Water must be treated as the scarce, precious resource it is

Consumption must be cut back to conserve limited reserves

Tourists take photos of the water and light show at the Burj Khalifa. Satish Kumar / The National
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Few of us think twice when we turn on our taps about where the water pouring forth comes from. Fewer still have entertained the prospect of a time when water is neither cheap nor ubiquitous. But today the Middle East is the least water-secure region on earth. To understand the real significance of water – aside from human and agricultural consumption – one has only to look at the lengths Israel has gone to in terms of limiting supply to Palestinian households and appropriating water sources to wield power. Among the 10 countries most likely to face a water crisis by 2040 are the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Oman. The UAE has one of the world's highest per capita water consumption levels and is predicted to run out of fresh water within 50 years. Top-down policies and precautionary measures might offset the problem but what is needed is a shift in public perception. Currently, water is viewed by too many as plentiful and dispensable rather than an essential and precious resource. Its usage in Abu Dhabi is currently rising by 9.5 per cent annually. It behoves us all to limit our personal consumption by taking measures such as having shorter showers and not leaving taps running to ensure this country never falls victim to acute water scarcity.

The UAE’s primary water sources are groundwater, desalinated water and treated wastewater. The former accounts for 51 per cent of the country's needs but the ancient aquifers that house it are rapidly emptying. Most groundwater is used for irrigation and landscaping, the burden of which could be reduced with less water-intensive crops. Meanwhile, about 37 per cent of the UAE's water is desalinated, a costly process with environmental implications. At this year's International Water Summit in Abu Dhabi, the government unveiled the world’s largest emergency reserve of desalinated water. At current national usage rates, its 26 billion litres would last less than five days.

Some shrewd action has been taken. In March, UAE Energy Minister Suhail Al Mazrouei told the Federal National Council that UAE water consumption is a "huge concern" and outlined plans to step up desalination projects and investigate new technological solutions. Yet if consumption continues to rise, these steps could prove limited. Water scarcity is one of many environmental challenges facing countries in this region and beyond. These pages have often discussed the scourge of plastic waste and the potentially drastic consequences of rising sea levels. Strategies to shift the UAE away from oil dependence, including the pursuit of renewable energy, will pay dividends. And when it comes to water security, the government has demonstrated a recognition of the problem. However, large-scale government initiatives must be accompanied by a sea change in the mindsets and behaviour of individuals to make a real difference.