x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Rubbing salt into the wounds

The effects of the UAE's reliance on desalination are threatening to destroy natural supplies and create an ecological nightmare.

From Morocco to Iran, no country has less renewable water per capita than the Emirates.
From Morocco to Iran, no country has less renewable water per capita than the Emirates.

A scarcity of fresh water has left the UAE relying on desalination to quench an unprecedented thirst brought on by the country's expansion. But the effects of the policy are threatening to destroy natural supplies and create an ecological nightmare. "Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink." Like the becalmed seamen of Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the people of the ocean-lapped UAE are in a similar dilemma when it comes to water supply. One liquid - oil - has shaped and made possible the astonishing development of the Emirates, a country whose achievements have come despite the absence of another - fresh water. The UAE's demand for water, growing yearly in pace with the nation's expansion, is insatiable and insupportable. With extremely limited natural supplies, the UAE and all its mighty ambitions and achievements - from desert golf courses to the world's tallest building - are utterly dependent on water drawn from the sea, as are every man, woman and child who lives here. When it comes to water, the UAE is living beyond its means, trapped in an unsustainable spiral. Its per-capita consumption is among the highest in the world. Its natural groundwater supplies, pumped in an uncontrolled manner for decades, are being drained 24 times faster than they can be replenished, leaving them increasingly polluted with salt water. Farming, one of the smallest parts of the economy, consumes vast amounts of water. And waste from desalination leaves land and sea increasingly polluted. For centuries, the meagre supplies of potable water in the southeastern corner of the Arabian peninsula were sufficient to support only a small Bedouin population. Though frequently brackish, the precious water drawn from occasional wells or springs was the difference between life and death, a rare resource the worth of which was acutely appreciated by the hardy Bedouin, who protected it - and fought for it - at source, husbanded it carefully and carried it with them in goat-skin bags on long journeys. People survived in this arid environment, but only in numbers strictly limited by the availability of this most precious of natural resources. Now, that finely balanced equilibrium has been swept away. With oil came rapid development, and with development came water-intensive increases in population, industry and agriculture. Villages grew into towns and cities and municipal pride demanded that these were beautified and landscaped with thirsty alien plants that could not possibly have survived the harsh environment unaided. Today water, apparently unlimited, cascades in fountains, is sprayed over lush golf courses and trickles down city streets bordered by generously irrigated grass and plants - sights that would have reduced a Bedouin of the recent past to tears of wonder, or dismay. In the 1800s, one British estimate put the population of the entire Trucial States, including Oman, at about 72,000. By the end of this year, the population of the UAE alone is expected to exceed five million for the first time. Far from increasing to keep pace, natural supplies of water have diminished spectacularly. This problem is not unique to the UAE. According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), throughout the rapidly developed oil-rich nations of the Gulf, freshwater resources are so limited that they are "well below the 1,000 cubic metres per capita per annum figure used to indicate chronic water shortage". Worse, these countries are destroying what they have: "The volumes of water withdrawn far exceed natural recharge rates, with the result that groundwater resources, both in terms of quantity and quality, are seriously threatened". According to a presentation to last month's World Water Week conference in Stockholm by Shawki Barghouti, acting director of the Arab Water Academy and director-general of the International Centre for Biosaline Culture, the UAE has the lowest renewable water resources per capita of all 18 countries across the Middle East and North Africa, from Morocco in the west to Iran in the east. That survival on the scale of the modern world has been possible at all in these arid regions is a triumph of man's ingenuity. The technology of desalination has performed a miracle beyond the Ancient Mariner and rendered seawater drinkable. The UNEP says the GCC countries together account for more than 60 per cent of the entire global production of desalinated water, "making the sustainable development of desalinated water and its quality an important issue for the region". And therein lies the catch. Desalination, as it is practised in the UAE, may not be sustainable. It requires immense amounts of energy and its ultra-saline byproduct may be destabilising the ecology of the seas off the nation's coast and, with small private units springing up inland, also threatens to damaged the already underproductive agricultural land and destroy the scant freshwater resources remaining underground. It is a vicious cycle. In some places, the condition of groundwater has become so bad that farmers are having to run their own desalination plants to be able to use it on their crops. Unfortunately, the by-product of such plants is causing the groundwater to deteriorate further. Worst of all, desalination on the scale required to slake the nation's thirst for water is extremely costly, both in terms of the cash cost of the fuel it burns and the effect that has on global climate change. Every country in the GCC has increased its reliance on desalination over the past decade. Overall, capacity increased from 3,200 to 11,400 million cubic metres of water between 2000 and 2008. Only the UAE, however, recorded a more-than-fourfold increase, from 1,000 to 4,800 million cubic metres. When the Dubai-based explorer Adrian Hayes, supported by The National, spent 67 days trekking 4,260km across Greenland recently, the consequences of the melting icecap to which he and his two teammates were hoping to draw attention seemed a long way from the Arabian Gulf. Yet among the predicted environmental impacts of global warming is a dramatic rise in sea levels - and that would be very bad news for the Emirates. According to a report published last October by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development, a rise of just one metre would inundate many coastal regions of the UAE, including large swaths of Dubai and Abu Dhabi and many of the country's islands, natural and man-made. Experts believe that, as things stand, such a rise could take place within the lifetime of a child born today. The desalination industry is under no illusions about the challenges that lie ahead. The International Desalination Association said its Dubai conference in November will "address environmental and energy impacts of desalination on the global stage ... as a reflection of the aim of both IDA and the industry to make desalination and water re-use sustainable and affordable". Both are admirable ambitions. But if they cannot be realised, the growing population of the UAE and the increasingly arid Middle East will have to change how they live. jgornall@thenational.ae