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01 June 2023

UAE’s water problem: why waste, waste water?

By Majorie van Leijen

According to the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, 72 per cent of water used in the UAE comes from groundwater, 21 per cent comes from desalination and only 7 per cent is treated water.

Furthermore, according to experts treated water is often left unused and dumped.

The UAE is listed by the United Nations as a high-rank country when it comes to water stress, a situation which occurs when the availability of water is not in balance with the demand for water.

While resources are limited, the UAE has one of the highest water consumption rates in the world.

The Dubai School of Government writes in a report in 2011:

“The luxury lifestyle and lack of conservation measures amongst residents has resulted in high levels of water usage and waste.

“It has been reported that in the UAE, per capita water usage is 550 litres per person per day, as compared to a global national average of 250 liters per person each day.”

On a map dividing the world into nine areas based on the level of water stress, the UAE is categorised in the highest range.

However, the Dubai School of Government points out that the index does not take into consideration the water potentially available from non-conventional sources, such as desalination or reuse.

Treated sewage water cannot be used for every purpose. Typically it is used for irrigation.

The big clients for irrigation water in Dubai, according to Mark Dehnert, are golf courses, public parks, palaces, cooling plants.

“However, still not all the water is sold, so some part (I think around 30-40%) has to be dumped in the creek,” says Mark, who is Managing Director at Invent Middle East (FZC) and is specialised in sewage treatment.

One of the reasons for this is that you cannot store sewage water for a very long time.

Mark explains. “Under the prevailing climate you cannot store treated wastewater –even when disinfected with chlorine- much longer than a day. Bacteria will build in it.”

Although demand of treated water should not be a problem, the limitation of distribution channels stands in the way of a direct demand and supply mechanism, causing a proportional part of the treated waste water to go to waste.

“Distribution networks have a given capacity and cannot easily be expanded,” says Mark.

“As an example assume that a private investor builds a golf course near Mirdiff.

“He would like to buy treated sewage for irrigation from the municipality, which has this water available at their plant, but if they do not have a pipeline connecting to the location of the golf course they cannot deliver it.”

What happens next is that consumers will resort to desalinated water for irrigation; the same water that can be used for cooking, drinking, showering etc.

Anton Semenov, General Manager of Union Biotal LLC, thinks this is a waste.

“Desalinated water is subsidised by the government so it looks economically attractive. But the government spends billions of dirhams bearing the actual cost of water desalination,” he points out.

The focus of the UAE policy regarding water supply has mainly been on water desalination and in fact technologies towards this trend have improved, and the costs reduced.

The Dubai School of Government writes in the 2011 paper:

“In addition to increasing supply through desalination, there is widespread realisation at the political level that water management is required for further successful development of the country.

“Future water stress might be caused by continuous increase of water demand due to population growth, higher domestic water use, and policy decisions regarding irrigation of the agricultural and landscape amenity sectors.”

Sewage distribution channels are currently limited to certain public consumers.

Private consumers are another potential take off, considering that irrigation is needed in private villas too. However, distribution channels do not reach these places.

"If the average water consumption in the UAE is 550 litres per person per day, the consumption in villas goes up to 1,710 litres per person daily.

“In general 70 per cent of this water is used for watering the garden and this is precious desalinated portable water," says Anton.

For his company Biotal part of the solution lies in individual recycling. Initially introduced in Europe, the idea is of small sewage treatment plants that can be installed outside villas or compounds.

"These plants treat sewage that is produced by the villa residents and turn it into treated water that can be used for irrigation," explains Anton.

According to him the advantage is not only in preserving a valuable water source, but it will also press the individual water and electricity bill.

"The calculations for individual villas in average show that after 5-6 years the treatment plant will cover the costs and start saving money on water bills and sewage discharge.

"The same calculations for villa compounds, communities, hotels and other residencies with a larger number of people make it even more efficient with full return of investments in 2-3 years," says Anton.

But according to Mark, decentralisation of sewage treatment is tricky, because the availability of treated irrigation water will depend on the production of sewage, a factor that is not constant.

"Imagine you are on holiday, or that you have a party in your villa."

The dire need of water in the UAE is only expected to increase over the years.

The realisation of the importance of water management has also increased, and awareness campaigns have been launched on the local and national level.

[Image via Shutterstock]