to Dr. Hamdi, Qatar has always been ahead in terms of adopting strategies, policies and ratifying conventions when it comes to environmental issues and protecting its fragile ecosystem.

    “As part of the strategic Qatar Vision 2030 (QNV 2030), the Environmental Development Pillar aims to ensure harmony among economic growth, social development, and environmental protection. Currently, the environmental pillar of QNV 2030 is being achieved through several strategies, including the Qatar National Development Strategy (QNDS, 2011-2016) and the ambitious Qatar National Biodiversity Strategy (QNBS 2015-2025),” said Dr. Hamdi. 

    “Both strategies are complementary and aim to achieve the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets agreed upon during the 10th meeting of the Conference of the Parties, held from October 18 to 29, 2010 in Nagoya, Japan. In particular, the QNBS’ goals 4 and 5 address respectively the protection of terrestrial ecosystems through effective management of declared protected areas, and develop sustainability by incorporating biodiversity conservation into national planning processes,” he added.

    Since 2005, Qatar has increased its protected area coverage from 11% to 29%, hitting a higher target than the one set initially.

    “Considering the country’s total surface area, this percentage represents one of the highest in the world. Most of these protected areas are terrestrial, aiming to protect delicate desert ecosystems from overgrazing, rapid urbanization, and desertification. Open-field agricultural activities, though extending on limited surface areas, are also a source of risks to fragile environments through soil tillage activities, groundwater overexploitation, and the use of agrochemicals. All these unsustainable practices may lead to soil degradation and irreversible loss,” said Dr. Hamdi. 

    “Fortunately, agricultural activities in Qatar have seen drastic changes since 2017 by investing heavily in greenhouse production systems, which require less soil surface and could be implemented on non-arable lands (soilless cultivation). However, lots of effort is still required, especially the need to implement management measures or monitoring tools in the protected areas to assess their functioning and degree of preservation,” he added.

    There have also been multiple efforts to monitor and preserve the fragile soil environment in Qatar. The Environmental Monitoring Department of the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change launched a major two-round field survey and environmental monitoring of soil in 2018.

    “The ultimate goal is to achieve the objectives of the Second National Development Strategy of the State of Qatar over the period from 2018 to 2022. This field survey consists of 52 sampling sites distributed throughout the State of Qatar and includes different types of natural, urban and industrial soils. The extensive analysis of soil properties determines the degree of contamination/degradation, if any, and indicates on adequate methods for soil restoration. In addition, just by searching via the powerful Google Scholar tool, one can notice the important number of research articles related to soil monitoring and protection in Qatar,” said Dr. Hamdi.

    “Eventually, this also reflects the efforts being dedicated by different academic and research institutions in Qatar to enhance soil conservation,” he added.

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    You may read what ecosystem services are and how parks and forests save your money here.

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