Steps taken to preserve Abu Dhabi’s dwindling groundwater reserves

Irrigation for the emirate’s plants, gardens and farms will deplete groundwater reservoirs within the next 50 years, according to a study.

 Zakariya Jalaludi, a 54-year-old farmer from India, fixes the water spout for this date palm tree. Jeffrey E Biteng  / The National
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ABU DHABI // Irrigating the emirate’s plants, gardens and farms will exhaust ground­water reservoirs within the next 50 years, according to a study.

The research, conducted by the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD), has prompted urgent action, whereby anyone wishing to build a water well will now have to apply to the agency for permission. A plan to use treated sewage water for farms is also being put in place.

For well tenders, each case will be looked at individually and assessed for its impact on the dwindling water supply. If areas are marked as depleted or in what the EAD has labelled as “red zones,” where it is illegal to draw any water from underground sources, then the well tender will be refused.

According to Dr Mohamed Dawoud, EAD adviser for water resources, the UAE consumes 2.1 billion cubic metres of water a year and using treated sewage could be one way to alleviate the stress on natural reserves.

“We need to give it time to replenish, we need it to become of better quality, and we need more information,” he said.

The plan, Dr Dawoud said, was to build pipelines to farming ­areas from the desalination plant in Musaffah to other parts of Abu Dhabi in need of water. This would allow those underground reserves to replenish, but the pipeline would take two to three years to complete.

That pipeline is set to provide 140 million cubic metres of water to those areas, thus doubling the amount of sewage water farms will have before 2020.

During that time, the EAD would continue to assess about 100,000 wells, some of which are 40 years old.

“Our job is also to educate [farmers], for the time being all the responses have been very positive, they have to be educated,” said Sheikha Al Hosani, acting executive director of environment quality sector at EAD. “We are taking it slowly. Enforcement has to be gradual until you build the knowledge and awareness.”

The EAD is teaching farmers about best practices and how to reduce water consumption to minimise the strain on already over-consumed aquifers.

The government decided to take action to reduce the demand for water by substituting water with treated sewage. Part of the problem, however, is that farmers have a negative connotation on treated water.

“We’ve already conducted research on this, and we found that [results] using treated water for irrigation of forestry – compared with using groundwater – were a lot better,” said Ms Al Hosani. “Now it’s a matter of education.”

In the longer term, the agency will spend the next three years mapping groundwater sources across Abu Dhabi emirate. It will then carry out a soil-mapping project with data from 25,000 farms and classify wells by type, water quantity and quality, as well as the extraction rate and the change in water levels. The data will then be compiled into a “water atlas” for the emirate.

“We are not only studying, we are also taking actions to make sure that individuals are not overconsuming water resources,” said Ms Al Hosani.

She said that most of the people they worked with understood the importance of replenishing aquifers [groundwater reservoirs], which account for 65 per cent of the emirate’s water budget and are largely used in agriculture, forestry and landscape irrigation.

The findings will be analysed to set targets and establish policies on the groundwater project.

“This all-encompassing inventory project is going to have a positive impact for all those involved, with the end goal of finding more efficient ways to grow local crops while reducing wastage of our scarce water resources,” said Razan Al Mubarak, secretary-general of EAD.