Most of today’s government leaders spend ample amounts of time, money, and political capital towards improving agriculture, infrastructure, clean energy and trade. Unfortunately they rarely invest these resources on the resource on which those outcomes depend on: Water. This precious resource is being poorly managed and is quickly disappearing.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is one of the top 10 water scarce countries in the world and has a water consumption rate of 350 liters per capita, 100 times more than the global average. The UAE is also experiencing a rapid increase in population levels, which naturally leads to an increase in demand for water. Adequate supplies of clean and healthy water are essential for the socioeconomic development and health of the country. As such, it is important to assess how the UAE government is managing its resources in order to accommodate the high population levels, and explore ways by which it can better its management techniques.
In 2009, the UAE total water demand was estimated to be 4.5 Billion Cubic Meters (BCM). The water used comes from groundwater (72%), desalination (21%), and retreated water (7%). This water is distributed among three sectors:
· Private household sector.
· Agricultural sector.
· Industrial sector.
Private household sector: This sector accounts for 24% of all water consumption in the UAE. One of the largest contributors to water consumption is the use of air conditioning (AC) systems. AC systems have become a necessity in a country known for its unbearable high temperatures. Every household, restaurant, café, or building requires one or more. An AC system not only consumes vast amounts of energy, but also uses large amounts of water via chilled water pumps. There is no data on the exact amount of water used to cool an AC system, but considering that they are on most hours of the day, one could assume that AC systems use up large amounts of water. Other factors include the over-consumption of water bottles and water misuse. The UAE has the highest per capita bottled water consumption at 285 liters/capita. The water used to fill the bottles is mainly desalinated water, which costs approximately 11.8 billion AED annually. In addition, it takes around 3 liters of water in order to make 1 liter of bottled water. Water misuse is a large factor in slowing down water management. An example of misuse is garden or landscape irrigation through spray irrigation. About 12 to15 liters per m2 are used a day. In order to battle overconsumption by private households, the UAE has:
1. Ensured tap water is safe to drink.
2. Introduced new tariff system based on a water meter.
3. Launched various campaigns to raise awareness.
4. Introduced new methods of irrigation such as subsurface drip irrigation.
Agricultural Sector: This sector accounts for two thirds of all water consumption in the UAE. The aforementioned rapid population growth has led to a surge in food demand, which in turn has led to additional stress on water resources. One of the largest contributors to water wastage is irrigation efficiency. As mentioned above, it takes about 12-15 liters to water 1 m2 a day. Thirty percent of this can be lost to evaporation while using traditional methods such as spray irrigation. Responding accordingly, the UAE has taken crucial steps to battle this crisis. First, the government has introduced new irrigation techniques that are more efficient, such as drip irrigation, which use 35% less water than traditional systems. The UAE has also moved away from crops that are water-intensive, and is also experimenting with using other types of water (e.g. wastewater) for irrigation. A change to less water-intensive crops coupled with a change in irrigation techniques would dramatically decrease the amount of water used in this sector.
Industrial Sector: Only 9% of water consumption is attributed to this sector. Most of the water is used to cool and clean away impurities from machinery, which is then transformed into runoffs causing pollution in nearby environments. The wastewater produced is not lost and could be used again. Treated wastewater is ideal for irrigation. The UAE government has taken steps into utilizing this resource. For example, in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi alone, a total of 600 million cubic meters of treated wastewater is produced a year, but only 352 million cubic meters is used for landscaping and district cooling. Thus due to the decline in water resources, wastewater will need to play a more prominent role in all three sectors if the country is to move forward.
Recommendations: There are many ways that can further improve the UAE’s approach to this crisis. First, as mentioned above the UAE has insured that it supplies clean and drinkable tap water from desalination plants. Unfortunately, on its journey to households, the water is contaminated in two ways: The first is through ageing and rusted pipes. Water flowing through ageing pipelines would become contaminated with bacteria, which makes it undrinkable. The second is through storage tanks. Dead birds, rats, insects, and metal can be found in some storage tanks, which would eventually cause the water to become harmful. This happens because storage tank cleaning, which has to be done approximately every 6 months, is left to the owner of the property. Because there is no law enforcing it, most landlords are not too keen to spend money on it or simply forget to clean them. To rectify this, the government should consider:
1. Renovate ageing pipelines to stop water contamination.
2. Enforce a law requiring landlords to clean storage tanks.
3. Send out professionals to aid in tank cleaning.
4. Hire experts to carry out inspections to keep records.
5. Incentivize people to use tap water by increasing bottled water prices.
6. Educate people about the benefits of consuming tap water.
Second, irrigation is an essential aspect of daily life. It is used in many places such as gardens and farms. Although the government has introduced efficient irrigation, it isn’t widely used in the UAE. What is suggested here would be to enforce the use of drip irrigation in farms. By enforcing drip irrigation, the government would be saving up to 8 liters/m2 a day. In order to do so, the government would need to:
1. Invoke farmers that can afford to install drip irrigation to do so.
2. Subsidize the installation of the systems for farms that aren’t able to afford them.
3. Educate farmers on how to operate and maintain the new irrigation systems.
4. Educate farmers about the future effects of water scarcity on agriculture.
To put it in perspective: There are currently 100,000 hectares of cultivated land in the UAE. By implementing this law the government would be ensuring the use of efficient irrigation methods that would reduce water consumption by an estimate of 4 billion liters/day.
In a country where water might one day become more expensive than oil, one cannot ignore that the country is facing a crisis. The UAE is one of the largest consumers of water per capita globally, but is also one of the most water scarce countries in the world. With an annual increase in population, managing its water resources is crucial. The biggest challenge for the UAE is not finding different water sources, but decreasing the demand for it. Therefore, implementing policies and legislations to support water conservation is key to sustain the country’s continuous growth.