No commodity in the world is as undervalued as water. And yet, even in a region where access to potable water represents the single greatest constraint to economic growth, water often fails to command the attention it deserves.
Scientists and economists have, however, repeatedly warned of a looming water crisis.
It is not hard to understand why: there are no rivers of any kind in the southern Arabian Gulf states, leading to a heavy reliance on desalination or water imports. Furthermore, the process of desalination is complicated by natural evaporation in the Arabian Gulf, which makes it far more saline than other seas, which in turn makes extraction more complex.
Government officials and experts reiterated their concerns on Monday and highlighted the need for more research into reversing the damage caused by many factors, including climate change. Desertification and extreme soil salinity have also administered a heavy toll.
What’s the solution? Speaking at the National Research Foundation’s symposium on Monday, participants outlined possible strategies: “We have to tackle it by improving water and soil management, improving salt-tolerant varieties of forage, dates and bioenergy trees, and support capacity building and agricultural institutions,” said Dr Ismahane Elouafi, director general at the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai. He also highlighted the need for greater cooperation among research and development programmes, as well as the private sector and donors.
Any attempt to address the issue of water scarcity should start with conservation. The UAE has some of the highest per capita water users in the world, with a daily consumption rate of 350 litres a person, 100 litres more per day than the global average. If desalination represents the greater part of our destiny and future prosperity, our daily consumption will have to come down. The use of more sustainable agricultural practices could help in this regard. Agriculture contributes approximately three per cent of the nation’s GDP but consumes more than half of the nation’s water.
The cost of desalination is steadily reducing, but only greater acknowledgement of the realities of this region – short supply and heavy reliance on desalination, coupled with relatively cheap costs to the user – will truly push the debate forward.