Nation needs plan for water shortages

The Ministry of Environment and Water and the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi is working on projects that will increase water reserves from 30 days to one year.

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ABU DHABI // A nationwide plan is needed to increase the amount of water held in back-up supplies, officials said yesterday.

The Government has instructed the Ministry of Environment and Water and the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (EAD) to make the issue a top priority. Majid al Mansouri, EAD's secretary general, said a technical committee comprising high-ranking officials and experts would be formed in the next few weeks.

With its reliance on desalination for more than 90 per cent of its water, the UAE is vulnerable to sea pollution. Strategic underground reserves could be the last line of defence in the event of a serious oil spill incident or large-scale bloom of harmful algae such as the one that affected the east coast in 2008 and 2009. Aquifer recharge - a process in which water is pumped deep into underground aquifers that have existed for thousands of years - has been identified as the best option.

"The underground storage has proved technically efficient compared with the health, economic and environmental implications of surface storage," said Dr Rashid Ahmed bin Fahad, Minister of Environment and Water. "It also helps in reducing pollution and reducing the need for water treatment, compared with other alternatives that need treatment and renewal as a result of stagnation of stored water," Dr bin Fahad said.

The minister yesterday opened the Seventh International Symposium on Managed Aquifer Recharge in the capital. Expected to attract more than 300 delegates from 51 countries, the event is organised by EAD and Schlumberger Water Services, a private company. Abu Dhabi already has plans to increase its underground emergency storage - currently enough to last for 30 days. Tomorrow, the symposium will close with a visit to Liwa, where work on a Dh1.6 billion project to pump fresh water deep underground is under way. The project includes 350 monitoring wells, a pumping station and 70 kilometres of pipes.

When work is completed, in 2012, up to 32 million litres of water per day will be pumped underground. The water will be provided by desalination plants in Al Mirfa and Shuweihat which have excess capacity. "In case of emergency, 40 million gallons [182m litres] of water per day can be withdrawn," said Mr Mansouri. Later this year, a contract will be awarded to build a similar project in Al Shweib, he said. There, excess capacity from a desalination plant on the east coast will be pumped underground.

Once the Liwa project is completed, there will be enough emergency water for 90 days. With the completion of work in Al Shweib and another project now being planned, the storage will last a year. Boosting the capital's emergency reserves is one of the recommendations of the Abu Dhabi Water Resources Master Plan, was published in March last year. At an average of 550 litres per person per day, the rate of water usage in the UAE is among the highest in the world.