x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

As water crisis looms, time for new solutions

Dealing with water shortage could be the region's biggest challenge in the coming decades. Now is the time to plan for the future.

Few commodities are as under-appreciated as water. In a region where the economic lifeblood is coloured black, the life-sustaining properties of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen are often over looked.

But just as environmental scientists and economists are warning of a looming water crisis in the Middle East and beyond, so too are its leaders. The rest of us would do well to share in their sense of urgency.

On Tuesday, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, underscored how water shortages in the UAE should be addressed. The country needs strategies "to meet future demand and preserve natural resources for the coming generations", he said. "I believe water is much more important than oil to us."

It was a bold statement, to be sure. But the concern over water shortages is age-old. In 2009, the World Bank warned that water was the Middle East's most vulnerable resource. The bank's study added that in this part of the world, one of the planet's driest, access to fresh water could be halved by 2050.

For the last 40 years, the availability of fresh water has been the driver of growth in the Emirates' urban areas, turning them into thriving cities flush with greenery. Access to fresh water is why tribes first settled Abu Dhabi. But the country now stands at a crossroads. With modern infrastructure and a growing population, the strains on our water resources are great and growing.

Conservation alone will not solve this challenge. Water reuse and treatment of sewage effluent, to irrigate open spaces and farmland, must be made a priority. Water recycling in the country remains very much in its infancy. Efforts are being made to incorporate facilities in new buildings, as well as to raise awareness among the public, but more is needed.

It might also be time to reevaluate what kinds of green landscapes are in the best interest of the nation. Landscapes that require less water, relying on native plants and rocks, for instance, can be aesthetically appealing. Finally, technology that reduces water use in agriculture must be encouraged. In many cases it would be wiser to import water-intensive foods rather than to try and grow them here, for instance.

Water shortages are not inevitable. But keeping the taps flowing will require new thinking and bold approaches to solving one of the desert's perennial problems.