Abu Dhabi’s War on Water Abuse

  • 27 March 2013

Plans to conserve the emirate’s groundwater are close to being finalised by the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (EAD).

To commemorate World Water Day which fell on March 22, the EAD, in partnership with the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, organised a panel discussion with water specialists on Tuesday.

“If we continue extracting water at the current situation, groundwater will be depleted,” warned Dr Mohammed Al Madfaei, executive director of the EAD’s Integrated Environment Policy and Planning Sector.

“An action plan to preserve groundwater is almost in the phase of being implemented,” he added.

Presently, Abu Dhabi consumes 15 times more groundwater than it is sustaining and, from the three sources of water available — ground, desalinated and treated water — groundwater makes for the majority of water consumption.

“In Abu Dhabi, groundwater is a non-renewable resource, and accounts for about 63.6 per cent of consumption, while desalinated water accounts for about 29.2 per cent, with treated sewage water representing about 7.2 per cent of the total water resources used,” said Dr Mohammed Dawood, water resources senior expert at the EAD.

Groundwater is extracted through wells, 700 of them dotted all over the emirate. But the large majority is concentrated in Liwa, Al Khatem and Al Khazna areas, where most of the agricultural farms are located.

The more water taken from the underground, the more the salinity, as the balance between the sweet water reserves stored underground for thousands of years and the infiltrated seawater is lost in favour of the latter.

“Water resources are used in different development sectors, where the agricultural sector employs 57.98 per cent of the total consumed water, urban sector (domestic) 9.75 per cent, and the forest sector 11.73 per cent, the gardens and parks 13.38 per cent and industrial and commercial sectors 7.16 per cent,” mentioned Dr Dawood.

Despite the fact that it uses the largest amount of water, the agricultural sector only represents less than one per cent of the national GDP (gross domestic product).

“Of course, irrigation is not used sustainably in agriculture. That is why we set up the Abu Dhabi Farmers Services Centre to start with,” admitted Ali Al Marzouqi, the centre’s planning development division director.

According to him, much of the problem for the water abuse in irrigation lays with the lack of education of the labour force in the local farms, mostly South Asian expatriates.

“These labourers don’t have water shortage in their countries. On the contrary, they have plenty of water, even floods and when they come here, they use water for irrigation like they would use at home. We need to educate them, to change their culture and way of thinking, to make them responsible; after all, they deal with our most precious commodity,” stressed Al Marzouqi.

With groundwater being a limited source of water, it is the government’s priority to find alternative sources. Desalination is the most obvious solution, but it poses major environmental issues. Apart from high energy consumption and adding to the very harmful carbon dioxide emissions, the discharge of salt and chemicals from treating the seawater are a wildlife killer.

Furthermore, desalination plants are not 100 per cent reliable. If a malfunction occurs, thousands of homes and businesses will be left without water.

“We need a continuous source of water in case something happens to desalination plants,” stressed Dr Dawood.

He further explained that for several years now, the EAD has been working to store desalinated water into two large reservoirs, one in Liwa and the other in Al Ain. The one in Liwa will be completed first at the end of 2014. In case of an emergency, the Liwa reservoir will be able to supply nearly 200 litres of water per capita per day for about 90 days for one million people in Abu Dhabi.