Dh1.6bn stockpile of water for Abu Dhabi

Work has begun on plan to stockpile vital water underground to ensure guaranteed supplies in event of emergency

ABU DHABI // Work has begun on a Dh1.6 billion plan to stockpile vital supplies of water underground. The huge reservoir near Liwa could supply Abu Dhabi's basic water needs for three months if desalination plants failed, offering a cushion to a system that today can store only two days' supply.

The reserve would be activated in the event of a national emergency, for example, if a large oil spill contaminated the waters of the Gulf. The reserve is a logical step for an emirate that depends on desalination to supply 98 per cent of its potable water, experts said. A contract to complete the project within 30 months was awarded to two construction companies yesterday. The scheme, which includes pipelines and equipment to inject the water 85 metres below ground, was first disclosed two years ago and has been under study ever since.

The project would be the first in the world to inject water produced at desalination plants into underground aquifers, said Christopher Gasson, a water industry expert and publisher of the UK-based trade magazine Global Water Intelligence. A number of other countries, including the US, South Africa and Australia, already inject water from seasonal rains underground for use during dry seasons. "Abu Dhabi has been the first in the region to grasp this opportunity," Mr Gasson said. "Once you've got that, your water management can become a lot more efficient."

Heavy use by farms, forests and an increasing population has depleted the emirate's freshwater aquifers. The natural water supplies of the UAE as a whole are expected to decrease by another 16 per cent in the next decade, leaving it with the second-smallest per-capita water resources in the world after Kuwait, according to Nomura Securities, the Japanese investment bank. Per-capita water usage is already among the highest in the world at 550 litres a day, according to the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD). The Abu Dhabi Government, led by EAD, has put together a multi-part plan to moderate consumption growth and make better use of the resource. Subsidies for a water-intensive crop that accounts for more than 60 per cent of agricultural use - Rhodes grass - are now being phased out, for example, while a new building code known as Estidama requires developers to plant more water-efficient landscaping and install better fixtures and appliances.

The water stockpile will be a last line of defence if desalination output is disrupted, with supply prioritised to meet the needs of residents and key industries. The reserve will be designed to pump up to 40 million gallons a day for three months, 5.8 per cent of the emirate's peak water consumption this summer, according to the Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Company. The contract was awarded yesterday to Arabian Construction of Lebanon and POSCO Engineering of South Korea.