The UAE has been named as one of more than a dozen countries facing extreme pressure on its water resources, leading to warnings of “dire consequences” in the event of unexpected dry spells.
A new global report, published by the Water Resources Institute (WRI) this week, ranked the country 10th out of 164 in a global league table of nations where water supplies are most stretched.
The UAE was among 17 countries facing “extremely high water stress”, researchers said, meaning 80 per cent of available surface and groundwater in an average year is being consumed.
Of those countries, together home to a quarter of the world’s population, twelve were in the Middle East and North Africa.
Water scarcity is “a force that can exacerbate conflict and migration” in the region, the report authors said. They added that while the hot weather and dry climate meant water was in short supply in the Middle East and North Africa to begin with, rising demand and missed opportunities to save water were contributing to the situation.
The exhaustive report showed that the problem would become worse if "business as usual" continued, Julien Jreissati, a campaigner at Greenpeace MENA, told The National. The impact of climate change driven by fossil fuel consumption, he said, would exacerbate the problem.
“Fortunately the MENA region is also one of the sunniest in the world with a tremendous potential for solar energy,” he said. “The equation is therefore quite simple, it is time for MENA countries to look up to the sky, instead of underground, to power their societies and economies if they want to contribute to the global fight against climate change and avoid a dramatic water crisis.
“The region can live and thrive without oil but it won’t survive without water.”
Qatar was named as the most water stressed country on earth, followed by Israel and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia was eight, while India, home to more than 1.3 billion people, is 13th.
Cities around the world were already experiencing the bleak outcome of severe water shortages, the authors of the paper said.
A water crisis in Chennai, India’s sixth-largest city, is ongoing after its four main reservoirs ran dry in June. Sao Paulo in Brazil and Cape Town in South Africa have also come close to running out of water, or ‘day zero’ scenarios as they are known, in recent years.
Countries where demand rivals supply, such as those topping the global league table, could suffer badly even during small dry spells, which are predicted to become more common due to climate change, the WRI said.
“Even small dry shocks – which are set to increase due to climate change – can produce dire consequences,” the organisation warned.
“Water stress is the biggest crisis no one is talking about,” said Andrew Steer, President and CEO of the WRI.
“Its consequences are in plain sight in the form of food insecurity, conflict and migration, and financial instability. A new generation of solutions is emerging, but nowhere near fast enough. Failure to act will be massively expensive in human lives and livelihoods.”
High levels of demand in the Middle East and North Africa, where there is little rainfall but high demand for water-intensive technologies such as air conditioning, was putting “huge pressure” on available resources, said Paul Reig, director of WRI's aqueduct water risk project.
This was posing “a threat to agricultural, industrial and domestic water users that rely on it," he said.
"The region is is naturally dry and arid," Mr Reig told CNN. "But the situation there is getting worse. There's a number of reports and research pointing to the fact that water stress can exacerbate both migration and conflict, and that water is currently a source of growing tension and violence in the Middle East."
The report noted that roughly 84 per cent of wastewater collected in the GCC was treated to safe levels. However, less than half, 44 per cent, goes on to be reused, presenting an opportunity to improve efficiency.
The report was published in the same week that UAE businesses were urged to do more to conserve water and monitor their consumption, partly in an effort to protect reserves.
The UAE relies on desalination – the process of converting sea water – for drinking water and regularly uses cloud seeding to encourage rainfall. However, groundwater reserves, relied upon for almost two thirds of water use, have been severely depleted over recent decades, due to economic development, agriculture and population increases.
On Wednesday, Emirates Nature-WWF, which works to protect the environment, called on UAE businesses to monitor their water consumption and develop “water stewardship strategies”, in line with Alliance of Water Stewardship guidelines.
Doing so would save businesses money as well as helping the environment, Laila Mostafa Abdullatif, Director General of Emirates Nature-WWF, said.
“Developing and implementing a water saving strategy has many benefits for both the environment and the organisation,” she said. “Reducing the businesses footprint allows you to strengthen your corporate reputation amongst customers and colleagues, while measuring and documenting water savings allow you to serve as a model for other organisations in the country.”