Reports that Abu Dhabi emirate will have depleted its groundwater reserves within 50 years make for alarming reading. While the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, which commissioned the research that produced this prediction, is right to ban the digging of new wells in over-extracted zones and to require desalinated water to be used instead, this alone will not be enough.
What is needed is a change in the way water is viewed here and particularly in the way wastewater is utilised. Roughly four times as much of the emirate’s water supply comes from desalination as from wastewater treated for reuse.
Our goal ought to be to reuse all wastewater, which would have the added benefit of reducing our dependence on the energy-intensive process of desalination.
As with many other aspects of life in the UAE, we are able to take advantage of other societies that have faced similar challenges and found workable solutions. Singapore, although sited in a markedly different climate, faces many of the same challenges as Abu Dhabi because the effective absence of groundwater reserves causes a dependence on desalination and – unlike here – importing water from a neighbour, Malaysia.
Singapore’s answer was exemplified by its launch of a brand of water called NEWater. This was sewerage treated by Singapore’s Public Utilities Board to make it suitable for human consumption, with the point being that while it is convenient to forget about water washed down the drain from a shower or flushed down the toilet, it remains a valuable resource that can and should be treated and reused. While we in Abu Dhabi ought not expect treated sewerage to outsell brands of bottled water such as Al Ain and Masafi, it is important for the same lesson to be taken on board here.
Agriculture accounts for about 70 per cent of our water use, with that overwhelmingly sourced from fast-diminishing groundwater. While there is an entire other debate to be had about whether we are better served growing food rather than importing it, the reality is we need to be smarter about reusing the water we have.
With the surge of new housing developments, we have the chance to have different grades of water so that we don’t flush the toilet with water purified to the highest drinking standards. This and similarly smart solutions will solve our water dilemma.