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Water Scarcity in the United Arab Emirates


Although some people still focus on the value of such resources like oil, it has become evident that the most valuable natural resource is water. Many countries have acknowledged the fact that drinking water is becoming scarce in many regions, and even highly industrialized and wealthy countries are prone to this problem (Hameed et al., 2019). The Gulf region is characterized by a considerable level of water scarcity due to the peculiarities of its climate and geographic location (Alzaabi, Rizk, & Mezher, 2018). For centuries, people living in the area had to address the problem, and even in the 21st century, the problem is still persistent. The UAE has made a remarkable effort to ensure its national security associated with its citizens’ access to potable water. Effective water management can ensure economic growth and political stability, while the government’s inability to meet the needs of Emirati people can lead to tension in society or even social unrest. Various issues linked to water use and production are yet to be solved, and future threats have to be considered. The unsustainable use of water is one of the central causes of the shortage alongside climate and geographic factors.

Water in the UAE

The lack of drinking water is not a new problem for the region, so countries of the Middle East have developed certain strategies to ensure that their citizens’ needs are met. The Emirati water sources include groundwater (44%), desalinated water (41%), treated water (15%), and surface water (0.4%) (Alshaikh, 2018). Desalinated and treated water are non-conventional sources associated with certain peculiarities and concerns that will be discussed below. It is noteworthy that surface water is an unreliable source of drinking water due to a high evaporation rate that can reach up to 200mm per year. Groundwater has been one of the primary (and in many cases, the only) source of water for decades and centuries. One of the peculiarities of this source is its reliance on rainfalls that are rather rare in the UAE. So, the replenishment of reserves is often insufficient to address the needs of people. Falajes were the major sources of water in the east of the country, but many of these arteries are dry now. The primary causes of this situation are draught and unsustainable groundwater pumping. The country has to face a serious issue related to this source as the volume of water is shrinking while the need for this valuable asset is hiking.

Factors Contributing to Water Scarcity

As mentioned above, the location of the United Arab Emirates is characterized by a harsh environment as the north of the peninsula is primarily a desert. The amount of precipitation is insufficient, which leads to the desertification of even more lands. For instance, the minimum reported rainfalls in the UAE were approximately 3mm (Alshaikh, 2018). The region may have heavy rainfalls with the reported maximum level at about 150mm, but the evaporation rate can be as high as 200mm every year, which means that rainfall water can hardly be used after the period of rains. Moreover, considerable rainfalls are rather rare in the area and happen only once in ten years.

However, geographic and climate peculiarities are not completely responsible for the shortage of water. Urbanization and an increasing population also account for the decrease in the amount of accessible water. The population density in some areas is remarkable, and this disproportion intensifies the problem. For instance, 65% of the UAE population resides in the coastline territory that is only 5 kilometers long (Alshaikh, 2018). The current population of the country is approximately 10 million people, and it is expected that it will continue growing exponentially (Alzaabi et al., 2018). This demographic trend is associated with the growing consumption of water and the need to address this problem within a short period of time.

At the same time, unsustainable use may account for the scarcity of water to a greater extent compared to the factors considered above. Water is utilized in various industries and agriculture, so economic growth is associated with a heavier load on the available sources of water. The UAE has substantial deposits of oil, which contributed to the country’s economic prosperity. However, the production of crude oil and the functioning of refineries require over 200 million m3 of water annually (Hameed et al., 2019). Hence, economic development mainly relies on the availability of water.

Nevertheless, the major part of all water resources is used for agriculture in the UAE. According to the data of the World Bank, the country uses about 70% of its total water for irrigation and livestock (Al-Saidi & Saliba, 2019). It is noteworthy that the added value of the agricultural sector is 0.7%. Researchers emphasize that the use of water in the agricultural sector is characterized by an unprecedented lack of sustainable strategies and methods (Alshaikh, 2018). It has been estimated that approximately 30% of water utilized for irrigation is lost due to the high level of evaporation. The majority of farmers employ rather outdated irrigation techniques, such as flooding, which results in the low efficiency of their enterprises and high waste of resources. The increasing population requires more food, which will lead to the development of agriculture and the use of water that is becoming scarce in many parts of the country.

Finally, up to 40% of the total water consumption rests in the commercial and municipal sectors (Alshaikh, 2018). Such cities as Abu Dhabi and Dubai are famous for their luxury real estate and residential areas, but this marvel in the desert is created at a high cost as the construction and maintenance of these areas require a considerable amount of water. For example, it has been estimated that the transplant of approximately 120 million trees led to a decrease in water availability by 200m3 per capita (Alshaikh, 2018). It is also necessary to mention the use of air conditioning systems in the municipal and domestic sectors, which is a necessity in a country with such a harsh climate. Air conditioning is associated with high water consumption due to the use of this resource in cooling pipes and the use of electricity. The production of the latter also requires the utilization of water. Therefore, it is clear that the UAE is facing significant challenges associated with drinking water.

Current Policies and Measures Undertaken to Address the Issue

Governmental Policies

As far as water management and security policies are concerned, each emirate has its own strategy. However, these plans often share some basic concepts and methods since they face similar challenges (Alshaikh, 2018). The major priorities mentioned in the plans include the implementation of thorough research of available ways to produce and manage water and evaluation of the current and future strategies. In addition, the government aims at the provision of the necessary information to stakeholders and the encouragement of all people to ensure the sustainable use of water. The Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority (ADWEA) and other governmental agencies promote the injection of desalinated water in the major reserves, although this measure is still under consideration due to the limited capacity and peculiarities of the use of reserves (Alshaikh, 2018). The construction of desalination and wastewater treatment plants is characterized by collaboration between the government and the private sector.

The Emirati government makes a considerable effort to ensure transparency and efficiency in water management. Numerous laws and regulations have been introduced to safeguard public health and minimize the environmental footprint of the methods used to produce and manage water (Alshaikh, 2018). Some of the areas of major concern are training and research, and the government allocates substantial funds to raise people’s awareness on effective water management strategies. The government also pays much attention to training and encouraging people to employ sustainable water management strategies. The policies related to consumption regulators, smart meters, subsidies, or tax holidays for those using water effectively have proved to be effective. The government also employs bans as an effective measure to address the existing problems. After eight-year research, the Emirati government banned the transplant of Rhodes grass sue in farming (Amery, 2017). This species is characterized by the consumption of excessive amounts of water, so other plants have been introduced. These new species are native to the region and need considerably less water.

One of the illustrations of the projects aimed at addressing water management issues is the Strategic Tunnel Enhancement program developed and implemented in Abu Dhabi (Alshaikh, 2018). The initiative targets improving the existing sewage and water treatment infrastructure in the emirate. Approximately $1.6 billion is invested in this incentive, and it is expected that it will double the current capacity of the facilities. It is also anticipated that the new infrastructure will be instrumental in meeting the needs of the growing population.


Seawater desalination is a comparatively new method to produce potable water that accounts for over 40% of total drinking water in the UAE. The first desalination plant was opened in Abu Dhabi in 1976, which was the dawn of this technology in the country (Mohsen, Akash, Abdo, & Akash, 2016). By the beginning of 2007, 36 plants had been established in the country, which shows the severity of the problem and the efficiency of the method. Since 2000, the amount of desalinated water more than doubled and reached 277942 million gallons in 2006. Although desalination facilities are located in all parts of the country, the production of desalinated water is considerably higher in Abu Dhabi and Dubai due to the rapid growth of these areas. For instance, the reliance of the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) on this source was over 99% in 2006, while the dependence of the Sharjah Electricity and Water Authority (SEWA) was only up to 53% during the same period (Mohsen et al., 2016). Hence, desalinated water is regarded as a viable source of a vital commodity.

The Emirati government has placed considerable value on this strategy, and the construction of desalination plants has been supported in many ways. However, this method of producing freshwater is associated with high costs. For instance, seawater desalination plants consume up to 20% of total electricity in the country (Al-Saidi & Saliba, 2019). It is necessary to note that these plants are powered by fossil fuels (oil and gas), nuclear power, or renewable resources of energy (solar power) (Mohsen et al., 2016). Mohsen et al. (2016) claim that solar-powered and nuclear-powered desalination plants are most cost-effective and associated with the lowest environmental damage. The researchers add that the number of plants using fossil fuels should be minimal due to comparatively high costs. Apart from the use of a vast amount of energy, desalination plants are characterized by making a negative environmental footprint. The facilities using oil and gas are related to numerous negative effects as they emit CO2 contaminating air, water, and soil (Hameed et al., 2019). It has been estimated that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are among twenty-five top producers of carbon emissions.

At the same time, irrespective of the energy source powering desalination plants, this method of drinking water production leads to the excessive salination of seawaters (Alshaikh, 2018). The underwater flora and fauna can be affected, especially when it comes to water extraction areas, as the level of salt in water influences this species development and even survival. Moreover, since a substantial amount of water is extracted from the ocean, the sea level is also changed, which also has an impact on marine life. Finally, this method is not sustainable as the wastewater (brine) coming from desalination plants back into the sea is almost double as salt as the water before the process. Researchers suggest that countries relying on desalination technology can soon face the need to invest more in the production of water due to the increasing salination of seawater.

Treated Water

The share of treated water is quite extensive, and it is instrumental in meeting the needs of agriculture and landscaping. The government sees this method of water production as supportive and mainly catering to agricultural needs (Alshaikh, 2018). Over 30 wastewater treatment facilities established in the UAE have the capacity for the production of more than 42 million gallons each day. The construction of smaller facilities has increased by almost 100 % since 2006, which shows the increasing demand and considerable trust in this method. The government invests large funds in the development of such plants and the necessary infrastructure.

At the same time, wastewater treatment is linked to several serious limitations that make the government pay more attention to this area and facilitate the research regarding possible improvements. One of the emerging concerns is associated with public health, as treated water may contain contaminants contributing to the development of chronic health conditions (Shanableh et al., 2018). A recent study shows that between 30 and 90% of the contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) that include antibiotics, hormones, drugs of abuse, and some types of persistent chemicals remain in treated water (Shanableh et al., 2018). An alarming amount of such components in water can lead to serious health issues, including antibiotic resistance and the development of chronic illnesses.

Other challenges related to the demand for wastewater that is seasonal since this type of resource is mainly used in agriculture. Wastewater production continues throughout the year, and during wet seasons, it may be needed to discharge treated water (Amery, 2017). Furthermore, the production of wastewater may result in the accumulation of heavy metals and toxic elements in soil and groundwater. Although numerous steps have been made to improve the quality of treated water and its safe use, various challenges still persist.

Water from Other Countries

GCC countries also consider an alternative source of fresh water, but this method is still underused. The utilization of this strategy is largely dependent on political aspects as countries have to agree on specific terms regarding their water resources. Although the transportation of water from other countries seems economically viable, especially for some countries of the region, they are reluctant or unwilling to employ this opportunity. The major concern of many states, including the UAE, is the potential power the provider of water can obtain on the recipient (Alshaikh, 2018). Since water is regarded as one of the most important resources, it is unlikely that this alternative will be employed in the region.

Major Risks to Consider

As mentioned above, the UAE faces several issues and has to consider potential threats to its water security. According to Hameed et al. (2019), the UAE has one of the highest climate risk index scores among Middle Eastern countries. To compare, Bahrain and Kuwait, with the highest score of 125, are highly vulnerable to climate change, while the score of the UAE is 109. The planet is heating with higher temperatures making semiarid and arid areas even dryer. Under these circumstances, the UAE will be unable to maintain its current agricultural practices. The decrease in groundwater and lower sea levels will make potable water access limited.

Possible conflicts in the region may lead to economic losses, devastation, and the loss of human lives. Al-Saidi and Saliba (2019) note that due to the rivalry among the countries of the GCC, military and other conflicts are possible. Moreover, non-state actors are becoming a significant threat as they accumulate resources and influence over vast territories. Countries’ infrastructure can be vulnerable to various types of attacks, and the UAE needs to makes sure that its water resources are safe.

Demographic issues also pose a certain threat to the sustainability of the Emirati water management system. With the rapid growth of the population due to some major shifts in the region, the country may be unable to meet the needs of all people (Al-Saidi & Saliba, 2019). An excessive load imposed on the infrastructure may also lead to its disruption and failure. Environmental concerns should be considered as they are associated with a serious threat as well. In addition to climate change, the country may face such issues as salination of seawater, considerable contamination of water and soil, as well as air.

Finally, technological and economic threats are also feasible and should be analyzed and included in risk management plans. Some major anthropomorphic disasters may have various adverse effects on the system as the failure of some facilities will cause the overloading of other systems and their possible malfunction. As far as economic risks, it is possible to name a rapid and substantial increase in the costs of water production. Equipment, as well as advanced management strategies, maybe high-priced, which will make the production of water too expensive for the Emirati people and the government.

Water Security and Measures for the Future

As mentioned above, seawater desalination is an efficient source of potable water that can meet the increasing needs of the growing population. However, it can be beneficial to reconsider the existing policies that mainly concentrate on the establishment and support of large facilities. Amery (2017) argues that the construction of small plants in communities will be more efficient and will enhance the water security of the country as water will not be lost during its transportation. An effective network of smaller plants is also an appropriate alternative. The failure at one of the facilities will not lead to major negative outcomes that are likely to take place during the malfunctioning of a large plant. Clearly, the UAE government should make sure that water production facilities and associated facilities are properly protected. Terrorist attacks can be a serious threat, so the country should make sure that no major malfunctions happen as a result of some conflicts.

Harsh environmental conditions are the reason for large investments into the agricultural sector to ensure the food security of the nation. However, the increasing costs of agricultural practices and their further growth may become unbearable for the country. Therefore, it can be advisable for the UAE to reconsider its food safety measures and agricultural sector development. It is important to focus on the cultivation of plants that need a modest amount of water. It is also necessary to develop a food security plan that will imply buying products from other countries, which may be more cost-effective as compared to the production of these foods.

Finally, although water management plans of emirates are effective and can satisfy the needs of their residents, there is a significant flaw in the country-level policy. The emirates do not share information, and the lack of interaction among different regions of the country leads to slow development. It is essential to share knowledge and develop projects involving diverse emirates, which will help in creating advanced water management strategies and systems. It is also apparent that the UAE should continue investing in raising peoples’ awareness of the sustainable use of water. Proper water management can ensure the country’s security and economic growth.


On balance, it is necessary to note that the UAE is facing various serious issues related to water management. The country’s geographic location is characterized by harsh environmental conditions. The lack of drinking water is a typical problem in the region, so the countries of the GCC have developed numerous strategies to address this major issue. Groundwater, surface water, desalinated, and treated water are primary sources of potable water in the UAE. Rapid population growth, unsustainable water management, and climate change are the most serious challenges to be addressed by the Emirati government and the governments of other states in the region.

The focus on innovation and training has already proved to be effective as the production and use of water are becoming more sustainable. Nevertheless, it can be advisable to consider certain changes that can be included in the Emirati (and other Middle Eastern countries’) water management plans. The development of networks of small solar-powered plants, the use of sustainable and innovative methods of irrigation, as well as sufficient investment in water production and infrastructure facilities can help in addressing the emerging issues. Food production should also undergo certain changes as the cultivation of some plants is cost-ineffective. Therefore, some types of foods should be imported from other countries, which will result in a considerable decrease in water use. These measures will help the UAE, and other countries of the GCC, ensure their sustainable development, economic growth, and political stability.


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