Skyscrapers in the Desert: The UAE Tries to Defy Its Water Scarcity

Sunset in Dubai
Sunset in Dubai | ©Pixabay

The UAE is a country built within a hostile environment of soaring temperatures and scarce water desert. To allay the thirst of its population, the Gulf State has so far relied on the desalination of seawater. However, in the face of climate change and rapid population growth, it knows, it cannot get away with this forever and explores more sustainable solutions.

By Omnia Al Desouki

While skyscrapers shine bright in the desert, radiating the country’s wealth, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) faces the severe challenge of water scarcity. Indeed, it cannot pride itself with a wealth of water, its cities standing strong but in a region that has no rivers or freshwater. As desert climate rules this region, rainfall is very low with less than 100 mm a year or a possible 120 mm in the northern Emirates. The country is currently dependent on the desalination of seawater for most of its needs, including the production of potable water.
The UAE is the world’s second largest market for desalination technology. The UAE’s capital Abu Dhabi alone has nine desalination plants “with a total production capacity of approximately 960 million imperial gallons per day.” For cases of emergency, the city has created the Aquifer Storage and Recovery project, where drinking water is stored in the desert that can last three days.
Its limited water resources and policies to turn the desert green have put the UAE in the spotlight for creating solutions to guarantee the water supply for its growing population. Meanwhile, in 2019, the Water Resources Institute (WRI) ranked the UAE 10th out of 164 countries around the world where the water supply is most stretched.
On average, the UAE has one of the highest water consumption rates per capita in the world, 550 litres of water a day, while some say it could reach around 600 litres. In comparison, the international average lies at 170 to 300 litres per day. This high consumption does not only arise from the increased need for drinking water in a hot climate but also from intensive gardening, landscaping, and agricultural activities. Some Emirates have succeeded to reduce their consumption, such as Sharjah, where the use of water was rationed. Dubai has introduced slab tariffs on water consumption, which means the price of water increases along with the consumption rate.

Alternatives to Desalination

The process of salination increases the salinity of the sea and poses a great environmental threat. Efforts to find alternatives are therefore a priority for the UAE. A part of the solution has been seen in cloud seeding, a technology that generates clouds and makes them rain. According to different insiders, the programme has been successful in that it increased the possibility of rain by 30 percent – the possibility, mind you, not the overall amount of rain per se. 

In 2017, the Minister of Energy launched the 2036 Water Security Strategy, which aims to ensure the sustainability of water supply primarily by reducing the water demand by 21 percent. One angle to this is reducing the water used in farming. The Government has previously introduced new irrigation techniques, such as drip irrigation, which use up to 46 percent less water than traditional methods.
Most recently, investments have also gone into “smart farms,” where food can be grown in enclosed, tightly controlled environments that allow for the recycling of water. A well-known company in this field is Badia Farms, a regional AgTech leader. Their hydroponic technology and ability to recycle water contribute considerably to ensuring agricultural sustainability and food diversity. Due to their enormous expansion, Badia Farms are moving their high-tech “vertical farm” to Dubai Industrial City in the second quarter of 2020. This enormous farm has the potential to save up to 90 percent of the water used in farming, reducing the amount to what is actually consumed by the plants.

Badia Farms CEO Omar Al Jundi believes that the future of water security lies in this type of farming and many experts agree with him. Sajid Maqsood, associate professor at the College of Food and Agriculture at the United Arab Emirates University, said in a previous interview that “[u]rban and vertical farming has to be an important part of the strategy” to farm with fewer resources. However, the success of high-tech farming in the country also depends on the preparedness and ability of farmers to integrate these technologies. There might still be a long way of awareness-raising and training ahead of the UAE before real change can happen.
Dr. Khalil Ammar, who is heading the Natural Resources Management Section at the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA), reports that they had begun encouraging 120 farms in Abu Dhabi and other areas to use treated wastewater for plantation. This way, the farmers were able to reduce the stress on the fresh water by quite a bit.

Life under Threat

The water scarcity does not only threaten day-to-day activities or food security but the very prospect of life in the UAE. With the largest percentage of the population made up by expats, one can only imagine how badly millions of families elsewhere, who are supported by their relatives in the UAE, could be affected.
Masdar City, a flagship UAE entrepreneur ecosystem and innovation project, has come up with different solutions, which they demonstrate in their Smart Home Farming Showcase called “Bustani.” These solutions envision a greater self-sufficiency of UAE residents in meeting their everyday food needs and the reduction of imports. This work was a collaboration with the agri-tech specialists from Madar Farms.

Masdar’s Renewable Energy Desalination Programme conducts different studies at the moment, also on a technique called solar-powered reverse osmosis, where specific membranes are used to remove even dissolved chemical and biological particles from seawater to create drinkable water.
For a while, the possibility of transporting ice from Antarctica to Dubai was discussed to solve the country’s water problem, but quickly dismissed as unrealistic. Solutions like cloud seeding and sustainable farming just seem more feasible in comparison.

Experts on the ground have said that the best way to deal with the situation is to ration water and focus on solutions in agriculture. In addition, they recommend the use of wind and solar energy in the desalination process to cut energy costs and the integration of these alternative energies in agricultural practices.
Finding better solutions for its water scarcity remains a top priority for the UAE. As a matter of life and death, it is safe to say that this challenge is most decisive for the future of the Gulf State.