Given that it receives little rainfall and is far from overflowing with lakes and rivers, the UAE has achieved a remarkable feat in growing its population while ensuring that there is enough water to go around.
In the middle of the 20th century, there were 70,000 people living in what became the Emirates, but now the population is well over 100 times as large.
Dubai Water and Electricity Authority has outlined its strategy to ensure that there continues to be enough water for the more than 3.5 million Dubai residents and the millions who visit the emirate.
While the UAE will continue to face water supply challenges as its population grows, the issues are economic rather than political, said Dr Nasser Karami, a former associate professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, who specialises in the Middle East’s water resources.
This contrasts with the situation in some other Middle Eastern countries, such as Iran, where water shortages have resulted in large-scale protests by farmers.
“There aren’t serious problems for the countries like the UAE or Qatar or Bahrain or Saudi Arabia because they have enough money,” he said.
“There are a lot of technical ways to find new water sources, for example desalination.
"It won’t be a critical issue for them, but it will be a big economic issue.”
UAE Water Security Strategy 2036
Last week, Suhail Al Mazrouei, Minister of Energy and Infrastructure, said water security was regarded as a prerequisite for sustainable development.
The UAE Water Security Strategy 2036 was launched to ensure there is enough supply during normal and emergency conditions, even though the Middle East is one of the most water-scarce regions in the world.
Mr Al Mazrouei said national initiatives covered areas such as the digital management of water systems and the integrated management of dams and water facilities.
“The initiatives come within the framework of the ministry’s strenuous efforts to support the objectives of the UAE Water Security Strategy 2036 centred on ensuring sustainability and continuity of access to water, reducing the total demand for water resources by 21 per cent, reducing the water scarcity index [a measure of how heavily a country’s water assets are used] by 3 degrees, and increasing the rate of reuse of treated water to 95 per cent,” he said.
“Our ambition is great, and our successes are continuous. We will not stop at the achievements, but we will continue to work with stakeholders and our strategic partners locally, regionally and internationally during the next 50 years, to achieve more success.”
New water reservoirs
Dewa has been spending heavily to ensure that there are adequate supplies for the “sustainable development of Dubai”, an emirate that some analysts have predicted is likely to see continued significant population increases.
It is spending Dh897 million to develop a 40 million imperial gallons per day seawater reverse osmosis desalination plant at Jebel Ali Power Plant and Desalination Complex. The project is nearly complete.
Another osmosis plant, of three times the capacity, is being created at the Hassyan power facility in Dubai.
By 2030 Dewa wants all desalination to be powered by “a combination of clean energy sources and waste heat”, Saeed Al Tayer, Dewa’s MD and chief executive, said.
A separate initiative is aquifer storage and recovery, in which solar power desalinates water, which is stored in aquifers — underground rocks that contain water — and pumped back for use as required.
Dewa describes this approach, which provides Dubai with a water source to draw on in emergencies, as more cost-effective than traditional reservoirs.
Once the ASR project is completed, by 2025, it will be able to store up to six billion imperial gallons, making it the largest initiative of its kind in the world to store drinking water.
Dewa is building a 60 million gallon reservoir in Lusaily, close to the road from Dubai to Al Ain, alongside an existing reservoir there of twice the size. A reservoir with a 120 million gallon capacity is being built at Nakhali, off Dubai to Hatta road.
But, in line with the nationwide strategy, Dewa’s approach is not simply about increasing supply. It also includes efforts to improve efficiency in the network and among consumers.
There could be considerable scope for reductions in water use, because average consumption in the UAE is reported to be as much as 550 litres per day, compared to the worldwide average of around 200 litres.
Given the scope for efficiencies, Dr Karami said water use could be reduced in the UAE and neighbouring countries without a negative effect on residents.
“The lifestyle would be the same,” he said. “Better technologies in the home could help them to change their patterns of consumption.”
Mr Al Tayer said the organisation aimed to reduce electricity and water consumption by 30 per cent by the end of the decade, in line with the Dubai Integrated Water Resource Management Strategy 2030.
“[This] focuses on enhancing water resources, nationalising water consumption, and using cutting-edge technologies and innovative solutions,” he said.
One initiative, which began a number of years ago, involves automating meter readings, which Dewa says “empowers its customers on their usage patterns”.
As well as indicating to customers what their usage is like relative to others living in the same area, Dewa offers tips on how consumption can be reduced.
Another key efficiency focus is on reducing losses from the water network, which consists of 13,592km of water transmission and distribution lines. Last year's overall losses were 5.3 per cent, says Dewa.
Although it is not clear if the same criteria were used to measure losses, a document from the EU’s European Regional Development Fund indicates that every EU country except Luxembourg has higher water losses in percentage terms than the UAE.
Dewa has focused on technology to make its network more efficient, having already installed more than 8,500 smart devices to monitor Dubai’s reservoirs, pumping stations and transmission pipelines, with more on the way.
As part of its high-tech approach, Dewa says that its systems can “fix leaks within seconds without human intervention”.
Tips to save electricity and water
Dewa offers simple tips that residents can follow to conserve water and electricity. These include:
- When taking a bath, put the plug in the plughole before turning on the taps, and only fill the tub one-third full
- Leave the taps off while shaving (this can save 100 litres a week) and brushing teeth
- Place a plastic bottle filled with water or sand in the toilet cistern to reduce the amount of water used per flush.
- Wash fruit and vegetables with a bowl or half a sink of water, rather than a running tap, and use the water that remains to water plants
- When buying a washing machine, choose an efficient model that uses less than 27 gallons per load
- If you have a sprinkler, install an automatic shut-off valve so that it turns off during rain
- Clean your drive and pavement with a broom, not a hose