Groundwater is often taken for granted. But people all over the world, not just in the Middle East, rely on groundwater as a primary source. Here in the UAE, around half of the country's water supply is met by groundwater. Levels, however, are dwindling rapidly due to the pressures of population growth, urban development and climate change.
Finding solutions to the depletion of water is crucial for social and economic development, especially in nations that have limited conventional water resources. Fortunately, the UAE has long recognised the need for alternative water supplies and has sought to diversify its water resources, while adopting more energy efficient processes. Important lessons have been learnt in the quest to address this issue. The nation’s technological advancements in the field can serve as an example to other countries in filling the gap between resource and demand.
Receiving less than 100mm of average rainfall every year, the UAE began to explore unconventional resources as early as the 1970s, when the country began the process of removing salt from seawater and other saline solutions – known as desalination – and the treatment of wastewater. Today, 42 per cent of the UAE’s water comes from desalination plants. In fact, Abu Dhabi stands as a global leader in desalination producing 9 per cent of the world’s desalinated water, but such plants are energy-intensive and their affect on the environment is detrimental.
Newer sustainable desalination methods are constantly required as demand grows. If current patterns and rates continue, the UAE’s total annual water demand is estimated to double by 2030 – from 4.5 billion cubic meters (BCM) per year currently to between 9 and 10 BCM.
The UAE also has one of the highest per capita water consumption rates in the world – approximately 500 litres per day, which is 50 per cent above the global average. Groundwater supply in the country is also dwindling fast due to unsustainable levels of pumping, which could hinder irrigation.
The government has acknowledged the effect of an over-reliance on groundwater and energy intensive thermal processes to obtain desalinated water. With the launch of several new projects, the seawater desalination capacity of GCC countries is set to grow by 37 per cent in the next five years, with more reverse osmosis plants.
Reverse osmosis is a way of purifying water based on membrane technology. Compared to conventional methods, membrane technology requires less energy and takes up less space. It has traditionally been a challenge to apply reverse osmosis in the Arabian Gulf due to the higher salt content here than in the rest of the world, but with localised research and increased investment in infrastructure, the UAE is fast adopting energy-efficient membrane technology.
The world’s largest desalination plant at the Al Taweelah Power and Water complex in Abu Dhabi is expected to begin operations this year. The facility will have a capacity of 909,200 cubic meters of water per day – 44 per cent more than the world’s current largest RO plant.
The construction of a series of dams is also under way, including one in Wadi Naqab, Ras Al Khaimah, which will boast a capacity of one million cubic meters. Dams and water canals will boost groundwater storage in agriculture areas as well as water supply to residential neighbourhoods.
Besides this, Dubai’s Electricity and Water Authority is currently constructing the world’s largest aquifer storage and recovery project, as a strategic reserve, which will store up to 6,000 million imperial gallons of water once it is completed by 2025.
Finally, three desalination projects in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Umm Al Quwain, set to be commissioned next year, will increase the country’s desalination capacity to 1,590 million imperial gallons per day.
There is, however, no one single solution to address water scarcity. Collaborations are key to find more innovative ways to ensure continued supply. To this end, NYU Abu Dhabi has joined with Emirates Water and Electricity Company to boost the region’s water security and sustainability.
As a key research hub, the NYUAD Water Research Centre’s laboratory is trying to bridge the gap between academia and industry by providing low cost solutions for desalination and water treatment. The centre develops membrane materials suited to the UAE and water from the Arabian Gulf.
This approach enables the centre to localise research and tailor materials based on nanofibers, carbon nanotubes and ceramics to the UAE and water from the Arabian Gulf. Localised research is particularly important as the region’s water is known to be problematic due to its high salinity.
There is huge potential for the UAE to become a hub for water technologies on the strength of localised research and development. The nation has the capabilities to supply its own membrane technology to other nations, making valuable contributions to water security beyond its borders.
Solar energy driven membrane technology combining the high solar irradiation in many water-scarce regions with small-scale desalination systems can be used to provide water in remote areas. For example, we recently developed membrane heaters to enhance the energy efficiency of desalination by 25 per cent. The range of facilities available to us, from bench-scale to industrial size pilot systems, allows us to develop solutions for all levels.
But while finding solutions is key, communities must shift towards managing water demand in a better way and wasting much less water. Both the public and private sectors must acknowledge the role that they play in perpetuating the problem and being committed to solving it.
As we celebrate World Water Day, it is important to remember the dangers of taking unseen natural resources for granted. We all have a part to play in conserving this precious resource.