Relative affluence and a widespread distrust of the quality of water from utility companies are creating a huge environmental problem.
It's the bottle that's the trouble
Fasahat Beg, general manager of the Al Ain Mineral Water Company, strolls past the huge plant where most of Abu Dhabi's bottled water is produced. He stops briefly in a vast storage area where hundreds of cartons of bottled water are kept.
"It is Ramadan, so we are full of stock," he says, pointing to the neat stacks. "This is high season now." Mr Beg's confidence in his industry and his company's part in it is justified by the UAE's apparently unquenchable thirst for his product: the country last year had the world's highest per capita consumption of bottled water, at 275 litres per person. "We are usually always in the top three," he says. "Last year, we ranked number one."
The UAE is involved in a love affair with bottled water, regardless, it seems, of the costs to the environment. Water bottles are made from a plastic called polyethylene terephthalate, known as PET, and the UAE uses about 80,000 tonnes of the material every year, said Rajnish Sinha, the general manager of Horizon Technologies, a Fujairah-based recycling company. One tonne of PET is enough to make 40,000 bottles.
"The key issue ... is the energy required to produce the bottles and their disposal," says Razan al Mubarak, the managing director of the Emirates Wildlife Society. "If the bottles are not properly recycled and instead placed in landfills, then they will pollute the environment." Earlier this year, Al Ain Mineral Water Company launched a pilot project, together with Horizon Technologies, to collect bottles used at 15 Al Ain schools. In the three months it ran, the programme diverted as many as 100,000 bottles from landfill and the programme is to be run again this academic year.
However, this is the only such initiative undertaken by the UAE industry and the vast majority of plastic waste is still not recycled. "An important issue is why consumers choose to use bottled water and not tap water," says Ms al Mubarak. "The general public should be made aware of the quality of infrastructure for delivering water to their taps. If it was clear that the quality of tap water was suitable for drinking, then I am sure that more people would choose to reduce use of bottled water by consuming more tap water."
According to the findings of the The National/YouGov water poll, published on Sunday, only six per cent of people drink tap water without boiling or filtering. A spokesman for the Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority yesterday defended the quality of Abu Dhabi's tap water: "Unfortunately, the survey reflects the misconception that the tap water is not safe for human consumption. "To tackle this misconception we need to educate the people and build their awareness in order to reduce the reliance on bottled water."
Abu Dhabi Distribution Company (ADDC) provides safe water up to the connection point of each premises, said the statement. "To achieve this goal, ADDC performs a planned regular sampling programme approved by [the] Regulation and Supervision Bureau." For the purposes of testing, the emirate is divided into 83 zones. Checks of 57 parameters include tests for organic pollutants and bacteria, as well as 18 chemical compounds such as nitrite and iron and 11 toxic substances, including boron, arsenic and lead.
Last year alone, ADDC carried out 60,616 tests. "Many qualified and trained samplers are taking samples from various locations in the network daily and delivering them to the Central Laboratory to be tested," said ADDC. If any contamination or deviation from standards is detected, action is taken at once. This approach applies only to Abu Dhabi, however. About 1.2 billion litres of bottled water are consumed in the UAE each year, 60 per cent of which are "home-office delivery" bulk supplies, usually five-gallon containers.
"The market is growing 20 per cent per year," says Mr Beg. "In the winter months we produce less, but in summer, we are flying." The company's factory on the outskirts of Al Ain produces a million litres of water per day - this equates to 24 per cent of the national market, or 41 per cent of all the water consumed within Abu Dhabi. But what most people who prefer bottled water don't realise, is that this company, like most of the industry, is shifting to purifying desalinated water provided by the utility company rather than bottling water taken from underground wells - and that this is a direct symptom of a national water system under great strain.
Essentially, the companies are taking water that the authorities say is perfectly safe to drink from the tap, re-treating it, bottling it and selling it - creating plastic waste and environment cost in terms of the carbon dioxide created by delivery. "Because of agricultural use, the water table has been depleted a lot," says Mr Beg; the decision has been taken for the bottled-water companies by the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority, which has prohibited the use of groundwater for health reasons.
The water has become increasingly polluted as fertilisers and other chemicals used by farmers have seeped into groundwater aquifers. "Historically, water was stored in wells," says Mr Beg. "But we are choosing not to use it." Desalinated water from the Al Ain Distribution Company is stored in a vast tank before going through two filters, including a carbon filter that removes odour and taste, and entering a double reverse-osmosis unit where it passes through a series of membranes.
The liquid that comes out, containing very few minerals and dissolved salts, has the properties of distilled water. To improve the taste, the water is re-mineralised by a recipe of seven salts. The water is then disinfected using ozone and ultra-violet light which kills harmful bacteria. The system is monitored electronically and all production shuts down if one of the quality parameters is not within norm, says Mr Beg.
One substance that is closely monitored is bromate - it is suspected that long-term intake can cause cancer. Bromate forms when water containing bromide is disinfected using a process called ozonation. Sea water is naturally high in bromide and therefore the issue is of particular concern here. firstname.lastname@example.org