Deal with future water scarcity now

In the coming decades, the UAE must address regional water shortages by ensuring less wasteful practices by residents, businesses and agriculture.

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The single most limiting factor on growth in the UAE is access to potable water. That fact should have been on the minds of everyone at the annual CityScape property exhibition in Abu Dhabi that opened yesterday. And at the 10th Gulf Water Conference in Doha, which also convened yesterday, there was an even starker message: GCC governments need to cooperate on water issues or face a long-term water crisis.

Water scarcity and population pressure will be among the most complicated issues for regional governments in coming decades. If consumption trends continue, by 2025 the Arabian Peninsula could reach critical levels of water scarcity, and by 2050 water availability could fall by half.

There is very little alternative: desalination will have to continue to provide the vast majority of potable water to Gulf residents. In the UAE, 98 per cent of fresh water is desalinated and, because of heavy subsidies, residential and commercial consumers pay a fraction of the processing costs. This sends the wrong message: per capita water consumption in the UAE is 550 litres per day, among the highest in the world.

And hidden from consumers are trends that are increasingly worrying. Desalination takes massive amounts of costly energy. A recent UAE white paper on food and water security estimates that "even with advances in technology, water desalination will consume at least 20 per cent of the country's overall energy demand" by 2030.

There are other concerns for desalination. Environmental factors, including salinity, will have an affect on marine ecosystems. Seawater pollution could have serious consequences at water-intake pumps.

So what to do? Conservation is an answer, but only a partial one. Shorter showers and turning off the tap are elements of personal responsibility, which could be greatly encouraged by allowing prices rise to match the actual cost of production.

But ensuring the water supply should be seen as one of the most important security issues and, as such, requiring developmental solutions. The UAE must tackle a number of different issues: non-native flora that soak up water like a sponge; wasteful practices by residents, businesses and agriculture; and in the long term, recycling water in grey-water systems for irrigation and sewage. There is no single solution, but when water is running out, every drop counts.