Water in numbers

95 per cent: Amount of Abu Dhabi’s water generated by desalination

$430m: Value of contract awarded by Abu Dhabi to build a water storage scheme

2 days: Current reserve supply of water in the UAE

Sources: MEED; Adwea

In September, Abu Dhabi Water & Electricity Authority (Adwea) awarded a $430m contract to build a water storage scheme in the Western Region of the emirate. The deal forms part of the authority’s contingency plan to ensure there are always sufficient quantities of water available in the emirate.

A joint venture of the local/Lebanese Arabian Construction Company and South Korea’s Posco Engineering & Construction was awarded the contract.

Up to 90 per cent of the country is desert and for decades the UAE has invested heavily in desalination technology to meet demand for water from its growing economy. The state now relies almost completely on desalinated seawater for its drinking water needs.

New water capacity in the UAE

“About 50 per cent of water in the emirate used to come from aquifers, but now up to 95 per cent of water comes from desalination plants,” says Rolf Herrmann, principal hydrogeologist and technical manager Middle East for the US’ Schlumberger Water Services (SWS). “There is full dependence on desalination now and there have been major capacity increases in new plants over the past few years.”

And more capacity needs to be added. Abu Dhabi Water & Electricity Company (Adwec) predicts water demand in the emirate will rise sharply from 758 million gallons a day (g/d) in 2011 to 1,061 million g/d by 2015.

“Compared to international standards, there are now only very small quantities of groundwater in the country,” says Hassan Fath of the department of water and environmental engineering at the Abu Dhabi-based Masdar Institute. “There are enough funds to produce additional desalination plants and saline water from the Gulf is a good way to create potable water.”

The government wants to have up to 90 days of water available – around 40 million gallons a day

Rolf Herrmann, Schlumberger Water Services

But over an eight-month period from August 2008, all the government’s financial resources and desalination plants counted for little in the face of a swarm of water-borne red algae. As the algae clogged filters at plants along the coast, authorities in Abu Dhabi estimated losses of more than AED368,000 ($100,000) a day for the sector, with production capacity falling by 30-40 per cent.

The incident served as a grave warning that the emirate needed urgently to boost its emergency water supply to cope with similar events in the future or the risk of an offshore oil disaster like the recent oil spill in the US’ Gulf of Mexico.

Improved methods of storing desalinated water, making better use of existing water supply and promoting greater conservation of this precious commodity are now at the top of the government’s agenda.

In the Western Region initiative, the government’s strategy involves pumping millions of litres of desalinated water into underground aquifers and expanding its current potable water supply. SWS is assisting with the management of its water storage.

“By 2015, according to published Adwec statistics, there will be a gap between production and demand,” says Herrmann. “The government is taking major steps to overcome this and is investing in new solutions, such as aquifer storage and recovery, which are currently being implemented.”

Building water reserves

Similar efforts are also under way elsewhere in the UAE. In 2008, construction began in Dubai on the world’s largest concrete drinking water reservoir in Mushrif. The project increased the emirate’s reserve capacity from 235 million gallons to 415 million gallons.

“The UAE currently has an available potable storage supply of two days, which is planned to be increased for the city of Abu Dhabi to 90 days of water supply,” Herrmann says. In 2007, Adwea had storage capacity of about 332 million gallons, equivalent to less than one day’s production.

To conserve water, large underground aquifers are preferred to using surface storage tanks.

“One can choose surface storage or sub-surface storage,” says Herrmann. “But there are higher costs involved with surface storage, such as the construction of large tanks, which also have an environmental impact. In terms of capital expenditure, the difference between the costs of sub-surface to surface storage is on a scale of 1-10. Surface storage can be costly.”

There are now only very small quantities of groundwater in the country

Hassan Fath, Masdar Institute

Eight years ago, pilot tests were carried out in the UAE to test water storage technology. The key was to find a suitable location and to avoid populated and agricultural areas. The studies proved successful and there is now increasing demand for underground storage facilities across the Gulf – in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, says Herrmann,

“We are assessing the feasibility of water storage at Al-Schwaib in the UAE and another location, which is yet to be determined,” he says. “Also, we have already carried out similar work in the emirate of Sharjah. In terms of storing large volumes of water, aquifers are the best solution. The difficulty is the capacity of water needing to be stored.

“The [Abu Dhabi] government wants to have up to 90 days of water available – around 40 million gallons a day, which works out at about 180 litres of water a day per person for 1 million people.”

Recharging UAE aquifers

A further challenge is getting the desalinated water into the aquifers. According to Herrmann, there are two ways of recharging aquifers: water can either be infiltrated from the surface through ponds into the aquifer or it can be injected through wells into the storage area of a suitable aquifer at depth – this is the recommended method.

But it is not simply a case of locking up the water in an aquifer and coming back to it when it is needed.

“Once water is stored it cannot just be left – it must be monitored and kept alive by carrying out operational activities. It is a complex procedure,” says Herrmann.

Adwea has sought out private firms, including SWS, to manage and regulate its water supply. Incentives to regulate demand are built into water management contracts to ensure a certain amount is always available for use. “The ideal is to be able to meet increasing demand during times of water shortage, while recharging the aquifers with water during periods of excess production from desalination plants,” says Herrmann. Treated sewage effluent can also be used to recharge aquifers and this is already been experimented with in Kuwait, with reclaimed water from the Sulaibiya wastewater treatment works injected into aquifers.

However, using processed water to recharge aquifers is rare, with governments preferring to use the water directly for irrigation and industry. Across the world, the use of reclaimed water has often faced suspicion on religious or cultural grounds and the Middle East is no exception. But as resources run dry, governments are expected to implement more robust water reuse strategies.

“Treated effluent or reclaimed water is already in use for agricultural and landscape purposes,” says Fath. “But we are not using it all.”

Rising water demand in Abu Dhabi

By 2030, water demand in Abu Dhabi is forecast to rise to 1,300 million g/d. By that time the management of water in the Gulf should look very different.

Huge underground aquifers will be constantly monitored and circulated to meet emergency supply in the event of widespread algae formation or a disaster affecting the country’s desalination plants.

Abu Dhabi peak water demand
(Million gallons a day)
2008 614
2009 649
2010 729
2011 758
2012 956
2013 997
2014 1,036
2015 1,061
2016 1,081
2017 1,102
2018 1,124
2019 1,144
2020 1,170
2021 1,194
2022 1,216
2023 1,237
2024 1,256
2025 1,276
2026 1,293
2027 1,310
2028 1,328
2029 1,345
2030 1,362
Source: Abu Dhabi Water & Energy Company

Any lingering concerns over the use of reclaimed water are likely to have been cast aside when confronted by the reality of arid conditions. Across the region, per capita renewable water availability will have fallen by 50 per cent from 1,100 cubic metres a year (cm/y) to 550 cm/y by 2050.

Steps being taken now to educate and inform the public on the need to lower consumption and conserve more water will also be crucial in improving water security in the UAE.

For years the people of the UAE have lived a certain, carefree existence where water was heavily subsidised by the state. Although in the past water tariff reforms have been mooted across the Gulf, heavy subsidies continue in most states for the time being.

Abu Dhabi alone consumes up to 550 litres of water per person a day – two to three times the world average of 180-200 litres, and yet pay nothing for the water they use. A complete water strategy that addresses capacity and demand management, as well as storage will be essential if the country’s utility providers are to keep pace with rising consumption in the years ahead.