Scouring the Middle East for oil has been a preoccupation of the last half century, but this region’s future may well depend on a more translucent and, until now, less coveted liquid.
The World Health Organisation already estimates that 1.2 billion people worldwide do not currently have access to fresh water, making the term ‘blue gold’ increasingly common in environmental circles. Meanwhile, the UAE is the third largest per capita water consumer in the world, behind the US and Canada – and it is estimated that water consumption will rise 44 per cent by 2025, as the population grows. ‘You have too much demand and you have to increase the supply,’ explains Dr Mohammed Dawood, manager of natural resources at the Emirates Environment Agency (EAD). ‘That relies on building up non-traditional sources, such as using the process of desalination.’
Unlike oil, the amount of water on Earth (an estimated 326 quintillion gallons) will not diminish. What will change, however, is its location. The majority of the water (97.5 per cent) found on our planet is saltwater, undrinkable unless processed via the technique of desalination. It is an energy-intensive affair – a privilege of wealthy and oil-rich countries like the UAE – which many argue has long-standing environmental concerns, not least from the carbon dioxide expelled during the process. But with little or no available fresh surface or underground water in the Emirates, it is also a necessity, and it is no surprise that in 2007 the Middle East was said to account for 75 per cent of the world’s water desalination.
The production capacity of the desalination plants of the UAE’s capital, Abu Dhabi, now stands at a monster 684 MIGD (million imperial gallons per day). But, perhaps surprisingly, 70 per cent of the UAE’s supply actually comes from indigenous groundwater. This is inevitably brackish (meaning it contains mild salinity) and can only be used for agriculture and green areas, meaning that desalination plants are the only hope for producing our own fresh water. It comes at a high ecological cost, however. The waste water generated from the process is released back into the sea, posing a potential threat to the marine ecosystem owing to its high concentration of salts, not to mention high temperature.
‘There is no doubt that releasing salted brine into the ocean has a direct impact on the quality of the water, and the different marine flora and fauna in the area,’ confirms Rima Jabado, marine director of the Emirates Marine Environment Group (EMEG). She urges stringent monitoring. Dr Dawood says this is already happening. ‘We know that on a local scale there are some problems, and we are working on how to solve them,’ he tells Time Out. But Dr Dawood concedes they are all under testing, with no commercial application yet confirmed.
The other approach is preventative: to minimise the impact of a growing population upon current water resources. EMEG works with schools and teachers to educate local children, but monitoring agriculture is just as essential, says Dr Dawood, and adopting more salt-tolerant, or dry-tolerant species and better irrigation is vital. He suggests that better regulations to both encourage economic water use among the public and discourage waste should also be considered. For example, an average tap produces 10 to 12 litres of water per minute, so the introduction of the a three-to-six litre tap would reduce waste by a significant amount.
But, in the end, there is no escaping the necessity of desalination plants and, with Greenpeace backing projects like the solar-powered plant currently being built in Australia, there are attempts to find ways of making desalination a more sustainable option.
The facts are that the nation’s growing population is set to place an even greater pressure upon an already fragile resource. It is said that, in an emergency, the UAE has 48 hours worth of water in reserve. Dr Dawood assures us there is work afoot to find out where to build more desalination plants, and how to reduce their impact. But, unless we act soon, 48 hours may not be enough.