DUBAI // A population that has more than doubled in the past six years has placed a unique strain on public sector services, experts from a variety of fields have said.
In providing utilities, education, health care, food security, waste management and infrastructure, officials have battled to cope with a population that surged beyond all expectations, as well as international standards, from year to year.
The typical population growth witnessed in the western world is about two to three per cent, said Paul Dyer, a demographics expert in Dubai School of Government. From 2006 to 2007, the population of the Emirates increased by 24 per cent.
"In terms of normal planning and infrastructure development for either a developed or a developing economy, it's a tremendous shock," said Mr Dyer. "The changes were huge but somehow they managed to keep up with them."
The country's population has increased from 4.1 million in 2005 to 8.26 million last year, according to figures released last week by the National Bureau of Statistics.
The data, which was calculated by looking at visas issued and cancelled, as well as births and deaths, represents an indication of the growth of the country as it entered its boom years between 2006 and 2009.
However, the growth has posed significant challenges to the provision of basic needs.
The UAE is one of the highest per capita water users in the world, with the average citizen consuming 550 litres a day - well above the global average of 250 litres. That usage, combined with a doubling of the population, has meant that utility providers have been strained to the limit.
There are 83 desalination plants across the country working to provide commercial, domestic and agricultural water needs, but they are expected to become insufficient to meet demand by 2017.
"Water is a challenge and is considered the primary challenge in the UAE," Rashid bin Fahad, Minister of Environment and Water, told a Federal National Council meeting last November. "We are not in a comfortable position. On the contrary, we are under a lot of pressure and challenges."
Demand in the Northern Emirates has outpaced supply, evidenced each summer by a series of blackouts and dips in electrical power, or brownouts. Recently the Government announced a Dh5.7billion package to address the area's water and electricity problems.
The population increase also creates challenges in integrating road networks across the country, not least in Dubai. Improved public transport, such as the Dh29 billion Metro network, is a key part of a plan to cater to a larger population. In addition, the Roads and Transport Authority last year assigned Dh2.29 billion for upgrading Dubai's roads.
By June, Etihad Rail plans to break ground in Al Gharbia on the first section of a planned national freight and passenger rail system by 2017.
While ongoing internal road projects in Dubai and Abu Dhabi had been designed to meet the needs of a growing population, more attention needed to be paid to infrastructure in the Northern Emirates, said Varkki Pallathucheril, a professor of urban planning at the American University of Sharjah's College of Architecture and Design.
"The Northern Emirates clearly still have some catching up to do," he said.
A study by the investment bank Alpen Capital last year suggested that by 2020 an additional 6,200 schools would be required within the GCC region to meet demand.
The number of students was expected to jump from 9.5 million to more than 11.3 million in the GCC, as countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia experienced an increase in expatriate population in the next 20 years, the survey said.
More than 376,612 students attend private schools in the UAE. Enrolments in private secondary education rose from 45 per cent in 2000 to 67 per cent in 2007, according to the report. At present, parents have complained of a shortage of spaces, particularly in schools with a Filipino and Indian curriculum, which also cater to medium to low-income families. The Abu Dhabi Education Council hopes to create 16,700 places in Indian schools by 2016.
Adec officials said there was a need for an additional 200 schools by 2018 to address the issue of the education needs of a growing population. The Knowledge and Human Development Authority will open four more schools by September, which, in concert with several expansions at schools, will meet some of the demand for spaces.
The authority was also trying to speed up the admissions process, said Mohammed Darwish, the chief of the regulations and compliance commission at the organisation.
A rapid influx of migrants in Dubai and Abu Dhabi has put tremendous pressure on waste disposal networks, officials say.
In Dubai, waste rose from 4,000 tonnes a day in 2004 to 10,000 in 2009, it has been reported. There are 13,000 tonnes a day being disposed of in Abu Dhabi, according to figures from this year.
Those numbers have put particular strain on the existing landfill sites in both emirates.
In the capital, organisations will be charged Dh225 per tonne of waste dumped in landfills under a tariff programme launched this year by the Centre of Waste Management in Abu Dhabi.
The centre has also launched a pilot door-to-door recycling programme in Khalifa City, with hopes that it can be rolled out across the emirate.
Dubai has also launched a door-to-door collection programme that will encourage the separation of waste for the purposes of recycling.
Thousands more doctors and nurses will be needed
ABU DHABI // The number of doctors and nurses must double over the next decade if the emirate is to cope with an ageing and rapidly expanding population, according to a report released last year by the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi.
The report estimated the number of doctors would need to jump to 10,700 in all specialities, while the number of nurses would need to rise to 13,900.
The shortage spills over to the rest of the country as well. The Minister of Health, Hanif Hassan, recently acknowledged that federal hospitals, especially those in Sharjah and the Northern Emirates, suffer from chronic shortages of staff and equipment, and are losing doctors because of budget shortfalls.
Last year, more than 2,200 medical workers were hired to address the shortage in the Northern Emirates. The Ministry of Health said it will continue to hire staff.
However, impediments remain. Doctors, nurses and hospital directors have consistently said that any efforts to address a staffing shortage were hampered by a slow licensing process that demanded needlessly strict criteria.
In 2010, Dr Tej Maini, the chief executive of Sheikh Khalifa Medical City in the capital, said there was a shortage in every sector of health care – from pharmacists and speech therapists, to emergency care specialists and cardiologists. To attract the best medical talent to the UAE, “time-honoured means of recruiting people are not going to work; we have to be creative and look at things differently”, he said.
Attractive packages and salaries would help solve the problem, he added.
Seha, the Abu Dhabi Health Services Company, is beginning to address the need of a growing population by concentrating on primary health care. At least seven more primary healthcare facilities are scheduled to open in the emirate this year, and private healthcare operators are addressing the need across the country.
Dr Oliver Harrison, the director of public health and policy at Haad, said: “There has been a 35 per cent growth in primary health care in Abu Dhabi over the past year, in terms of facilities, doctors, and so on, and this has to continue.”
Abu Dhabi’s young population – the average age is 28 – is relatively undemanding of hospital facilities. About 10.5 million of the 11 million healthcare encounters last year were outpatients – a demand primary health care needs to meet, he said.
More Emirati doctors and nurses, said Zaid al Siksek, the chief executive of Haad, could help.
* Reporting by Martin Croucher, Afshan Ahmed, Maey El Shoush, Hala Khalaf and Ramola Talwar Badam