United Arab Emirate's Reliance on Desalination Spells Water Disaster


Hilton Corniche Apartments & Hotel Residences Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; Photo via Uggboy-photograph-world-sense via Flickr CC

For the UAE, water hasn't been much of a problem so long as there is plenty of oil. With the wealth that oil provides, more water than one could possibly consume is whipped up in desalination plants and poured over golf courses and into lavish gardens and resorts. The per capita water use in Abu Dhabi, the wealthiest of the emirates, is as high as 550 liters a day, or around four times that of an average European citizen, and as too much fresh water is created, it is simply dumped back into the gulf. Desalination, a fuel-intensive process for purifying water, costs UAE about $18 million each day. And while financial resources are there to continue to import the natural gas needed to power the desalination plants, environmental and political resources for the wasteful and illogical practice are growing thin. Reuters reports economists and researchers are warning that a new alternative to desalination as well as significant conservation measures are needed to protect the UAE from the vulnerabilities associated with a dependence on desalination as a water source. Currently, around 60% of water supplies are drawn from groundwater pumping with the rest coming from desalination. However, as groundwater supplies shrink, the dependence upon desalination grows. Experts warn that this is not just creating a worrisome single point of failure in water supplies, but is also a target should an unfortunate political event occur - a desal plant sitting on a coastline is an easy bomb target, as Hady Amr of the Brookings Institute points out in the Reuter's article.

"We need to convince [citizens] that water here isn't a free resource. It's not even a natural resource, it's manmade. It is costly, and it has a big environmental impact," Mohamed Daoud of the state-run Environment Agency in Abu Dhabi told Reuters.

Citizens have grown used to easy access to cheap water, with government subsidies helping keep the costs even more artificially low. Political leaders hesitate to end subsidies to encourage conservation since that would be "political suicide." But a continuing reliance on desalination to keep up lavish and intensely wasteful water habits isn't protecting anyone in the long run.

Reuters writes that fuel alternatives for desal plants such as nuclear energy are around 10 years away, according to Ayesha Sabavala, of London's Economic Intelligence Unit, which means less ability to export oil and natural gas as it is needed to power the desal plants.

Typically, desalination is not the most desirable alternative for any community in need of water. The energy that goes in to creating water makes that water incredibly expensive, both financially and environmentally. Though for some communities, it can be the best, or even the only option once all other possibilities for finding water have been exhausted. One small coastal community in California acts as an example, as well as some desalination plants in drought-stricken Australia, one of which is run on renewable energy.

However, to continue to water lush gardens and golf courses in the middle of a desert with water generated by burning fossil fuels begs for a rethinking of the use and source of our most precious resource. After all, you can't drink oil.

Follow Jaymi on Twitter for more stories like this
More on Desalination
UK's First Desalination Plant Opens on Thames to Quench Londoners' Thirst
New Water Desalination Process Could Help With Disaster Relief
DIY Seawater Desalination by Delicious Lady and Grandson (Video)

Tags: Drinking Water | Environmental Footprint | Water Crisis