The United Arab Emirates (UAE) located in the Gulf region of the Middle East is developing fast into one of the most advanced economies in the world. With rising modern facilities and urban settlements, the demand for clean water is also picking up unsustainably. In the past 3 decades, the UAE has seen its water table drop by one metre per year. It is predicted that UAE will be devoid of any freshwater resources if the current trend continues for another half a century. Coupled with a high population growth and rising demand for freshwater from the industries, water scarcity will become acute in the coming decades.

The UAE is heavily dependent on desalination plants to meet its water needs. 42 per cent of total potable water used in the country comes from 70 major desalination plants alone. But running these plants is not only expensive, but also dirty. The UAE is aiming to switch to renewable energy to make this desalination process sustainable too. Similarly, water harvesting in the deserted landmass of the country is extremely important for meeting the challenges of the future or avoiding prolonged emergencies. Climate Change is inducing unpredictability in weather conditions and rainfall is expected to reduce by approximately 20 per cent in the future, which will make water scarcer.

To mitigate these challenges, the Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure of the country unveiled a plan in 2017 called the ‘UAE Water Security Strategy 2036.’ This aims to ensure that water is available during all conditions in the future compliant with local regulations and the World Health Organization (WHO) standards. It also targets halving the per capita consumption of water in the UAE and promoting sustainable practices of water usage. The plan envisages a reduction in total demand for water by 21 per cent and increase the water productivity index.

The UAE Water Security strategy 2036 has 3 main programmes namely Water Demand Management Programme, Water Supply Management Programme and the Emergency Production and Distribution Programme. Policy formulation including adoption of advanced technologies, its legislation including innovation and reinforcement of national capabilities, and water conservation campaigns are included in the strategy.

Under the quantitative targets adopted, the UAE is targeting at least two days of sufficient water storage under normal conditions which is equivalent to 16 days during emergency conditions or above 45 days if extreme conditions of emergency are faced in the future. It involves 6 connecting networks between water and electricity entities across the country. The water network will be designed to provide 91 litres of water per person per day during emergency, or 30 litres per person per day in extremities.

The process is deemed as sustainable as it will lead to cutting of carbon dioxide emissions relation to water desalination plants across UAE by approx. 100 million metric tons and save US $20 billion to the exchequer. To address the challenge of pollution of freshwater, the plan will eliminate dumping of effluents and minimize release of hazardous chemicals into water. While it will increase the recycling and safe usage of treated water to 95 per cent, hence ensuring sustainable use of water by 2036.

Under the plan, progress is visible as the private and the public sectors are colluding with each other to reinforce water sustainability. One such example is the opening of the world’s largest hydroponic farm, Bustanica, which is a vertical farm that is set to produce more than 1000K tonnes of green produce which is free from pesticides, herbicides and chemicals. The 3,30,000 sq ft facility will lead to savings of 250 million litres of water per year for UAE, thus supporting its Water Security Strategy 2036 plan.
Another recent example of astounding progress includes the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to improve the efficiency of Dubai’s Water network through detection of leaks/faults, repairing them quickly and preventing cyber-attacks on the operations of the network. Such innovation will go a long way in ensuring that water sustainability is practiced in distribution channels.

To fulfil Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s vision for a prosperous and sustainable UAE, the country will need to keep increasing the water efficiency and reducing the vulnerability that the economy faces from water scarcity. The success of UAE Water Security Strategy 2036 will also pave the way for other countries to adopt similar measures for securing their water resources.

By Dr. Ankit Srivastava

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