The UAE is securing its water supply while cutting its carbon footprint

Desalinating water is energy-intensive but the Emirates is adopting technologies that make the process greener

Solar panels on display at Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week in January. Khushnum Bhandari / The National
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At first glance, desalinating water can seem like a form of modern-day alchemy. People apply some “magic” in the form of science and technology to the raw stuff of seawater, turning it into a precious substance whose availability is often taken for granted.

For countries such as the UAE, which exist in one of the most arid environments on Earth, making sure there is a plentiful supply of clean water is of existential importance. The Emirati people are well aware of this, with the hard struggle for past generations to find potable water in isolated desert oases being part of the country’s collective memory.

But traditional methods of desalination are energy-intensive and pose challenges for nations such as the Emirates, which have ambitious targets to reduce their carbon footprint.

What is in abundance on the Arabian Peninsula, however, is sunlight. Wednesday’s announcement that Emirates Water and Electricity Company is aiming for a 606 per cent rise in its solar power generation capacity by 2030 came with recommendations, approved by the Abu Dhabi Department of Energy, calling for continued investment in low-carbon desalination technology.

This reverse-osmosis technology uses a membrane-based method to produce clean water using less energy compared to the usual thermal process. Last month, EWEC announced that it had awarded its Mirfa 2 reverse-osmosis project to a consortium of France’s Engie and UAE-based Taqa. The plant will eventually be able to produce approximately 550,000 cubic metres.

The UAE’s dual commitment to research and investment in renewable energy – particularly solar – will play an important role in securing the country’s water supply. It is already building the Mohammed bin Rashid Solar Park in Dubai with a capacity of five gigawatts. Abu Dhabi, which is developing a two-gigawatt solar plant in its Al Dhafra region, has set a target of 5.6 gigawatts of solar PV capacity by 2026.

These enormous energy parks in the Emirates’ deserts are complemented by smaller-scale solar generation, such as the panels on everyday street fixtures such as the Mawaqif parking machines found in Abu Dhabi. In time, developing housing with solar panels as standard – such as that seen in some Mediterranean countries – will also help to harness the power of the Sun.

An encouraging sign is how the markets are reacting to this embrace of renewable energy. Last month, S&P Global Ratings reported that there is likely to be a “strong pipeline” of sustainable bonds coming from the Middle East this year as the region continues to focus on the green economy.

The issuance of green bonds to finance climate-related projects grew by 38 per cent in the Middle East during the five-year period to the end of 2020, according to a Boston Consulting Group report. The consultancy also found that Middle East governments drove 97 per cent of green bond issuances in 2020 alone, compared with 13 per cent four years earlier. And according to Allied Market Research, the global sustainable finance market, which was valued at $3.65 trillion in 2021, is set to grow further, hitting $22.48 trillion by 2031.

This market-backed drive to develop renewable energy – that will help environmentally friendly desalination and reduce domestic energy costs – comes at a time when the UAE is refusing to be complacent and is taking its future challenges seriously.

Next month, it will release its National Hydrogen Strategy and is investing Dh600 billion ($163.37 billion) in clean and renewable energy initiatives over the next three decades as it aims to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

The UAE has the vision, financial resources and the space to undertake these measures quicker than other countries, showing what can be achieved with political will and targeted investments. Turning seawater into the stuff of life is not the same as turning lead into gold, but these latest developments show it can be profitable, and perhaps magical too.

Published: March 10, 2023, 3:00 AM