Palestinians suspend prayers at mosques, churches to fight coronavirus

In this file photo, Palestinian police officers stand guard outside the Church of the Nativity that was closed as a preventive measure against the coronavirus in the occupied West Bank on March 6, 2020. (REUTERS)
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Updated 14 March 2020

Palestinians suspend prayers at mosques, churches to fight coronavirus

  • Palestinian Religious Affairs Ministry asked Palestinians to worship at home
  • Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque remains open for prayers

GAZA/RAMALLAH: The Palestinian Authority suspended prayers in mosques and churches in the occupied West Bank on Saturday to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, and Gaza’s Hamas rulers said all the enclave’s border crossings would be shut for travel.
The Palestinian Authority’s Religious Affairs Ministry asked Palestinians to worship at home.
“In light of the Health Ministry’s recommendation to minimize contact between people and to reduce gatherings as much as possible we call upon our Muslim people in Palestine to hold their prayers at home,” a ministry statement said.
In Ramallah, a prayer leader reciting the Muslim call to prayer at one mosque in the early evening added the words: “Pray at home, pray at home.”
According to Palestinian health officials, 38 coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the West Bank, where the Palestinians have limited self rule under the Palestinian Authority. None have been reported in the densely populated Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the Islamist Hamas group.
The Hamas-led government said it was closing Gaza’s border crossings with Israel and Egypt for travel, excluding life-threatening cases that required medical treatment outside the enclave. Gatherings would be limited to 100 people and schools were to remain shut through March.
Citing security reasons, Israel and Egypt keep the coastal Gaza Strip under a blockade with tight control of movements over their border land crossings.
Religious authorities have so far kept Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque, which is Islam’s third holiest site, open for prayers.
The Jordan-appointed council that oversees Islamic sites on Jerusalem’s sacred compound has kept it open for Friday prayers, encouraging faithful to congregate on the 35-acre complex’s outdoor grounds rather than inside its covered shrines.
The Waqf council reassured worshippers in a statement this week that the entire compound, including its golden Dome of the Rock shrine, was being “sterilized continuously.”
Muslim faithful believe the site to be where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. Jews revere it as the site of the Jewish temples of antiquity. It is one of the most sensitive venues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In Israel, where 164 coronavirus cases have been confirmed, gatherings have been limited to 100 people. Some religious authorities in the Holy Land, including the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, have moved to implement crowd controls at places of worship.
Muslim majority countries have introduced a range of measures to try to halt the infection.
Egypt will suspend schools and universities for two weeks starting on March 15. Among Gulf Arab states, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait taking the most drastic decisions by canceling all international flights.
Attendance at Friday prayers is generally mandatory for able-bodied men in Islam, but Riyadh said those under quarantine and those afraid of being infected or infecting others need not attend.
Pakistan has shut its schools and land borders and decided to limit international flights and discourage large gatherings.


Cooked up for climate, UAE’s high-tech food plan pays off in pandemic

Updated 01 June 2020

Cooked up for climate, UAE’s high-tech food plan pays off in pandemic

  • UAE imports more than 80% of its food requirement
  • Success in growing food using innovations like vertical farming and climate-resilient crops add to Gulf state’s food security

ABU DHABI: In the past four years, the United Arab Emirates has grown a small but rising share of its own organic tomatoes, aiming to shore up food security in an import-dependent desert country.
The effort — part of a broader push to produce more home-grown food amid fears climate change could trigger instability in the global food trade — started after the country was hit by food export bans during the 2008-2009 financial crisis.
Today, the move to build up food resilience is paying off early in the face of another crisis: the coronavirus pandemic.
When the United Arab Emirates (UAE) went into lockdown in April to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, residents had the same reaction as millions of others around the world — they started panic-buying.
The instinct to stock up made sense in a country where more than 80% of food is imported, said Ismahane Elouafi, director general of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA).
Nonetheless supermarket shelves have remained fully stocked, partly because the UAE has long had policies in place to ensure an uninterrupted supply of food from abroad, she noted.
But in the face of the pandemic, the UAE’s confidence that it will continue to have enough food is bolstered by its success in growing its own, using innovations like vertical farming and climate-resilient crops, she added.
“Thanks to the work being done to harness the benefits of innovation, agriculture is becoming possible and profitable in a country with harsh climatic conditions,” Elouafi said.
According to data from the World Bank, the contribution of agriculture to the country’s gross domestic product rose from $2.39 billion in 2012 to $3.06 billion in 2018.
The UAE’s Ministry of Food Security declined to respond to a request for comment.

FARMING WITH FEWER RESOURCES
Currently ranking 21 out of 113 countries on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Food Security Index, the UAE aims to be in the top 10 by 2021 and number one by mid-century.
By then, the federal government hopes half the food Emiratis consume will be produced locally, compared to 20% today.
Under the UAE’s National Food Security Strategy — which was officially launched in 2018, but had already been woven into government policy for several years before — the country has worked to boost domestic food production.
It has built infrastructure, including complexes for cattle-breeding — and introduced financial measures, from exempting value-added tax on food produced on local farms to paying subsidies on fodder.
But traditional farming methods can only go so far in a country with limited supplies of fresh water and arable land.
Last year, the World Resources Institute classified the UAE as under “extremely high water stress,” meaning more than 80% of available surface and groundwater supply is withdrawn on average every year.
The bulk of that water is used by the agricultural sector. Combined with a warming climate and a growing population, this is causing available groundwater levels to drop by 0.5 cm (0.2 inches) per year.
To meet the country’s freshwater needs, the government is increasingly turning to energy-intensive desalination methods.
Another challenge is that less than 1% of the UAE’s land is arable, according to the World Bank.
The focus is on finding ways to farm with fewer resources — which is where technology and experimenting with new crops can help, said Sajid Maqsood, associate professor in the College of Food and Agriculture at United Arab Emirates University.
“Urban and vertical farming has to be an important part of the strategy,” he said by phone.

YEAR-ROUND FRUIT & VEG
Farming in the UAE has been moving in a high-tech direction over the past decade.
In 2009, for example, the Middle Eastern country had 50 hydroponic farms, where plants are grown without soil using nutrient-infused water. Today, it has more than 1,000, according to the ICBA.
Most of the farming innovations gaining ground in the UAE involve growing crops indoors, in an attempt to tackle one of the main challenges facing the region’s farmers: the climate.
Global warming is expected to lead to less rainfall, fiercer droughts, higher sea levels and more storms in the UAE over the next 70 years, a group of climate experts said in a 2019 paper.
By 2050 the country’s average temperature will increase by about 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit), they noted.
“At least four months of the year are not conducive to traditional agriculture — heat, humidity and dust are challenges to farming in the region,” explained Digant Raj Kapoor, people manager at Madar Farms, a local agriculture tech company.
“It means that yields and quality cannot be controlled or predicted. An indoor facility is able to tackle this by having as much control over growing conditions as possible.”
One project, Pure Harvest Smart Farms, has been producing a share of the UAE’s home-grown tomatoes since it launched in 2016, using the country’s first technology-enabled greenhouse.
With its climate-controlled system developed in the Netherlands, the Emirates-based start-up can grow year-round, producing about 2 metric tons of pesticide-free tomatoes each day on its 1-hectare (2.5-acre) proof-of-concept farm.
Pure Harvest plans to diversify into other fruits and vegetables, expanding to 30 hectares in the next few months.
In recent years, the UAE has also seen a rise in the number of vertical farms, in which crops are grown stacked under LED lighting and watered with mists or drip systems.
In Dubai, the country’s business and tourism hub, airline catering service Emirates Flight Catering and vertical farm operator Crop One Holdings have launched a $40-million joint venture to build the world’s largest vertical farm.
Crop One Holdings says the 130,000 square-foot (12,077 sq m) farm — due to be completed this year — will produce 6,000 pounds (2,721 kg) of pesticide- and herbicide-free fruits and vegetables daily, using 99% less water than traditional farms.
Branching out into new crops is key to the UAE’s quest to become self-sustaining, said the ICBA’s Elouafi.
The Dubai-based ICBA works with local ministries, farmers’ associations and businesses to introduce climate-resilient crops such as quinoa, pearl millet and sorghum to farmers, she added.
“The global food production system is currently dominated by just a few staple crops — this needs to change,” she said.
For Kapoor at Madar Farms, which has been growing leafy greens and microgreens in vertical systems since 2017, the move into tech-enabled agriculture is inevitable to deal with challenges like climate change and the novel coronavirus.
“The world will have to shift toward controlled-environment agriculture,” he said.
($1 = 3.6728 UAE dirham) (Reporting by Rabiya Jaffery; editing by Jumana Farouky and Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly.