Abu Dhabi needs to focus on reducing demand for water from its residents, rather than simply ramping up its desalination plants, to be sustainable, says a top official.
Residents' thirst for water must be curbed
The country needs to focus on reducing public demand for water rather than simply spending billions of dollars on building more desalination plants, a top government official says. "Most of the strategies so far have focused on supply," Mohammed Dawoud, the manager of water resources at the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency, said yesterday. "Desalination is very costly. It is not sustainable to simply increase expenditures."
UAE residents use about 550 litres of water each per day, making the country among the world's largest per capita consumers of water. But that water comes at a hefty price. One cubic metre, or 1,000 litres, costs about US$1.70 (Dh6.24) to produce through desalination, Mr Dawoud said. The UAE's natural potable water resources are the second smallest in the Middle East after Kuwait's. "We need to increase our demand management system to reduce the amount of investment required for future supply," he said. "Water is not a free good. It is a costly good. We should keep it safe."
Possible ways to reduce demand include using showers that require only 9 litres a minute, compared with the standard 12 litres, and public awareness campaigns to change the behaviour of residents. People who use excessive amounts of water could also be charged tariffs, Mr Dawoud said. Desalination capacity is expected to rise by 76 per cent by 2016, to 14.1 million cu metres a day, Nomura Securities, the Japanese investment bank, estimated in a report published last month.
This will be driven largely by the rise in industry in Abu Dhabi, which at present only makes up about 1.7 per cent of water consumption. "We believe the main factor determining future demand for water is likely to be industrial usage," Nomura analysts said in the report. "In most MENA countries it is less than 50 cu metres per capita, substantially lower than the [Group of Eight industrialised countries'] average of 450 cu metres."
The largest consumer of water by far, at between 70 and 82.8 per cent, is agriculture and the irrigation of green spaces and parks, according to estimates from official bodies including the Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority. Mr Dawoud said crop farming was an important area in which demand could be reduced by using large greenhouses, where water could be more efficiently used, rather than watering plants in open fields.
The environmental impacts of increasing the number of desalination plants could also be devastating for the Gulf. Thermal desalination plants in the UAE require about 10 cu metres of raw seawater to produce one cu metre of drinking water. Two cu metres of brine, a sludge in which salt is highly concentrated, are produced and 7 cu metres are used in the cooling process, Mr Dawoud said. The country produces about 4.2 billion cu metres of desalinated water per year, a process that creates an estimated 8.4 billion cu metres of brine, which can kill wildlife by increasing the salinity of the sea where it is dumped.
The narrow opening of the Gulf means water is only flushed out completely once every eight or nine years, which is too slow to respond to the rising salinity caused by dumped brine. The damming of rivers in Iran has also slowed down the Gulf's fresh water replenishment. Mr Dawoud said the conservation of water was ingrained in the Islamic belief that people had a duty to take care of the environment. "We should conserve water as part our religious character. It is critical."