x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Time Frame: desalination plant makes Abu Dhabi life a little sweeter

Taken on Abu Dhabi's Corniche in 1962, this photo shows the desalination plant that dramatically improved the quality of life for people in the capital.

Courtesy BP
Courtesy BP

This unprepossessing structure changed the life of everyone in Abu Dhabi. Assembled on what is now the Corniche, in 1962, it distilled fresh - or "sweet" - water from the sea at a rate of 57,000 litres per day. Customers could bring containers to the plant to buy water or have it delivered by donkey.

Until then, obtaining water was a daily preoccupation for the town's growing population. Abu Dhabi had been famously settled at the end of the 18th century because of the discovery of water, but the reality was that it was mostly brackish and unpleasant.

In the 1950s and before, water for daily use was obtained by digging down into the sand. For the first couple of days it was fit for human consumption; thereafter only for washing or animals.

The best water had to be shipped from Dubai, which had a more plentiful supply, arriving in barrels either by sea or across the desert tracks.

Even earlier, water was more prized than oil. It was the discovery of the latter, with the arrival of hundreds and then thousands of newcomers, that placed an intolerable burden on the chain of supply.

One attempt saw an English dowser called Kenneth Merrylees summoned to the emirate to search for water. The experiment was not successful.

The distillation plant shown here was part of the solution. At the same time an ambitious construction project was underway that would pipe fresh water from Al Ain across the desert to Abu Dhabi. Amazingly the pipeline still survives.

Time Frame is a series that opens a window into the nation's past. Readers are invited to make contributions to yourpics@thenational.ae