Ensuring the security of water, 'a strategic commodity on par with oil'

The creation of a 26 million-cubic-metre reserve of fresh water in the Empty Quarter is part of a major drive to ensure that the UAE always has enough to meet its needs.

Ensuring that the UAE always has a secure supply of drinking water is a top strategic priority. Courtesy of Adach
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The creation of a strategic reserve of 26 million cubic metres of fresh water in the Empty Quarter is part of a major drive to ensure that the UAE always has enough to meet its needs.

Of all the grand schemes intended to secure Abu Dhabi's future, the one that is just coming to fruition now is also the least likely to be noticed.

It doesn't promise a spectacular perforated roof like the Louvre Abu Dhabi, or the futuristic profile of the Louvre's Saadiyat stablemate, the Guggenheim. Instead the only outward sign of this $500 million (Dh1.83bn) project is a network of more than 300 pipes emerging from the desert in the Empty Quarter.

And, instead of the familiar prospect of pipes being used to pump a valuable commodity out of the ground, here something potentially even more valuable has been put into the ground: 26 million cubic metres of desalinated water.

While refilling an ancient aquifer to create a strategic 90-day reserve of drinkable water might not be a headline grabber, it reflects the assessment that the UAE's heavy reliance on desalinated water has also created a national security issue.

By this summer, the aquifer will be full once more. It ends a scenario where if something had happened to Abu Dhabi's desalination plants - through either natural or malicious causes - the emirate would have run out of water within days.

The scheme reflects just one facet of the difficult balancing act played by the UAE on water issues. Decades of desalination has slightly exacerbated the natural process by which the Arabian Gulf off the UAE's west coast has become up to one and a half times as saline as average seawater.

The UAE also faces tough choices about whether the food security provided by the agriculture industry outweighs the cost to the environment, since the sector is the overwhelming cause of the increasing degradation of the nation's natural groundwater - both through increased salinity caused by overuse and through contaminants leaching into the water table - but contributes little to GDP or to the employment of Emiratis.

An equally difficult decision is how much to charge for water. The failure to reflect the true cost, either financially or environmentally, helps explain why water consumption in the UAE - and Abu Dhabi in particular - is among the highest in the world.


"Water is a strategic commodity on a par with oil - maybe even more important," according to Mohammed Tayie, a hydropolitical expert from the University of Cairo who spoke at a water and food security conference in Abu Dhabi earlier this year.

It was a theme repeated by most of the experts at the event: a secure supply of water is essential to the smooth functioning of all GCC countries.

It's a lesson also appreciated far beyond the shores of the Arabian Gulf. In 2007, the United States decided to assess whether it faced national security issues through threats to its allies' infrastructure.

There was a special focus on the Middle East and particularly on Saudi Arabia.

The US embassy in Riyadh described the vulnerability of the eastern Saudi oil production facilities as "an Achilles heel for US strategic interests in the Kingdom ... not to mention US economic security in general" because even partial disruption would have "a devastating impact on the US national economy".

But after the Abqaiq oil and gas separation plant ("the world's most important petroleum facility"), the Saudi installation deemed the next most important to US interests was the desalination plant at Jubail.

"The Jubail desalinisation plant provides Riyadh with over 90 per cent of its drinking water," the embassy reported. "Riyadh would have to evacuate within a week if the plant, its pipelines, or associated power infrastructure were seriously damaged or destroyed."

The US diplomats' assessment of the risk to the Saudi desalination plant cite potential attacks by either Iran or Al Qaeda.

The threats are far from hypothetical. An Al Qaeda group unsuccessfully attacked Abqaiq in 2006, and during the invasion of Kuwait, Iraqi forces unleashed an oil slick with the intention of closing down the Jubail desalination plant. The oil slick was prevented from reaching the intakes by US army engineers.

The US embassy in Abu Dhabi conducted a similar study, which cited the fact that Abu Dhabi sourced 40 per cent of its water - and effectively all its drinking water - via desalination, at a cost at the time of about $1 per cubic metre. The balance, sourced by treating wastewater or drawing from aquifers, is mostly used for landscaping and agricultural use.

The UAE has also faced serious impacts on its desalination capacity, including four oil spills between 1994 and 2001. The red tide algal bloom on the east coast in 2007 and 2008 also affected water production.

The Water and Food Security in the Arabian Gulf conference, hosted by the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, was told the potential risks to the UAE's desalination plants are complex.

Hussein Amery, a Middle East water management expert at the Colorado School of Mines, said there was a lack of feasible options for the southern Arabian Gulf nations.

"You don't need a highly paid consultant to tell you that desalination is the destiny for the GCC countries," he said.

The only other alternative was to import water from nearby countries, such as Turkey and Pakistan, but the option was rejected in part because it created a reliance on foreign governments. He said Kuwait and Qatar had also looked at importing water from Iran but dropped the idea.

"Water imports are somewhat risky. Desalination is significantly safer [because] it maximises a state's autonomy. It's an issue, trying to fight critical dependency on other countries. That's what the Gulf states are doing. By and large, they have been moving in the last two to three decades towards greater reliance on desalination.

"It comes with its own risks. It's definitely an issue but what options do you have?"

Tayie, the hydropolitical expert, said national security meant taking a wider view of the threats.

Among the risks of conflict with Iran over its nuclear development programme is that one of its facilities is located near the Arabian Gulf and has the potential to impact on the UAE's desalination capacity, Tayie said.

"We look at Iran and the plant sited on the other side of the Gulf. We're talking about the potential attacks, in certain pessimistic scenarios how much it will lead to contamination of water because of nuclear particles. This raises the bar of concern." Professor Seetharam Kallidaikurichi, director of National University of Singapore's Global Asia Institute, described the UAE as being in a unique position.

"Unlike other countries which don't have the finances to solve the problems, here money isn't a problem," he said. "They have a physical scarcity which they can solve by an expensive solution. Looking at the bigger picture, food and water security are important."

He said Singapore, which shared the UAE's traits of being small and prosperous, had faced similar issues. It had contracts to import water from neighbouring Malaysia but had moved to become entirely self-generating, through a mix of desalination and a drive to recycle waste water.

"There's a huge opportunity to show leadership and to solve the water and food problem," he said.

Waleed Al Zubari, professor of water resource management at Bahrain's Arabian Gulf University, said water security extended beyond the boundaries of the GCC nations because disputes in the Nile, Jordan and Euphrates catchments - including the possible failure of states - will affect the region.

"Any imbalance in the Arab world will affect us. We should take this issue into account," he said. "The management of water resources in the GCC in the last three decades has been one of when there is increased demand, a new [de]salination plant is built."

Climate change is likely to exacerbate the issue, Dr Al Zubari said. "Maps show 15 models of what might happen in the world in the future and the 15 agree that the region will become more arid, with a reduction of rainfall by 20 per cent.

"We don't know [for certain] what will happen but all these models have ended up with the same result: drier with higher temperatures."


With no rivers of any kind in the southern Arabian Gulf states and with restricted inflow from the over-extracted Euphrates and the rivers of Iran, for every litre of fresh water that flows into the Arabian Gulf, seven are lost to evaporation.

That is the primary reason why the Arabian Gulf is naturally more saline than the Indian Ocean, but in the 60 years since the region's first desalination plant was built in Kuwait, salt levels have increased. Although the rise in salinity due to evaporation is still several orders of magnitude greater than that due to desalination, the latter exacerbates the natural process.

The UAE now has more than 25 plants and a new one was commissioned last month at Mirfa, nearly doubling the capacity of the town's existing plant to approximately 225,000 cubic metres of water per day.

In the open ocean, seawater is generally 35 parts per thousand (ppt) of salt but in the Arabian Gulf that figure is frequently 50 ppt near the desalination plants, which return a strong brine after extracting fresh water.

As well as brine, anti-scaling chemicals such as phosphonates or polycarboxylic and polymaleic acids (used to prevent buildup on the heat-transfer surfaces), are also ejected.

The salinity level is not the only impact, although the higher the salt level, the more effort is needed to produce drinkable water.

The proposed solutions to the UAE's water issues are broad-based, including decreasing the water demand by being more efficient with what is already used, encouraging users to change to less water-intensive lives and by treating and reusing more wastewater.

An equally important factor in making water use more sustainable, according to American University of Beirut environmental hydrologist Nadim Farajalla, is to ensure the cost of water is passed on to all users in the UAE.

"We have to structure tariffs to get the full cost of recovery. There is heavy subsidy of the water sector - 10 per cent of GDP goes to subsidising it," he said. "That's too much. It allows people to waste it. Tariffs are very low. Our children and our grandchildren will pay for this."

The actual cost of desalination has been dropping. A decade ago, a cubic metre of water would cost $3 (Dh11) but improved technology has brought the cost down to 50 cents per cubic metre. However not all the UAE plants were using the latest technology, Farajalla said. Al Zubari supported that view, saying the price of water remained too low.

"The current price isn't conducive to reducing consumption of water," he said.

Harvard University professor of environmental engineering Peter Rogers said charging the real cost for water would improve the way it was used.

"In this region, water has been hopelessly underpriced and has been for a long time," he said. "In Boston, we made a one-third saving by increasing the price over 10 years."


It would be difficult to imagine Arabia without envisaging pockets of date palms amid the dunes. But by far the biggest consumer of water in the UAE is agriculture.

Agriculture in the UAE contributes just three per cent of the nation's GDP but consumes more than half of the water supply, almost all of which is sourced from groundwater. It also is the source of about three per cent of the jobs, but almost all of those are low-skilled migrant labourers. But how do you balance that against intangibles like food security and the continuation of traditional ways of life?

In most places in the world, groundwater is a resource that is replenished naturally but the aridity of most of the Arabian peninsula means that doesn't happen here.

The United Nations defines water scarcity as 1,000 cubic metres per person per year but the UAE's natural water supply is around half that.

More importantly, most of the UAE's groundwater dates back to an era when the climate in the region was much wetter, so the contents of most of the aquifers are often described as "fossil water" or "paleo water", making it nearly as finite as the region's oil reserves.

There is some natural recharge, usually in the form of downpours every few years, but for every litre of water that goes back into the groundwater reserves, 25 litres is used in the UAE. The rest comes partly from desalination but also by extraction - and further degradation - of the groundwater.

One reaction has been for the UAE to increase the number of dams on its wadis, partly to prevent flash flooding in towns downstream but also to temporarily hold water so it can percolate into the ground and boost the aquifers rather than flowing out to sea.

Amery said the UAE had the opportunity to learn from the example of Saudi Arabia, which had tried to bolster its food security by giving farmers access to inexpensive water to grow crops that would normally be unsuited to the region's hydrography. The end result was the kingdom briefly became the world's sixth-biggest wheat exporter but at the cost of degrading its groundwater for a commodity that was cheap to buy internationally.

The grand scheme came at a colossal cost: Toby Craig Jones' 2010 book Desert Kingdom, states that nearly one fifth of Saudi's GDP was used to subsidise unsustainable agriculture for a quarter of a century before beginning to phase out the scheme. The lesson for the UAE, Amery says, would be to use its water supplies to grow high-value crops rather than wheat.

"Agriculture contributes about three per cent to the national GDP and employs about three per cent of the labour force so it contributes next to nothing to the economy and employs next to no one. Those who are employed tend to be immigrant labour," he said.

"The philosophical and sentimental question is: can you have a country with no agriculture?"

That conundrum is just part of the balancing act facing the UAE and other Arabian nations.

The mammoth projects to recharge the aquifer of the Empty Quarter and another at Shwaib, north of Al Ain, show the willingness to invest the nation's considerable financial resources to lessen the risks posed by relying on desalination.

Other challenges - such as whether to charge for water at a rate that encourages conservation when access to abundant water has long been seen as a permanent feature of life - show that some problems can't be solved with a simple budget allocation.

How the nation resolves those questions will be judged by the next generation, who will bear the ramifications of the stewardship decisions being made today.

John Henzell is a senior features writer for The National.