Challenges to Water Security in the United Arab Emirates
UAE policies and strategies on water security have been effective to a certain extent. However, ensuring sustainable water security in the long term requires extensive efforts at different levels. These include:
conducting a cost-benefit analysis of cloud seeding to increase efficiency.
using gray water filtration systems to reuse untreated wastewater for irrigation purposes.
implementing a rewards system for consumers with low consumption levels.
educating people and increasing their awareness of water security for a sustainable and better quality of life.
Water security is defined as the capacity of a population to ensure sustainable access to water of sufficient quantity and acceptable quality for the sustenance of livelihood, well-being, economic development, and social development, as well as for protection against water-related disasters and water-borne pollution and for the preservation of healthy ecosystems.[] Water security is indicative of a country’s economic growth and political stability,[] thus representing a global challenge. The world’s total water resources amount to around 1,386 billion cubic meters, of which only 3% is freshwater. With 69% of this fresh water being in ice form, only 31% is readily accessible freshwater.[]
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is experiencing substantial economic growth, population growth, and development in all sectors (education, infrastructure, urban development, etc.), which is putting pressure on natural resources, especially water. The UAE depends heavily on desalinated water for drinking and daily use, which has high operational costs. High demand, overconsumption, scarcity of water, and the high operational costs of desalination plants represent major challenges to water security in the United Arab Emirates.[] This paper aims to explore the main challenges to water security in the UAE, identify the measures taken to achieve water security, and offer recommendations on how to further improve water security in the UAE.
Current state of water security in the UAE
Water resources in the UAE can be classified into two types. The first is the conventional source, which includes all surface water and groundwater, such as floods, springs and falajes. These conventional water resources include 125 Mm3/yr from seasonal floods, 3 Mm3/yr from permanent springs, 22 Mm3/yr from seasonal springs, 20 Mm3/yr of falaj discharges, and 109 Mm3/yr of aquifer recharge.[] Having a desert climate means that the UAE receives very little rainfall and any rain that does fall generally leaks into the ground. For this reason, dams are used to collect this water, though most of it is lost through evaporation due to high temperatures. While the volume of groundwater in the UAE is estimated at around 640 billion cubic meters (BCM), only 3% of this is fresh water, which amounts to approximately 20 billion cubic meters (BCM).[]
The second type of water resource is the non-conventional source, which involves water obtained through the use of advanced technologies, such as desalinated water, treated sewage water, and cloud seeding. Domestic water supplies almost completely (about 99%) depend on desalinated water, which may be pure desalinated water or blended with groundwater. Treated waste water accounts for about 615MCM, or around 14%, of the total water resources used and is generally produced for irrigation purposes.[] The UAE is one of the first countries in the region to use cloud seeding technology, which is very costly. In 2015 alone, the UAE spent around 2 million dirhams (about $550,000) on cloud seeding operations.[]
The UAE has some of the highest per capita water consumption rates, both in the region and the world. As shown in Figure 1, the UAE is the second-highest water consumer per capita among GCC countries.[] The UAE also has the highest water consumption rate in the world, with an average per capita consumption of 500 liters a day, which is around 82% above the global average.[] With water demand expected to grow by around 30% by 2030,[] it is crucial for the UAE government to continue its efforts toward reducing water consumption and reinforcing water security at all levels.
Figure 1: Per capita municipal to total water consumption in the GCC countries.[]
UAE policies on water security
Since its establishment in 1971, the UAE has recognized the importance of water security and its role in economic development and agricultural production. Thus, the government has invested heavily in the water sector through infrastructure construction to ensure sustainable development of water resources such as wells, rainwater storage dams, wastewater treatment plants, desalination plants, and distribution networks. The water sector in the UAE is entirely government-owned and controlled by several agencies, including the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD), Abu Dhabi Sewerage Services Company (ADSSC), Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority (ADWEA), and other agricultural organizations. ADWEA is responsible for the long-term sustainability of water and energy as well as for the efficiency of water and electricity production, distribution, and consumption systems. ADWEA is actively involved in governmental programs to regulate demand and address the need to lower costs and diversify water sources to increase water security.[]
In September 2017, the Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure unveiled the UAE Water Security Strategy 2036, which is aimed at achieving sustainable access to water at all times. The focus is to decrease total demand for water resources by 21%, reduce the average water consumption per capita by 50%, increase the water productivity index to $110 per cubic meter, and boost the reuse of treated water to 95%.[] The strategy also aims to improve the storage capacity of the water supply system to ensure enough water for two days in normal conditions and 16 days in emergency situations (hard access to clean water), which is equivalent to 45 days in extreme situations. Furthermore, it is expected that the UAE Water Security Strategy will save 74 billion AED and reduce carbon emissions by 100 million metric tons through the establishment of six new connecting networks between water and electricity entities across the country. The water networks will have the capacity to produce 91 liters of water per person/day in emergency cases and 30 liters in extreme emergency conditions.[]
Due to limited natural water sources, the UAE has turned to desalination to reduce dependence on rainwater for its long-term water needs. The three methods used in desalination plants across the UAE are Reverse Osmosis (RO), Multi-Stage Flash Distillation (MSF), and Multiple-Effect Distillation (MED), which supply 42% of the country’s total water requirement, accounting for 14% of the world’s total production of desalinated water.[] According to a UAE State of Energy report, demand for water increased at a rate of 35.8% between 2008-2012. The installed capacity for desalinated and groundwater capacity was at 1,585 million imperial gallons/day, with water output at 393,878 million imperial gallons/year.
Among the most prominent desalination plants in the UAE are the Jebel Ali power station, Fujairah F2 Plant and Shuweihat S2 power and water plant. The UAE's largest power and desalination facility is the Jebel Ali power station in Dubai, which has six gas turbines capable of producing 2060 MW of electricity and 140 MIGD of water. The F2 facility in Fujairah serves as a saltwater desalination plant with a power capacity of 2850 MW and water capacity of 230 MIGD. The Shuweihat S2 facility in Abu Dhabi is a power and water plant, with a daily production capacity of 1510 MW of electricity and 100 MIGD of water.[]
The UAE also established ADDC (Abu Dhabi Distribution Company), which is part of the Abu Dhabi National Energy Company and one of the largest water and power providers in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. It is responsible for running and maintaining water and energy distribution networks and facilities in Abu Dhabi and is tasked with calculating the market's water and power demands.[] In an effort to reduce household water consumption, tariffs are divided into two bands: green and red. The green band has a set daily limit and is charged at a lower tariff. If a consumer exceeds the daily limit, they enter the red band, which is charged at a higher tariff. The current tariffs are AED 2.09/cubic meter up to 0.7 cubic meter/day and AED 2.60/cubic meter if usage exceeds 0.7 cubic meter/day.
Although the UAE has adopted many policies and strategies to achieve water security and ensure continuous access to water, the country still faces challenges in the long-term security of water. The UAE depends heavily on desalinated water, which has a high carbon footprint due to the use of fossil fuels during production. In addition to the high operational costs, desalination plants also produce waste brine, which poses a major risk to marine life. Thus, further improvements are needed to both mitigate the detrimental effects of desalination plants and enhance water security.
Recommendations to enhance water security in the UAE
In addition to current government policies and strategies, and within the context of efforts to achieve sustainable water security, we recommend:
Establishing a rewards system: The government could offer households with lower consumption rates discounts or rewards. For instance, if a family’s water consumption is 10% or 20% below the daily limit, the government could offer a discount of up to 30% on the household’s final water bill. This would provide people with an incentive to reduce their consumption.
Conducting a cost-benefit analysis: Due to low rainfall, the UAE depends on cloud seeding to increase precipitation. In 2015 alone, the UAE spent around $500,000 on cloud seeding operations. Although cloud seeding increases precipitation and water availability, a detailed cost-benefit analysis is needed to ensure that it is a viable alternative compared to other technologies.
Reducing the eco-water footprint. One way to make a difference at the local level is using the gray water filtration system. Bathtubs, showers, bathroom sinks, laundry sinks, and washing machines produce untreated wastewater, also called gray water. This water usually goes down the drainpipe and fills the septic system but, if properly stored and filtered, it could be redirected for irrigation purposes. A gray water filtration system gathers wastewater from household fixtures and appliances, which is then piped down the drain and into a holding tank. The water passes through a filtering system enabling it to be used for irrigation. When the gray water holding tank is full, the extra water flows into the septic system as it normally would.[]
The UAE has effective policies and strategies to maintain and enhance water security, one example being the UAE Water Security Strategy 2036. However, in order to improve on the current strategies and policies, this paper has made further recommendations, among them: encouraging users to consume less water through a rewards system, conducting a cost-benefit analysis to increase the efficiency of cloud seeding, and using the gray water filtration system to enable reuse of untreated wastewater produced by households. It is equally important to educate people and increase their awareness of water security and consumption for a sustainable and better quality of life.
[] Mohammed Dawoud, “Water Security in the UAE: Challenges and Opportunities,” in Water and Food Security in the Arabian Gulf (Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, 2013), https://bit.ly/3NY6vzt.
[] Esra Aleisa and Waleed Al-Zubari, “Wastewater Reuse in the Countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): The Lost Opportunity, Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 189, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10661-017-6269-8.