ABU DHABI // Worried FNC members sounded alarm bells yesterday over potential threats to the nation's water supply.
Rashid bin Fahad, the Minister of Environment and Water, came under sustained questioning about an FNC committee report on water resources.
"In the event of a catastrophe, like the red tide or natural and unnatural disasters, can you tell us how long the water we have will quench the thirst of citizens?" Mohammed al Zaabi, a member from Sharjah, asked.
"I think by what we have seen in this report, we are facing not just a problem, but a tragedy or a catastrophe."
Ahmed al Khateri, a member from Ras al Khaimah, said: "We have to sound the horn of alarm."
"Water is a challenge and is considered the primary challenge in the UAE," the minister said. "We are not in a comfortable position. On the contrary, we are under a lot of pressure and challenges."
Mr bin Fahad avoided answering questions on the exact size of desalinated water reserves and how long they would last in the event of an environmental disaster such as a large oil spill or red tide. Some desalination plants were closed by algal bloom contamination two years ago, FNC members said, and residents of the Northern Emirates had to travel to Dubai and Sharjah to buy water.
Amal al Qubaisi, a member from Abu Dhabi, said if the desalination plants shut down the available water reserves would last only days, based on figures provided to the FNC. Abu Dhabi's emergency underground storage is expected to last for 30 days, according to official data.
"What is the emergency plan for these plants if they are harmed intentionally or unintentionally, or if the sea is polluted?" she said.
A contingency plan was necessary "particularly because of the security situation in the Middle East region and the Gulf in particular", she said, and the staff of desalination plants should be entirely Emirati because the plants are crucial to national security.
There are 83 desalination plants in the UAE, providing nearly 65 per cent of domestic, commercial and industrial water needs. The FNC expects these to be insufficient by 2017.
The UAE used 4.5 billion cubic metres of water in 2009. Slightly more than half of the water supply comes from groundwater.
The agricultural sector uses 97 per cent of that groundwater, while contributing 3.3 per cent of GDP.
Nine per cent of the water used comes from treated wastewater and 40 per cent from desalination. Yet the UAE still imports most of its food.
The water waste is a "luxury that is making us poor", Mr al Zaabi said.
The minister agreed. "Agriculture needs a fundamental rethinking," he said. "What do we plant, where do we plant it, and how do we plant it?"
Over-consumption will lead to groundwater sources and wells drying up, and becoming saltier. Just three per cent of available groundwater is fresh.
Mr bin Fahad outlined his ministry's plans to increase water reserves. "Conservation is no longer a choice," he said.
He favours a new pricing scheme for water that would reflect its real cost.
The ministry maintains and operates 84 dams and traps rainwater for reuse. It also plans 68 new dams, three of which are under construction. It has also developed a water database that collates information on water reserves and projects water supply and demand.
To save water, the ministry is encouraging farmers to use hydroponic techniques, which replace soil with nutrients dissolved in solutions to grow plants. The process is said to use 90 per cent less water for the same volume of crops.
Mr al Zaabi called for the Cabinet to intervene immediately with water-use regulations, rather than wait for legislation.
The location of desalination plants near the sea has also contributed to "the pollution of the sea environment", the FNC report said. "The desalination plants dump their waste in the sea and use the sea as a burial ground for this waste."
A draft law has been prepared by the ministry regulating water use, punishing waste and pollution, and strengthening the ministry's oversight of water resources. The legislation would also create a water committee that includes federal and local authorities.
Mr bin Fahad said he hoped it would be signed into law before the end of the year.
But FNC members said these efforts had little impact. A law has existed since 1981 regulating water use, for instance, but has not been enforced.
"A law that has been in place for 29 years and has not been carried out, raises a big question mark," said Abdul Raheem al Shaheen, a member from Ras al Khaimah. "Decades pass in the country's history and the law is frozen until today?"
Legislation on water supply is likely to face another hurdle. Article 23 of the Constitution states that every emirate is in charge of its own natural resources, which leaves the responsibility for managing local water reserves, a national security issue, to the individual emirates.
This led some frustrated members to say the Ministry of Environment and Water's strategy was nothing but "ink on paper".
Dr al Shaheen questioned why Mr bin Fahad was even debating the topic at the FNC, because water policy was a local issue.
Each UAE resident uses 550 litres of water a day, the highest rate in the world. The global average is 250 litres.