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Jaison John: Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink

3 December 2015 – Dubai, a large metropolis, has become renowned for innovative engineering, technological feats, and infrastructure development. As most cities that have undergone astonishing growth in the political, economic and social spheres, it is now facing urgent environmental dilemmas.

One of the greatest challenges to sustain approximately 2 million people in an extremely arid locale is water, which in the coastal city of Dubai is abundant but not potable. According to Mohammed Mohammed Saleh, Director-General of the Federal Electricity and Water Authority, water consumption is the highest in the UAE with average per capita consumption of 500 litres a day, around 82 per cent above the global average.

To overcome this, Dubai implemented an expensive technical solution: desalination plants that take water from the Persian Gulf and remove salts, contaminants, and particulates to make it suitable for human use and consumption. Dubai isn’t alone: collectively, UAE desalinate roughly the equivalent of four billion bottles of water each day.

While this process is keeping the UAE hydrated for the time being, it comes with some major drawbacks. First, distillate water (the end product of desalination) is the most expensive form of water according to the Pacific Institute of California, which approximates that 4,000 kilowatt hours of electricity are required to produce 1 acre-foot of water. While high cost may not be prohibitive for a country that is listed in the top 10 countries for highest per capita GDP, the energy factor could be: despite the large oil reserves that lie beneath the Emirates’ deserts, the country known for excess is starting to realise it does not have enough energy to maintain this standard of living forever.

Worldwide, seawater desalination accounts for water production of 5,000 million m3/year. The growth gap between supply and demand for water in the GCC countries can be attributed to limited available surface water, high population growth and urbanisation development, deficient institutional arrangements, poor management practices, water depletion and deterioration of quality, especially in shallow groundwater aquifers. Increasing demand for water in the domestic sector has shifted attention to the role of desalination in alleviating water shortages.

Experience in the Gulf States demonstrates that desalination technology has developed to a level where it can serve as a reliable source of water at a price comparable to water from conventional sources. Desalination remains in GCC countries the most feasible alternative to augment or meet future water supply requirements. It is considered a strategic option for satisfying current and future domestic water supply requirements, in comparison to the development of other water resources. Despite the many benefits the technology has to offer, concerns rise over potential negative impacts on the environment.

Perhaps the biggest drawback to desalination is the effect it has on aquatic ecosystems surrounding the Arabian Peninsula. Desalination plants kill marine organisms – from phytoplankton to fish – on the intake, pump hot, saline sludge back into the ocean after purification, and emit considerable amounts of carbon dioxide (which accounts for why the UAE and neighbouring countries Qatar and Bahrain, which also employ desalination, have the biggest per capita carbon footprints in the world). Due to the salty sludge produced in the distillation process, the Persian Gulf’s salinity level has risen by almost 50 per cent in the past 30 years.

To safeguard a sustainable use of desalination technology, the impacts of each major desalination project should be investigated and mitigated by means of a project- and location-specific environmental impact assessment (EIA) study, while the benefits and impacts of different water supply options should be balanced on the scale of regional management plans.

Director-General of the Federal Electricity and Water Authority has confirmed that the problem lies with low awareness among the residents about the importance of rational consumption.


Read more on Jaison's blog here.

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