Limited supply of available water resources poses an acute challenge to Abu Dhabi and the UAE more broadly. As new research points to the urgency in countering the trends of high water usage, the government is looking to increase efficiencies to sustain the water resources needed to support growth. On the agenda is the implementation of a data-driven water budget that encourages the sustainable use of water resources across agricultural, industrial and residential users.
According to a 2015 study “The Challenges of Water Scarcity and the Future of Food Security in the United Arab Emirates” conducted by researchers at the UAE University, Al Ain, the UAE’s groundwater resources, which at just over 4bn cu metres account for 70% of the water supply, could be depleted by the year 2030.
The study found that in some parts of the country, the water table has dropped by 60 metres. Ad Spijkers, regional head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), was quoted in local media in February 2015 stating that groundwater levels had fallen from 60 to 80 metres below the surface in Al Hamaranyah and Jabal Al Heben (in the Northern Emirates). According to data from the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (EAD) cited by the FAO, in Al Khazna, west of Al Ain, the water level fell from 56 to 96 metres in the 15 years from 1999 to 2014, while in Sweihan it declined from 46 metres in 1998 to 104 metres in 2013.
The EAD is working to identify the sectors most responsible for the depletion of groundwater levels in Abu Dhabi so as to effectively implement water-saving techniques specific to those sectors. The ultimate goal of the environmental agency is to significantly reduce consumption levels from the current annual usage of 2.7bn cu metres to 717m cu metres by 2030. By working to reduce consumption the EAD can aid the agricultural sector.
With the agricultural sector accounting for 60% of the emirate’s total water consumption, the prospect for the collapse of groundwater resources has a significant impact on the country’s food security. The annual national watering requirement for agriculture and forestry sectors in Abu Dhabi has been growing rapidly over the last several decades and is expected to be 2.2bn cu metres by 2030, according to the UAE University, Al Ain, study. Agricultural water usage falls under the responsibility of the EAD, as does water used in forestry.
The EAD has emphasised the importance of reducing the agricultural sector’s water usage and encourages the application of sustainable irrigation methods and the use of local salt-tolerant crop varieties as well as recycled or treated waste-water. Indeed, measures are already in place to ensure that government subsidies are available for farmers who use less water-intensive crops, desalination and water recycling, especially for future agricultural and/or municipal use.
“When it comes to the treated water the priority goes to the agriculture sector,” Mohammed Al Madfaei, the EAD’s executive director of integrated environmental policy and planning, told delegates at the World Water Conference in South Korea in April 2015, citing food security as a key concern.
Shifting the composition of water used in agriculture away from groundwater is one part of wider work to rationalise the emirate’s overall water resource. As such, in 2015 the EAD partnered with the University of Leeds in the UK on a research project to better define water resources and organise allocation based on optimal usage, so as to foster better practices. The resulting water budget, which will comprise treated water, desalinated water and groundwater, is expected by the end of 2015 or early 2016.
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