UAE's water woes need joint solution

To mark the start of a series of stories on water in the Middle East, a survey for The National finds most people in the UAE know the country faces a water crisis.

Sulaiman bin Nasser bin Abdullah al Abry, the wakeel of the town of Misfat in Oman, washes himself in the falaj he helps maintain before going to pray. In the UAE, water consumption per person is among the highest in the world.
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The majority of people in the UAE know the country is facing a water crisis, say they are doing their bit to ease the problem, and believe overwhelmingly that the Government and individuals have a joint responsibility to preserve the country's resources, according to a survey carried out for The National.

However, the survey also shows the consumption of water per person in the UAE is among the highest in the world, replicating official data, and individuals seriously underestimate the volume of water they use personally. Almost three quarters of people surveyed (72 per cent) believe the problem should be tackled by society as a whole. Only 11 per cent think the Government alone should bear the burden of resolving the crisis, and only 10 per cent say the task is exclusively the responsibility of consumers.

This is clearly an issue that energises the majority of people and one on which few are undecided - only 3 per cent say they have no view on the matter. There appears to be a willingness to pay more for water, which is heavily subsidised throughout the country - 17 per cent placed the subsidising of household water at the top of a list of practices least conducive to water conservation. These findings offer tacit support to fledging initiatives planned by authorities, including an awareness campaign being carried out later this year by the Emirates Wildlife Society (EWS) and the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD).

"Action starts with awareness of why we need to conserve water and how it can be done," said Razan al Mubarak, EWS managing director. The campaign will employ the Heroes of the UAE theme used earlier this year to encourage residents to reduce their electricity consumption. It will begin after Ramadan. "It will explain that simple actions such as turning off the tap when brushing your teeth, installing water-saving devices on your taps, showerheads and toilet tanks can save some 30 per cent of your household water consumption," Ms Mubarak said.

"Planting native species in your garden, which consume less water, and only watering them in the early morning and late afternoon" would also save water, she said. "Businesses and Government can help by changing their own practices and reporting back on the impacts on water consumption, demonstrating the impact of action." Today's report marks the start in The National of a seven-day series about water issues facing the UAE and the wider region, which have been highlighted in a number of recent reports.

In March, the EAD warned that the emirate was using its underground water resources 24 times as fast as they could be replenished and that if nothing was done they would be exhausted within 50 years. It called on all stakeholders "to co-operate in implementing water policies to rationalise the use of this precious resource". The problem is echoed throughout the UAE and the Middle East, a naturally arid region where rapid development, fuelled in many cases by oil wealth, has outstripped natural water resources.

In May, the Arab Forum for Environment and Development published the first independent report on the state of the environment in the Arab world, naming scarcity of water, inadequate waste management, degradation of marine environments and global warming as some of the main challenges facing the region. Few countries in the region, however, face problems on the scale of the UAE's. In July, the UN's 2009 Arab Human Development Report said the country was facing some of the worst water shortages in the Arab world. An assessment of levels of "water stress" in 13 Arab countries, gauged by the ratio of population to renewable freshwater supplies, placed only the UAE and Kuwait in the most critical category.

The vast majority of people believe they are already exercising caution over the amount of water they use, according to The National's survey, which was conducted online with 836 respondents by the UAE division of YouGov, the international research organisation. The largest proportion, 47 per cent, say they try to be "as cautious as possible when it comes to water consumption", so long as doing so does not require too much time, effort or money. Arab expatriates (56 per cent) and Emiratis (53 per cent) lead this field.

Another 44 per cent go even further, describing themselves as "very cautious" about water use and saying they are "always looking for ways to conserve water". Westerners (62 per cent) lead this category, followed by Asians (55 per cent), Arab expatriates (32 per cent) and Emiratis (30 per cent). Only 9 per cent say they are indifferent to the amount they use. However, despite respondents' declarations of concern, a section of the survey designed to calculate individual water use shows that well-meaning intentions or attitudes towards conservation are not being translated into practice, and that perceptions of personal water use may be based on serious under-estimations.

The survey asked a series of questions about personal daily use of household water in 10 categories, ranging from the number of baths and showers taken to the frequency with which washing machines and dishwashers were used. Based on a formula devised by the US Geological Survey, the responses show the average daily consumption of water per person excluding that expended on washing cars is approximately 510 litres.

This figure corresponds closely to data in the Abu Dhabi Water Resources Master Plan, released by the EAD in March. It showed the average daily consumption in Abu Dhabi was 550 litres per person one of the highest in the world, according to the EAD. Despite their stated intentions, very few people in the survey know the true volume of water they use daily, suggesting public education programmes might aid efforts to reduce consumption.

Only 10 per cent estimate their personal daily consumption to be as high as 451 to 600 litres; almost none thinks it is any higher. But 36 per cent believe they are using less than 150 litres; another 32 per cent put their consumption between 151 and 300 litres.

Click here for a multimedia presentation of stories on water from across the Middle East.