At first its sounds quite funny. But the fact that people are starting to notice the smell of sewage in the Dubai air is no laughing matter.

Dubai’s malodorous atmosphere is a serious problem, both for the emirate’s carefully managed image as an international centre for recreation and as a potential health issue for residents.

The smell is the result of Dubai’s lack of sewage treatment capacity. Too much pressure on the Al-Aweer wastewater treatment plant, the emirate’s only sewage works, has resulted in the production of treated wastewater that does not meet international standards.

It cannot have come as a surprise to the authorities. The Al-Aweer plant is operating at 75 per cent above design capacity, which clearly did not happen overnight, suggesting that the problem was underestimated or ignored for some time.

Dubai Municipality has now admitted that the treated sewage effluent it is producing does not meet quality standards, but has stopped short of admitting health risks. They exist nonetheless. Insufficiently treated sewage may contain numerous dangerous pathogens.

Dubai is not alone – wastewater infrastructure is under pressure across the region as many countries in the Gulf experience a population boom. But nowhere else is experiencing the same rate of real estate expansion.

Scaremongering will not help the situation, but it is clear that urgent investigation is needed to identify any possible health risks created by discharging the substandard treated effluent into Dubai Creek or using it for irrigation.

While there are plans to increase Dubai’s wastewater treatment capacity, these will take years to deliver. In the meantime, the emirate will need to prioritise and push through the proposed short-term remedies.