SEATTLE — Water quality in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is considered to be one of the best in the world. However, the Gulf federation of seven emirates is not only among the top countries in the world with problems of water shortages, but also has one of the world’s highest per capita water consumption, which reaches about 550 liters per day.
UAE is a well-known tourist attraction with a long sea coast and sandy beaches. Despite strict government regulations regarding air pollution, the management of domestic, commercial and industrial waste and oil spills from ships, the drinking water quality in the United Arab Emirates is overshadowed by many instances of water pollution.
To its credit, the government has imposed fines and penalties for littering beaches and held nationwide clean-up and public awareness campaigns. Institutions such as the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency have been tasked with collecting and analyzing seawater and sediment samples from coastal areas close to industrial areas. The recycling of bottles and the reuse of plastic waste have also been encouraged by local municipalities.
Groundwater accounts for almost half of the total used water resources in the United Arab Emirates. The country is reported to have used its groundwater reserves 20 times faster than they can be recharged. In a study by UAE University, scientists have warned that the groundwater supply could run out by 2030 due to use by the agricultural sector, which is the largest water consumer in the country.
Nicholas Lodge, a managing partner at Clarity, an agriculture consultancy in Abu Dhabi, stated that the future shortage of groundwater reserves came as no surprise.
“Water security is intrinsically linked to food security, and the UAE and other countries with similar climate and natural water resources have an already acute shortage and can only expect things to get worse,” he said. “The usage of water in agriculture is a matter of national importance and really significant reduction will be necessary – something the government is taking steps to implement.”
In addressing water quality in the United Arab Emirates, a sharp drop in water levels of freshwater aquifers and saltwater intrusion into these aquifers have been the two major environmental issues. High evaporation rates and heavy chemical applications also contribute to water pollution. Desalination plants have been constructed to address water shortage and supply issues. However, these plants consume large amounts of energy and are costly to build and maintain. Noise pollution, the risk of penetrating inland aquifers and adverse effects on marine life when discharging brine back into the sea are all negative effects associated with desalination plants.
Most people in the UAE believe that tap water is unsafe for consumption and rely on bottled water instead. These residents also do not view desalinated water (such as the treated water from desalination plants) to be fit for regular drinking. Mineral imbalances, water storage tank sanitation and doubts about the cleanliness of seawater sources contribute to negative perceptions about produced potable water. The UAE government, however, disputes that the country’s waters are polluted.
Furthermore, the threat of climate change and global warming are expected to increase sea levels and cause further saline intrusion in the country’s groundwater tables. Rainfall precipitation levels and the introduction of invasive species competing with animal life for scarce water resources are also growing concerns.
There are signs that UAE is taking important steps to address the country’s impending water crisis. For example, the local utility in the third largest city of Sharjah, Sharjah Electricity and Water Authority (SEWA), has begun using smart water storage tanks and utility tracking software to manage and monitor water quality and consumption. In the next five years, SEWA ambitiously aims to increase the availability of freshwater from 50 million gallons to 500 million gallons per day.
In order to reclaim its water resources, UAE needs to move beyond temporary strategies such as towing in icebergs from Antarctica. A typical Emirati uses 550 liters of water per day, which is more than 80 percent higher than the average person in the world. Farming and agricultural use also greatly stresses the water resources. The usage of water in sustainable ways and improving water quality in the United Arab Emirates depends upon modern technologies to reprocess wastewater. Educating citizens on efficient water usage and making desalination plants less environmentally damaging are just some ways the country can preserve its precious water resources for generations to come.
– Mohammed Khali