ABU DHABI // For a nation with so little water, the UAE has one of the highest per capita rates of consuming it - a paradox that is beginning to spur political debate over future policy, and who controls it.
A growing number of government officials, community leaders and other interested parties are asking pointed questions about the state of the UAE's water resources.
Last week, FNC members questioned Dr Rashid bin Fahad, the Minister of Environment and Water, over management of water resources. The discussion focused on draft legislation on water, which the Cabinet is expected to sign into law by the end of the year.
A federal law on water management was issued in 1981, but was never implemented. Some members, including Dr Abdul Raheem al Shaheen, from Ras al Khaimah, stressed that if a new law on water were passed, it must comply with article 23 of the Constitution, which gives each emirate sovereignty over its natural resources.
This meant the ministry did not have the legal authority to draft binding legislation on water use, Dr al Shaheen said. Its role was simply one of co-ordination, he added.
"The solution is to have a constitutional amendment," he said. "Federal laws must be enacted that are binding and give the right of oversight to the Federal Government."
Khalid bin Zayed, the chairman of the FNC committee in charge of foreign affairs, mineral resources and agriculture, which drafted a report on water resources, is another of those who see water resources as a national security issue, arguing it should not be left to local authorities to address.
"This must be a national issue that everyone participates in, whether federal or local," he said. "Everyone feels this responsibility."
One of the proposals the FNC plans to put to the Cabinet is one strengthening the oversight role of the Ministry of Environment and Water in monitoring water use.
Such updates were needed, Dr al Shaheen said, because water was not even on the agenda when the Constitution was drafted 39 years ago. Decades later, the nation needs emergency water reserves to be prepared for a variety of crises, as well as regulations to prevent and punish over-production and waste of water.
"I see the water issue as a national security issue," he said, "and the Federal Government has to be in charge of legislating, executing and supervising it," he said.
In Abu Dhabi, where a study last year pointed to agriculture as the main reason behind the emirate's quickly depleting water resources, farmers are already seeing some improvements.
September saw the end of a subsidy programme that had encouraged farmers to grow Rhodes grass, an extremely thirsty crop and one deemed unsuitable for the local dry conditions. Instead, farmers were promised a Dh100,000 bonus for following official guidelines intended to reduce water use.
The guidelines include working with the Farmers' Services Centre to install better, more efficient irrigation systems and only digging one well per hectare.
Some 95 per cent of farm irrigation water comes from wells, putting them under pressure to conserve water as much as possible. The Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA), which is implementing the programme, believes the new methods will yield a 40 per cent reduction in water usage by 2013.
According to the latest statistics released by the authority, the agriculture sector produces 2.4 per cent of Abu Dhabi's gross domestic product and uses up to 1.5 billion cubic metres of water for irrigation, about 52 per cent of the emirate's total water consumption.
"We need to do something now so future generations have enough water," said Mohammed al Reyaysa, the director of communication and community service at ADFCA.
Last week, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research and chancellor at the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), said he had asked itsstudents to lead an effort to help solve the long-term water crisis.
Speaking at a conference on the coming water challenge in Abu Dhabi last Monday, Sheikh Nahyan said: "Our vibrant economy, our tremendous growth and our advanced quality of life are dependent on safe and uninterrupted sources of water, now and in the future."
That night in Dubai, a leading expert on water management and the politics of water in the Middle East reminded people in the UAE that they had a role to play in conserving water by making better choices at the supermarket and in their homes.
Professor John Anthony Allan teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies with the University of London and pioneered the concept of "virtual water", or measuring the water involved in producing food and consumer products. For example, meat eaters consumed twice the amount of water through their food than vegetarians, he said.
* Additional reporting from Vesela Todorova