x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The rush to provide resources for a growing world

They are studying the potential for rainfall harvesting, intercepting flood flows in wadis and improving the re-use of waste water.

The UN Population Fund says the projected arrival today of the world's 7 billionth citizen means there are twice as many people sharing the Earth's resources as there were in the 1960s.

The population explosion continues to alarm as scientists around the world scramble for strategies to address regional strains on food, water and power by the time the global population passes 9 billion, as it is expected to do before 2050.

For the Emirates a balancing act looms, as the allocation of resources is already a concern.

The UAE relies heavily on power to provide enough desalinated water for its own booming population, and because it imports 85 per cent of its food it is vulnerable to food shortages in other parts of the world.

The local population also appears to be growing at a rapid pace, with the Dubai Statistics Centre estimating 100,000 people have arrived in the emirate since the start of the year.

The centre predicts the population in Dubai will soon reach 2 million.

Abu Dhabi's population was last estimated at about 2 million last year, with 6 per cent annual growth, while the National Bureau of Statistics puts the country's population at close to 10 million.

All of these figures are based on a patchwork of old data and assumptions. The current national census will give a better picture.

"Especially here, we see all of these resources linked together, with power needed to provide enough water for drinking, and water and power needed for agricultural activities," said Mohsen Sharif, a professor of water resources at UAE University.

"We have to prepare for changes in the population to possibly offset that balance."

Prof Sharif and academics at other local universities have been researching ways of improving water and power systems to prepare for that strain.

His work has included plans to pump reserves of fresh water into underground aquifers for drinking, and treating waste water for use in agriculture.

Those plans are being implemented by the UAE Government but could also be useful in countries in sub-Saharan Africa, a region that accounts for almost half of the projected global population growth and which is already struggling under the double burden of the world's highest birth rates and deepest poverty.

Masdar, the capital's clean energy company, is also working with the Abu Dhabi Government through the environmental engineering programme at its teaching arm, the Masdar Institute.

They are studying the potential for rainfall harvesting, intercepting flood flows in wadis and improving the re-use of waste water.

Academics at the institute say the programme will set standards for other countries.

One major goal is to improve desalination techniques by integrating them with solar, geothermal or alternative energy, said Hassan Fath, a professor of water and environmental engineering.

Abu Dhabi hopes to generate 7 per cent of its power from renewable sources within nine years, and has been investing in projects around the world related to wind and solar power.

Masdar is also testing smartgrid technologies that can accommodate renewable energy.

Those systems would eventually be marketed globally.

Another project is under way in Ras Al Khaimah, where researchers from Switzerland's Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) are testing a power grid on a microchip they say can significantly speed up the response to sudden power failures, even before they happen.

It is among several EPFL projects in an area seen by the scientists as a clean slate for experimental research of energy systems, management and sustainable urban design.

Similar research is being conducted at New York University Abu Dhabi's Centre for Technology and Economic Development, which is looking at pilot projects connecting rural areas isolated from electricity through a solar-powered microgrid.

The centre is also examining how farmers connect with markets in remote areas when they have limited telephone access.

In some areas, it is common to see satellite phones propped on rooftops, waiting for a satellite to pass so it can pick up queued messages and drop off new texts and data.

Connecting farmers with markets would help to avoid food waste, as they will know if there is a glut or shortage in the cities, said Dr Yaw Nyarko, an economist, professor and director of the centre.

As the population climbs, power cuts will have detrimental effects on food supply, said Dennis Russell, a researcher at the American University of Sharjah.

"If we do not have energy to run the tractors we will not get the food or be able to ship it where we need it," Mr Russell said.

"For availability of water it's the same. In countries where it is scarce, a population boom and a drought could make people afraid. These systems can become very vulnerable."

econroy@thenational.ae