Tanks for the memory: a forgotten piece of Abu Dhabi infrastructure

It's neglected and overlooked now, but a water tank in the capital has plenty to tell us if we let it.

Once a major landmark, the water tank in the Khalidiya area of the capital now stands neglected and decaying. Christopher Pike / The National
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When this year’s charitable Ramadan initiative was launched, UAE Water Aid’s goal was to raise sufficient money to dig wells that would provide clean water for five million people.

By the time the fund-raising effort had finished, however, an unexpected Dh180 million had been donated, enough to provide assistance for a projected seven million people in 10 countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Iraq.

As Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, said at the time, the cause had a particular resonance for Emirati donors. “In our country, water is a great blessing. Our ancestors had been deprived of water, thus they knew its value.”

As the list of countries assisted by the initiative suggests, water shortages may happen elsewhere, but in the UAE they are increasingly the stuff of memory and, for younger generations, of a past defined by almost inconceivable scarcity and hardship.

In one Abu Dhabi neighbourhood, however, an improbable survivor of those older generations still stands, a memorial to ­scarcity amid a modern landscape of ­abundance. In 1965, the old Abu Dhabi water tank was one of the most vital pieces of the capital’s strategic infrastructure, the reservoir for a lifeline without which the city as we know it could not have developed.

Built on the crest of the ridge that now defines the southern edge of Khalidiya, the tank stood at the head of the pipelines that provided Abu Dhabi with its first continuous supply of fresh water.

Both the tank and the 130-kilometre-long pipeline that led to it were constructed under the orders of Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan, then the ruler of Abu Dhabi, as were the seven new wells, dug in Al Saad on the outskirts of Al Ain, that fed them. At their peak, they supplied Abu Dhabi with 400,000 gallons – 1,818 cubic metres – of water a day.

George Bell, now 73 and living in the UK, watched the tank being built and can remember what life was like before it was constructed. He arrived in Abu Dhabi in December 1964. “It took a long time to build. At the end of the pipeline they had to bulldoze a big pile of sand and then they constructed the tank on top of it. I used to watch them building it through my ­binoculars.”

Bell was working as an electrical engineer for the Decca Navigator Company and was responsible for operating and maintaining what was then Abu Dhabi’s tallest landmark – a 90-metre radio communications mast.

At the time of the water tank’s construction, the mast and its compound sheds, a workshop and a four-bedroom bungalow, were the only habitation on the whole north-west corner of the island.

“We were right on the beach,” Bell remembers. “We used to get crabs coming through the front door.”

As well as operating and maintaining the mast, which provided aircraft and shipping with a positioning and navigation service that was the predecessor to GPS, Bell’s other main tasks were the collection of water and fuel.

“We were never on the mains supply so I always had to go and collect the water. Before the pipeline arrived from the Buraimi oasis, there was a central desalination plant. I used to go there with an old Dodge truck and a big 400-gallon [1,818 ­litre] tank. We would park the lorry, a chap put a tube in and we filled the tank up and transferred the water to the house.”

As Bell remembers, however, the quality of the water from the new wells in Al Saad was often variable. “It wasn’t always the cleanest. You could buy bottled water from the supermarkets, but I used to prefer to drink the water that dripped off the air conditioning.”

A second pipeline was added and then a third, much larger one was inaugurated on the second anniversary of Sheikh Zayed’s accession in August 1968, at which time an additional eight wells were dug, all of which increased Abu Dhabi’s daily water supply to more than 9,100 cubic metres. All of this water flowed into the Khalidiya tank.

A year short of its 50th anniversary, the tank still sits on top of its artificial mound, but thanks to the lie of the land, surrounding trees and the growth of the local neighbourhood, it stands forgotten and largely invisible to all but the most inquisitive passers-by.

The fact that the tank has effectively “disappeared” says something interesting about the nature of Abu Dhabi’s urban fabric and about the forces of forgetting, decay and entropy that exert themselves in the heart of even the youngest cities.

Ever since the late 1960s, when the artist Robert Smithson made his Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey and Gordon Matta-Clark started buying inaccessible and unwanted plots of property, there has been growing interest in the role of apparently abandoned, obsolete or peripheral urban spaces. Thanks to the Catalan academic, historian and philosopher Ignasi de Solà-Morales, they even have a name: "terrain vague".

Downtown Abu Dhabi is full of such spaces: derelict structures used as junk yards, car parks used as cricket pitches, patches of shade or grass that act as informal gathering places and elderly shopping malls now deemed out-of-date.

The Italian architect Francesco Careri admires these “spontaneous public spaces” for their unplanned potential and uses the image of a leopard skin to describe the mottled and uneven nature of contemporary urban development, their extraneous beauty and their alternate utility.

Loved by inquisitive artists, playful children, skateboarders, dog-walkers and explorers of all types, they are not controlled, contrived or consumer-focused in any way; instead they become amnesiac spaces where time seems to operate differently, a form of urban unconscious that allows the city and its inhabitants to play, to dream and to forget.

Forty-nine years and counting, the Khalidiya water tank is just such a place.

Nick Leech is a freatures writer for The National.