Water in the UAE. Where do they get it and how is it purified?

Water is no doubt, the most vital resource on earth as it is very important for survival, a lack of which is keenly felt in the world today. This is especially true for the Middle East countries, where freshwater resources are very limited due to the geographical and climatic features (arid conditions). It is known that water covers about 70% of our planet (Earth), but regrettably, only 3% of the resources account for usable freshwater. Due to the difficulty in getting natural freshwater particularly in the arid regions, the possibility of desalinating and using seawater has become a solution to the problem.

The United Arab Emirates is one of those countries where scarcity of freshwater is severe due to its arid land conditions. The country keeps experiencing a rapid increase in population over the years, which is resulting in much higher water demand. This piece covers the various sources of water in the UAE, solutions put in place to counter the water scarcity in the country, and finally a few lists of Desalination plants and Dams in the country. 

The UAE is one of the world’s highest in water consumption (about 550 liters per day). Water desalination facilities in the UAE provide about 80% of water consumed. The United Arab Emirates ranks second after Saudi Arabia in terms of the amount of producing desalinated water.

Today, many specialized seawater desalination plants are built on the territory of the UAE.

Sources of water in the UAE

There are two main sources of water in the UAE which are conventional sources (such as Surface water and groundwater) and non-conventional sources (such as desalinated water, treated wastewater, and cloud seeding). 

Conventional Water sources

These include forms of natural water like Surface water and groundwater.

Surface Water

The surface water is negligible and includes floodwater, water retained in dams, some very small streams, ponds, and spring water. These are either confined or flowing when there are land slopes and are replenished by rainfall or groundwater.

Due to the UAE’s location in a dry belt region, rainfall is limited and floodwaters leak into the ground, especially in sedimentary areas. Thus, it is crucial to building dams to harvest rainwater and store surface water behind them and to help feed the aquifer, although most of it is lost to high evaporation. The average annual surface water flow through valleys ranges from 23 million cubic meters (MCM) to 138MCM. 

Groundwater

Groundwater is the main natural water source. The total volume of groundwater is quite significant at around 640 billion cubic meters (BCM), but only 3% of it (around 20BCM) is fresh.

In the UAE’s arid environment, groundwater is an important and precious source for municipal and rural supplies, environmental protection, and social and economic development. However, most of the groundwater used in the UAE is salty. Groundwater resources are further divided into renewable (shallow aquifers) and non-renewable resources (deep aquifers).

Groundwater resources occur in the aquifers located in the Bajada region, in the eastern part of the UAE. also, the Dammam and Umm er-Radhuma aquifers, which extend into the western desert areas, contain highly saline water.

Recharging shallow aquifers is not easy. It depends mainly on rainfall events and surface run-off. This may vary considerably from year to year. Due to the high evaporation rate and surface water run-off in mountain areas, only 10-14% of the total precipitation percolates to recharge the shallow groundwater aquifers. 

In recent years, aquifer conditions have improved as a result of measures taken to reduce groundwater abstraction to sustainable levels. However, full recovery will take generations. Controlling groundwater mining has also commenced, although more steps are still needed to reduce the abstraction volume to sustainable levels. Also, a comprehensive set of measures for sustainable groundwater management have been adopted, notably establishing strong monitoring and regulatory programs and conserving traditional water systems such as aflaj.

The high evaporation rates during the summer increase the accumulation of salts in the root zone. Excess irrigation water percolates deeply and carries the accumulated salts to the aquifer, further aggravating the problem of groundwater deterioration.

Non-conventional water sources

These are mostly water gotten from the purification of already existing water that is not suitable for domestic use or renewing already used water to be re-used. These include examples like; Desalinated water, Treated wastewater and cloud seeded water.

Desalinated water

Seawater is salty. The process of removing dissolved salts from seawater is called desalination. This makes the water drinkable and suitable for domestic use.

The UAE has limited natural water resources. Hence, the country makes seawater potable using thermal desalination technology. Today, most of its potable water (42% of the total water requirement) comes from its desalination plants, which account for around 14% of the world’s total production of desalinated water.

Use of renewable energy sources for desalination plants is a vivid example of the implementation of advanced and environmentally responsive technologies. For instance, desalination plants running on solar power are already operating in the United Arab Emirates. Such projects are designed to make freshwater production economically feasible and to reduce carbon dioxide emissions during production.

The main advantage of such plants is a zero-emission of harmful substances into the atmosphere, and provision of the local population with drinkable water. Moreover, the designers of such plants state that the usage of solar power will meaningfully reduce the cost of freshwater production. To meet both the qualitative and quantitative requirements for drinking water standards, domestic water supplies rely mainly on desalinated water (around 99%), which is used either directly or blended with groundwater.

After Saudi Arabia, the UAE has the highest desalination capacity globally. Most of the desalination plants use co-generation Multi-Stage Flash (MSF) technology or Multiple-Effect Distillation (MED), whereas only a few plants use Reverse Osmosis (RO) technology. The availability of desalinated water at relatively low costs may also be an attractive means of meeting industrial water demand since industries have been willing to pay for water at rates higher than domestic and agricultural rates.

Renewable energy can play a key role in lowering the cost of desalinated water. In fact, the UAE is very progressive when it comes to developments and innovations in green technology. Food and water security are important issues for the country, which already imports more than 90% of its food. Furthermore, the UAE aims to increase its total renewable energy by 24% by 2021. The water demand is expected to grow by about 30% by 2030, and seawater desalination requires ten times more energy than surface water production.

Treated wastewater

Treated wastewater represents one of the most important alternatives to meet some of the present water requirements and lessen the long-term supply-demand imbalance. Thanks to the completion of wastewater treatment facilities and the expansion of urban sewage networks in the country, large volumes of treated wastewater have become available. Due to environmental considerations, wastewater is treated completely or partially, based on its intended use.

Presently, the UAE operates modern treatment facilities with tertiary and advanced treatment capabilities. Treated water is used mainly for urban purposes, such as irrigating gardens and highway landscaping. Municipalities are responsible for building and managing sewage systems, creating networks for stormwater collection, and reusing treated wastewater. However, half of the treated effluents are discharged into the Arabian Gulf.

The main reasons for this are:

  • Lack of transmission and distribution networks to supply end-users (which are mainly forests and private companies such as golf resorts);
  • Lower demand due to the financial downturn from 2008-2014;
  • Cultural obstacles, such as convincing farmers to use recycled water.

Cloud seeding

The UAE is one of the countries pioneering cloud seeding and artificial rainmaking in the MENA region. It spent 2 million dirhams (around $550,000) on cloud seeding operations in 2015. 

Cloud seeding usually takes place over the eastern mountain ranges on the border with Oman and aims to raise levels in aquifers and reservoirs in the area. However, some cloud seeding over the cities has also been carried out. Although this technique has proved its success in increasing the amount of precipitation, a detailed cost-benefit analysis needs to be carried out to ensure that it is a viable water source compared to other methods such as desalination or even water conservation campaigns.

Desalination plants in the UAE

Due to a lack of freshwater sources, the UAE needs to identify a sustainable desalination solution to meet long-term water needs. Connecting desalination technologies to renewable energy is one great solution.

The water consumed in the UAE is mainly desalinated, dependent on electricity in case of reverse osmosis, or a by-product of electricity generation through multiple-effect distillation (MED) and multiple-stage flash distillation (MSF).

Some of the desalination plants in the UAE include:

  • Shuweihat S2 power and water plant (in Abu Dhabi):  

This has a production capacity of 1510 Mega Watt (MW) of electricity and 100 Million Imperial Gallons (MIGD) of water per day

  • Jebel Ali power station (in Dubai):

This is the largest power and desalination plant in the UAE, with six gas turbines capable of producing 2060 MW and 140 MIGD of water.

  • F2 Plant in Fujairah:

It is a greenfield power generation and seawater desalination plant with 2850 MW of power capacity and 230 MIGD of water.

A few other desalination plants on the UAE are; 

  • Al Bainounah Power Company in Abu Dhabi
  • Umm Al-Nar Power Company in Abu Dhabi
  • Abu Mussa in Sharjah
  • Al Humriyah in Sharjah
  • Al Mirfa Power Company in Abu Dhabi. Etc.

Dams in the UAE

The UAE has taken a keen interest in dams and rainwater harvesting projects. Dams contribute to protection from floods and flow risks and improve the quality and quantity of the water situation in the aquifer by increasing the feeding rates of groundwater.

In 2013, the number of dams and levees amounted to 130, with a total storage capacity of about 120 million cubic meters of water.

From 1982 until December 2013, the water captured in dams reached around 600 million cubic meters, which improved aquifers and agriculture.

Dams in the UAE include:

  • Wadi Al Beeh dam (Length: 575m, height: 18m)
    • Location: Al Beeh Wadi in northern Ras Al Khaima(RAK)
    • Purpose: Feed the underground water.
    • It feeds water to Al Burairat and Al Hamraniya in RAK.
  • Wadi Ghalfa dam (Length: 235m, height: 8m)
    • Location: Masfout region in Wadi Ghalfa (a middle agricultural region)
    • Purpose: Feed the underground water.
  • Al Shuwaib dam (Length: 3,000m, height: 11m)
    • Location: Al Ain
    • Purpose: to impound water and enhance reclamation
    • It is one of the largest projects carried out by the government. It has a storage capacity of 31 million cubic meters.
  • Wadi Wareaa dam (Length: 367m, height: 33m)
    • Location: Wadi Wareaa (eastern agricultural region of the UAE)
    • Purpose: Feed the groundwater and protect the area from floods.
    • It slopes from Masafi hill and pours into the Gulf of Oman. The dam feeds the areas of Al Badiya and Khor Fakkan.
  • Wadi Basira dam (Length: 885m, height: 8m)
    • Location: Wadi Basira (eastern agricultural region of the UAE)
    • Purpose: Feed the groundwater areas in Dibba and protect the area from floods
  • Wadi Ham dam (Length: 2800m, height: 16m)
    • Location: Fujairah (eastern region of the UAE).
    • Purpose: Feed the underground water, protect the area from floods, and enhance water quality.
    • The dam feeds the local areas in Fujairah and Kalba.
  • Wadi Azan dam (Length: 110m, height: 10m)
    • Location: Wadi Azan (Northern agricultural region)
    • Purpose: Feed the underground water
    • It is a small dam which impounds water and mitigates its speed. It feeds Azan and Al Hamraniyah areas.
  • Wadi Al Ghail dam (Length: 26m, height: 4.5m)
    • Location: Wadi Al Ghail (northern region).
    • Purpose: Supply irrigation water for Al Ghail area and feed the underground water.

The UAE Water Security Strategy 2036

The UAE Water Security Strategy 2036 is a UAE government initiative to solve the pure water scarcity problem to provide sufficient water for its people. The project aims to ensure sustainable access to water during the normal and emergency condition in line with standards set by local authorities and the WHO.

The strategy is to set to focus on three main programs which are:

  1. Water Demand Management Programme
  2. Water Supply Management Programme
  3. Emergency Production and Distribution Programme

Other things the strategy also takes care of are the development of policies, awareness campaigns on water conservation, the introduction of advanced technologies employed in water treatment, and building up the country’s capability in tackling the long-time challenge of water scarcity.

The objectives of the strategy according to the ministry of Energy and Industry are:

  • To reduce to the barest minimum the total demand for water resources (by up to 21%)
  • To increase water productivity index $110 per Cubic meter
  • To reduce the water scarcity index by 3
  • To maximize the reuse of treated water by up to 95%
  • To increase the water storage capacity of the country to a minimum of 2 days (in normal conditions), or 16 days (in emergency conditions) and 45 days (Under extreme emergency conditions).

Amongst the implementations of the strategy is the establishment of 6 network connections linking water and electricity across the country. The water networks available are aimed at providing a minimum of 91 liters of water to one person per day during emergency situations and capable of providing 30 liters during extreme emergencies. If the strategy is implemented successfully, it is sure to cut down the emission of carbon dioxide which is a dangerous gas that is emitted in the process of water desalination, and simultaneously help the country to save at least AED 74 billion which is supposed to be spent on water purification processes.

In conclusion

One of the most valuable natural resources is water and even though the UAE is naturally at a disadvantage with natural freshwater, the country has made great strides in incorporating innovative methods and implementing various strategies to not only conserve freshwater and utilize seawater but also use techniques to generate more water.

It is not a hidden fact that the United Arab Emirates is one of the most arid regions of the world currently experiencing an acute shortage of fresh water. However, the high revenues from the oil and gas economic sector permit to provide hefty volumes of water desalination. The state possesses all the essential dynamism, fiscal, personnel, and decision-making resources that allows it to find operational and proficient solutions.

The UAE Government implements long-term programs based on the active interaction between the state and private businesses in order to solve problems in the ground of water supply. Today, dozens of desalination plants and installations operate in the United Arab Emirates. However, when solving some problems, the government has to face other difficulties. This is because the process of seawater desalination is quite a power-consuming and cost-intensive process.

Therefore, the authorities are in constant search for alternative solutions. Desalination in the UAE is reaching a new level, which implies minimal costs and preservation of the environment. The problem of freshwater supply in the UAE remains relevant as the currently used technology for seawater desalination consumes large amounts of fossil fuels and electrical energy. This situation is aggravated by the rapidly increasing population, urbanization, and economic needs.

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