Parched for Peace: The UAE has Oil and Money, but No Water

by |November 22, 2010

Last Monday I mentioned that one of the reasons I chose to focus on the Mideast water crisis was a New York Times article that called attention to the extreme water scarcity in Dubai. While its seven star hotel, indoor ski slope, and abundance of beachfront villas make it easy to forget, Dubai is a large metropolis built in a desert, and that presents a number of obstacles to large-scale development. Consequently, although the emirate has become renowned for innovative engineering, technological feats, and break-neck development, it is now facing urgent environmental dilemmas.

Obviously one of the greatest challenges to sustaining 1.8 million people in an extremely arid locale is water, which in the coastal city of Dubai is abundant but not potable.  To overcome this, Dubai implemented an expensive technical solution: desalination plants that take water from the Persian Gulf and remove salts, contaminants, and particulates to make it suitable for human use and consumption. Dubai isn’t alone: collectively, the UAE desalinate roughly the equivalent of four billion bottles of water each day.

Desalination plants, similar to the Kuwaiti one pictured above, supply a vast majority of the drinking water for the UAE. However, these plants are both costly to run and are negatively impacting the waters of the Persian Gulf. (Source: Construction Week Online, July 2009.)

While this process is keeping the UAE hydrated for the time being, it comes with some major drawbacks. First, distillate water (the end product of desalination) is the most expensive form of water according to the Pacific Institute of California, which approximates that 4000 kilowatt hours of electricity are required to produce 1 acre-foot of water. While high cost may not be prohibitive for a country that, in 2008, the World Bank ranked as having the world’s 10th highest per capita GDP, the energy factor could be: despite the large oil reserves that lie beneath the Emirates’ deserts, the country known for excess is starting to realize it doesn’t have enough energy to maintain this standard of living forever.

Perhaps the biggest drawback to desalination, however, is the effect it has on aquatic ecosystems surrounding the Arabian Peninsula. Desalination plants kill marine organisms – from phytoplankton to fish – on the intake, pump hot, saline sludge back into the ocean after purification, and emit considerable amounts of carbon dioxide (which accounts for why the UAE and neighboring countries Qatar and Bahrain, which also employ desalination, have the biggest per capita carbon footprints in the world). Due to the salty sludge produced in the distillation process, the Persian Gulf’s salinity level has risen by almost 50% in the past 30 years.

In addition to being both capital and energy intensive and polluting the very source from which they draw their water, desalination plants are also a huge risk when they constitute a nation’s primary water supply.  This was highlighted by the recent coverage of Dubai’s very meager freshwater reserves. In addition to this limited reserve capacity, however, there is also increased vulnerability associated with dependency upon desalination plants. In the event of an oil spill (definitely within the realm of possibility in the Persian Gulf, which sees 25% of the world’s oil supply – or around 17 million barrels/day – pass through it each day) or an algal bloom (also possible in the Persian Gulf, where temperature and salinity levels are rising thanks to desalination plants), Dubai would see its own worst case scenario realized.

Oil, algae, and saline sludge aren’t the only threats to the gulf waters surrounding Dubai: the man-made islands that lie off the coast of the emirates and neighboring nations are starting to affect marine ecosystems in the Gulf (a fact about as shocking as, say, the title of the new documentary on Bjorn Lomborg; that is, not really shocking at all).  According to a scientist at Duke University, Palm Jumeirah – Dubai’s first artificial island – “buried and asphyxiated wildlife, increased turbidity, and changed the alongshore sediment transport”, all of which are not only extremely detrimental to marine flora and fauna but could also render coastal waters hazardous for humans.

Much of the recent development in Dubai has had negative ecological impacts. Artificial islands are a prime example of this: the islands have altered tidal flows and injured marine ecosystems in the Persian Gulf. (Source: NASA, Jan. 2010)

Rapid growth, spurred by urban development ventures like the Palm Islands, has produced other water-related problems as well. One of the most pressing of these is the emirate’s sewage treatment capacity, which has not expanded as rapidly as has Dubai’s population. Until this past August, Dubai’s sole waste treatment facility was processing twice the amount of waste it was designed to handle. The result was that transport trucks would often dump excess raw sewage into drains, where it usually ended up in residential neighborhoods.

Even as the body of water-related issues affecting Dubai is growing, so too is the realization amongst urban planners and Emirati officials that when planning Dubai’s luxurious future, they forgot to consider its environmental one.

A similar situation exists in Abu Dhabi, Dubai’s neighbor in the Western part of the UAE. This largest emirate relies on desalination plants for almost all of its water needs since 90% of its groundwater is unfit for human consumption. Consequently, Abu Dhabi is even more vulnerable than is Dubai to any pollution of the Persian Gulf. In an effort to lessen this vulnerability, the national government has allowed construction to commence on the UAE’s first water storage facility.

The plan involves the artificial recharging of currently unused aquifers with millions of liters of distillate water. If it works, this could allow Abu Dhabi to have up to a 90-day supply of water.  That’s a big ‘if’, however: artificial aquifer recharge is something that has never been done before and there are a number of ways in which keeping the water free of contaminants and/or maintaining easy access to the clean water could go awry.

The effort, however, does demonstrate a concentrated effort on the part of Abu Dhabi’s government to avoid the mistakes made in Dubai with regards to water. As part of their aquifer recharge project, Abu Dhabi has set up groundwater monitoring systems. Additionally, the government is starting to require new buildings to meet Western water and energy efficiency standards. Perhaps most promising, however, are efforts to legalize the use of treated wastewater for agriculture. Currently, agriculture and forestry account for 76% of the UAE’s water consumption; therefore, employing WHO guidelines for using treated wastewater in irrigation could have a huge impact on the emirate’s water consumption.

Not only would using treated wastewater reduce overall consumption but also, it would decrease the amount of power allocated to desalination. This is a significant ancillary benefit in a country whose development industries (aluminum smelting and steel, in particular) are putting so much pressure on the national power grid that the government decided to make a (big and sudden) jump to nuclear power.  As the New York Times reported, last year the UAE signed an accord with the US to build nuclear power plants that will not reprocess or enrich uranium.  Abu Dhabi alone plans to complete four plants by 2017, which will generate more than 20% of that emirates’ power by the year 2020. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and Egypt are also exploring nuclear options.

The Wild Wadi Water Park in Dubai is an example of the short-sighted and excessive development strategy that is responsible for many of Dubai's environmental problems today. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

While it’s encouraging that even oil-producing countries are starting to look into alternative energy sources, the environmental and political risks associated with nuclear are manifold. In addition, as the environmental director of the Gulf Research Center Mohamed Raouf pointed out, nuclear power is another non-renewable energy and therefore won’t solve the longer-term question of energy sourcing in a region where renewables such as solar and wind are virtually nonexistent.

Beyond the specter of nuclear waste in the Middle East, however, one of the most troubling aspects of the UAE’s water situation – and its efforts to address it heretofore – is the likelihood that other countries will follow the same development trajectory.  The approach exemplified by the Emirates is that of quick development, irrespective of sustainability and dependent upon the resulting monetary gains to address any environmental externalities. Such capital-intensive fixes, however, do not address the root causes of environmental problems and instead, often promote the continuation of harmful practices that caused them initially.

While it would be overly critical to deny that the entrance of environmental sustainability into the rhetoric and plans of Emirati officials is progress, it is only the first of many steps that will lead the UAE out of the waterless hole it has dug. The next step in my opinion would be increased emphasis on efficient usage, reduced consumption, and the recycling of water. Not only would this tactic represent a long-term, low-cost way for the UAE to address its own dire water situation, but it would also set an example for countries throughout the Mideast regarding the necessity of environmental stewardship in addition to interim technical responses.

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H2O Trust
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Tonight on BBC2 at 9pm “The food that makes billions – Liquid Gold’, a programme on how the bottled water industry has grown from nothing to become one of the biggest success stories in the modern food and beverage industry in just forty years. This new series tells the untold story of how big business feeds us by transforming simple commodities into everyday necessities and highly profitable brands. With unprecedented access to the world’s largest food and beverage companies, including Nestle and Danone, this is the inside story of how the bottled water business has become emblematic of an age… Read more »

Richard Lawson
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As well as oil and money, the UAE also has sun and space. Solar desalination is a proven technology. The basic requirements are a lot of glass and tubing. A 100 sq metre still will produce between 150 and 250 cubic metres of water a year. Not a lot, so a lot of still will be required. There does not have to be a discharge of hypersaline water to the sea. The process can be extended to produce solid salt, which may find an industrial or even culinary market. Water demand can be reduced with waterless toilet systems, and all… Read more »

Maya, a school kid
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Maya, a school kid

Thanks so much Richard! Your info helped me on my assignment.

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