ABU DHABI // The UAE has nearly two dozen golf courses, each of which can have more than 100 acres of turf that demand thousands of cubic metres of water each day.
But experts say that in a country with less than 120 millilitres of rainfall per year, the thirsty greenery should be used with caution, even as the courses bring tourism benefits.
"We are very aware of the importance of water in this region," said Ken Kosak, the group general manager at Abu Dhabi Golf Club and Saadiyat Beach Golf Club.
The 27-hole Abu Dhabi Golf Club is built on what is naturally desert, covering 325 acres, 95 of which are turf that require daily irrigation.
The club has a weather station to measure wind speed and soil-moisture level, calculating precisely how much water the drought and salt-tolerant grass requires. Irrigation is done at night to reduce water loss.
The artificial greenery and lakes also provide habitats for about 20 species of birds, including flamingos.
"Having green patches is very important in a country," said Habiba Al Marashi, the founder and chairwoman of the Emirates Environmental Group.
"But at the same time, to maintain these kind of places requires a lot of resources."
Just how much water is being used by the country's golf courses is not well studied. Very few of the courses in the country are like the Sharjah Wanderers Golf Club, a sand course that does not need extensive irrigation. Dubai, with eight golf courses, and Abu Dhabi, with five, have most of the country's facilities.
Chris White, General Manager of Aldar Golf, said golf was an important attraction if Abu Dhabi were to be established as a tourism destination.
"Golf courses act as tourist incentive, as well as becoming a massive part of a community's amenities," he said. "Expansion, however, has to be aligned with either residential or resort development, as it is the waste water from these developments that gets converted into recycled water that sustains the life of the course without impacting resources."
But it is unclear how many courses the arid climate can support.
"We will need good research and a study to find out the answer," Mrs Al Marashi said.
"As long as there is demand, somebody will build them, but we should not waste precious potable water on them," said Dr Benno Boer, the ecological sciences adviser at Unesco's Arab Region office in Doha, Qatar.
To produce potable water, the UAE utilises desalination plants to remove dissolved solids in seawater. The process requires significant amounts of energy, which takes a toll on the environment because greenhouse gases are pumped into the atmosphere. The salty outflow from the plants can also damage sensitive marine habitats such as coral reefs and seagrass beds.
Mr Kosak would not disclose the water use of the Abu Dhabi Golf Club or the Saadiyat Beach Golf Club.
However, he said Abu Dhabi Golf Club is irrigated with treated sewage effluent, a more sustainable alternative than potable water. Saadiyat Beach Golf Club is irrigated by a mix of potable and recycled water.
"The bulk of the water use is in the summer months, which is due to high evaporation," he said, adding that the cost of water for irrigation is 10 to 15 per cent of the overall operations cost.
Yas Links was the only golf course in Abu Dhabi to disclose its water use - a daily average of 5,000 cubic metres in winter and 7,000 cubic metres in summer. Approximately one-fifth of the facility's operational costs are water bills. Like Saadiyat, Yas Links also uses a blend of recycled and potable water.
"As more treated sewage effluent becomes available on Yas Island as development continues, we will increase its use," Mr White said.
Some of the steps to cut down on water use include using wetting agents to improve water retention in the soil. Yas Links is also developing test plots using water-efficient subsurface irrigation techniques.
"Over a period of time, the golf course will evolve and it is possible that some grass areas may be transformed into a native landscape area, which requires less irrigation water," Mr White said. "The other possibility is that some areas are transformed into a sandy waste area which is typically found in a Links course and requires less to no water at all".