A number of initiatives aim to protect Abu Dhabi's environment

With its hot and arid climate, Abu Dhabi is predisposed to a number of environmental challenges that threaten its capacity to sustainably meet the needs of its growing population. In light of this, the importance of protecting the emirate’s natural environment is enshrined in key policy documents, including the Abu Dhabi Environment Vision 2030.

Driving resource efficiency – in particular in water and energy – to minimise the environmental impact is a key area of work for the emirate’s environmental bodies.

While it is considered a public good and a means of supporting the nation’s economic development, Abu Dhabi’s natural environment also presents opportunities for public and private sector investment and collaboration.

Energy Use

The UAE has undergone rapid growth since it was formed in 1971, with Abu Dhabi’s economy being transformed into a thriving urban economy. As with all nations that have undergone rapid economic growth and urban development, the UAE’s use of fossil fuels has grown significantly over the last decade. At the national level, the UAE released 199.65m tonnes of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in 2013, according to data released by the Ministry of Energy in January 2015. Of the total, some 22% (44.25m tonnes) came from road transport. The nation’s oil and gas sector contributed 15% (29.6m tonnes), while the cement and aluminium industries produced 8% of emissions each in 2013. Waste contributed 6% to the total emissions, while the agriculture sector was responsible for 1%.

The federal government has worked hard in recent times to significantly reduce the nation’s environmental impact, and these efforts are starting to bear fruit. Electricity usage is one such areas that the government has worked to reduce in recent years. According to the Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Company, electricity average usage per capita for the UAE as a whole was approximately 2.5 KWh in 2012. Meanwhile, in 2006 the Global Footprint Network, a non-profit environmental and sustainability advocacy organisation, calculated that the per capita footprint of the UAE was nearly 12 ha. In response, the UAE government began the Ecological Footprint Initiative in 2007, and in 2014 the county’s footprint was decreased to 7.75 ha per capita.

Water Resources 

Due to its desert location where summer temperatures average in the mid-and occasionally high-40s centigrade and annual rainfall does not typically exceed 160 mm (160 mm is applicable to mountainous areas in northern and eastern parts, while 60 mm is applicable to Liwa and interior desert), the emirate is naturally a water-scarce location. Furthermore, rapid economic growth brought with it a population boom, which in turn has put considerable pressure on the emirate’s natural water resources. Yet despite being faced with limited natural freshwater reserves, the UAE’s population benefits from 100% access to potable desalinated water, according to the World Bank.

Water use in the federation is high. Average per-person water usage is 550 litres per day, including all private and business use. According to the World Bank, as a whole, the UAE’s annual fresh groundwater withdrawals totalled 4bn cu metres in 2013 within Abu Dhabi, which equates to approximately 26 times the annual recharge. Data from the World Bank also shows that at the federal level 83% of annual fresh groundwater withdrawals went to agricultural and forestry use, 2% to industry and 15% to domestic use in 2013. Water usage in the agriculture and forestry sectors falls under the responsibility of the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (EAD), which oversees access to groundwater by licensing wells and well drilling companies. According to the EAD, the agriculture sector uses more than 60% of Abu Dhabi’s total water consumption in a given year.

Currently domestic water use is three times the world average. With the population of Abu Dhabi estimated to nearly double by 2030 in line with economic growth, water demand is likewise expected to double. At the national level, the UAE’s population is expected to pass the 12m mark by 2030, according to the World Bank’s population estimates.

One route to moderating future demand growth that has been mooted is to drive water usage efficiency by limiting the water available to an agreed “water budget”. This water budget approach would result in the rationalisation of groundwater, desalinated water and treated wastewater across all user groups. The EAD partnered in 2015 with the UAE University and the UK’s University of Leeds to further develop a data-driven water budget, which will encourage the sustainable use of water resources in Abu Dhabi (see analysis).

As well as efforts to manage supply, the government is also working to reduce demand. Tariffs were raised in early 2015, with the idea being that it could then help drive more sustainable usage, explained Simon Pearson, senior advisor, management support office at the EAD.

Water Policy

Sustainability is one of the biggest drivers of water policy, as Malcolm Haddock, planning and forecasting manager at Abu Dhabi Sewerage Services Company (ADSSC), explained in a conversation with OBG. As Haddock notes, the government has placed its full support behind the drive to become a leader in terms of green and low-carbon water treatment. ADSSC manages 800,000 cu metres per day, the equivalent of around 320 Olympic swimming pools, with over 7000 km of pipeline. According to Haddock, its treated water is fit for unrestricted irrigation use throughout the emirate. The agricultural sector currently relies primarily on groundwater, levels of which are falling. Policies are focusing on finding the optimal levels of efficiency for the “three types of water” – groundwater, recycled water and desalinated water.

A three-year plan was announced in late 2014 for reusing 100% of recycled water. Currently Abu Dhabi treats all 800,000 cu metres of the wastewater generated daily, of which 51% is reused while 49% returns to sea. According to Waterwise, Abu Dhabi’s water consumption portal, “less than 20% of the total water delivered to the transmission system is returned to sewer. This means that over 80% of water ends up on the ground.” Following the model in place in Al Ain, which was the first city in the UAE to reuse 100% of its recycled water (with just 5% lost during distribution), the recycled water will be free to use in agriculture, forestry and landscaping.

More broadly, the ADSSC wants to reduce the environmental impact of its activities. The company is preparing to embark on a programme to determine the amount of greenhouse emissions produced from its operations. Electricity used for wastewater treatment, which is energy intensive and relies on fossil fuels, is likely the main source of greenhouse emissions from the company’s operations, according to Haddock, and as such the use of solar power is likely to play an important part in their overall reduction.


The ADSSC is not the only agency working to reduce the environmental impact of the emirate’s desalination plants. A pilot programme by Masdar – a state-owned company that invests in new-energy initiatives – will be testing four smallscale desalination plants that have been designed to pilot energy-efficient methods to produce drinking water. The energy footprint of desalinated water in Abu Dhabi is in the range of 3.5-5 KWh per cu metre. As a prerequisite to taking part in the trial, each project was required to demonstrate that it could desalinate water using less than 1 KWh per cu metre. Techniques used in the trial programme include innovation on traditional reverse osmosis and the use of forward osmosis.

In 2013, when the project was announced, Masdar aimed to have a large-scale, commercially viable water desalination plant, powered by renewable energy, by 2020 in Abu Dhabi. “We hope that with this approach, we will be able to commercialise these technologies and become a key player in the desalination industry as a total solution provider and developer,” Mohammed El Ramahi, associate director for asset management, engineering and operations at Masdar Clean Energy, said about the project during the seventh annual World Water Forum 2015 in South Korea.

Air Quality

According to the EAD, monitoring has shown that air quality in Abu Dhabi is generally good. However, in addition to industrial and motor emissions, air quality is affected by dust storms which spread dust from the desert usually in February-March and June-August.

The Abu Dhabi Air Quality Website and Online Index was launched in 2008 by the EAD in cooperation with the Norwegian Institute for Air. Currently 20 stations are operational across the emirate, checking levels of sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter, hydrogen sulphide and methane in the air, with the data uploaded in real time to a public website.

Waste Management

Waste management is another key area of the emirate’s sustainability agenda. Abu Dhabi’s Tadweer – Centre for Waste Management is responsible for waste collection and facilities development in the emirate, as well as for licensing private and environmental service providers. One of its key responsibilities is to educate the public on sustainable practices, and in May 2015 it implemented the first of two phases of a roadmap designed to encourage recycling among residents in the emirate. Location-specific approaches will also be deployed to better tackle the recycling challenges facing the emirate.

A 25-year recycling plan will break Abu Dhabi into zones, with recycling centres being developed according to the types of waste generated in those particular areas. Tadweer is hoping that the approach will be adopted by other states in the GCC. Targeted recycling could in these cases mean providing appropriate recycling centres in proximity to areas undergoing development. Recycling and reduction of waste is a key component of the sustainable circular economy within the master plan.

Tadweer, along with Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi, has been working on developing a robust regulatory framework for waste management. In November 2015 a set of waste sector management policies and guidelines with the aim of reinforcing sustainable waste management in the emirate were enacted for implementation. The new policies include a waste planning policy; waste classification policy; waste permitting and enforcement policy; waste collection, segregation, transfer and tracking policy; waste reuse, recycling, resource recovery, treatment and disposal policy; in addition to a technical guideline for waste classification, the most important part of which is the policy and technical guideline that segregates and maximises recycling.

In addition to changing behaviours of Abu Dhabi’s residents, further research and innovation into improving efficiencies in waste management and commercialising the outcomes are particularly encouraged by the government. Opportunities exist for further development in the area of waste treatment, including private sector involvement. As EAD’s Pearson noted to OBG, the emirate already benefits from high-quality collection of waste and now needs to develop treatment facilities that keep so-called waste materials in productive use rather than being landfilled.

A number of such projects are being investigated. Research by the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology is being conducted on palm tree waste in order to turn it into bio-char that improves soil water retention and fertility. In a similar vein, date-palm waste, which has a high lignin content, can be digested by yeast and then used in the production of pharmaceuticals and industrial products.

An ADSSC pilot programme is currently looking into recycling bio-solids for use as fertiliser in forestry. Because solid waste in Abu Dhabi is mainly municipal – domestic waste rather than industrial – this means that bio-solids could be safely used in areas away from human interaction. ADSSC already employs energy sustainable methods using the natural drying and sterilisation of sewage sludge in the country’s desert sun, which keeps the carbon footprint of the process low.

Tadweer and the EAD are also making efforts to reduce and recycle construction and demolition (C&D) waste in the emirate, and Tadweer is in the process of developing a regional standards system for C&D waste reduction.


As well as enhancing the sustainability of the built environment, Abu Dhabi is working to protect more of the emirate’s natural environment and create opportunities for its enjoyment by residents. In early 2015, legal moves were made by the government to endorse the expansion of the emirate’s protected areas, oversight of which falls under the EAD. Four additional marine areas were recommended for protected status. At present, the emirate has two marine protected areas, the 4255-sq-km Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve, and the 2046-sq-km Al Yasat Marine Protected Area. With the proposed expansion, the share of protected marine area would increase from 12.9% currently to 13.5% in the next couple of years.

The EAD has also recently completed the project design on an ecotourism initiative that will open three protected areas to the public. The Eco-reserve Programme promotes public use of the emirate’s natural environment, with walking trails and wildlife viewing areas, among other attributes. The first in the emirate to be recognised as a Ramsar site in 2013 – wetlands of international importance designated under the Ramsar Convention – Al Wathba Wetland Reserve is included in the programme along with Mangrove National Park and Qasr Al Sarab Protected Area. The programme will introduce a nominal fee to be reinvested back into site management. The EAD intends to train and educate tour guides and operators to better enable them to teach and instil sustainable practices and values among future tour operators and the visiting public alike.

Exsitu conservation programmes made strides in 2015, the most notable of which was preparations for the initial delivery of scimitar-horned Oryx, which are extinct in the wild, to their native environment in Central and Northern Africa. In 2014, the EAD and the government of Chad initiated a project to re-introduce 500 Oryxes from Sir Bani Yas island in Abu Dhabi, which is home to the world’s largest population of the animal, to a nature reserve in Chad. The first Oryxes are scheduled to arrive in Chad in 2016. The first endeavour of its kind, the large-scale re-population also serves as an model for future initiatives. The technique uses much larger numbers than what is used in the traditional approach and is based on complex software modelling for species survivability in a native habitat. It can also be seen as an indication of the true costs of species depletion in the first place, as Majid Al Qassimi, director at the EAD, told OBG, underscoring the need for conservation rather than reliance on reactionary measures. Doing “what’s best for the species and the environment” is what Al Qassimi sees as the real lesson here, and the vision Abu Dhabi has in driving forward innovative initiatives when it comes to environmental protection and wildlife conservation inside and also beyond its borders.

Oversight & Regulation

The overarching policy agenda for the sector is Abu Dhabi Environment Vision 2030, which was developed by the EAD through a directive from Abu Dhabi Executive Council. Its objective is to ensure sustainable development and the protection of the emirate’s natural environmental assets by bringing together economic, environmental and social agendas that will steer the emirate towards sustainable development.

Abu Dhabi’s natural environment comes under the regulatory remit of the EAD. Established in 1996, it is the primary independent government agency tasked with protecting and preserving the environment and promoting sustainable development. The EAD is responsible for issues relating to the emirate’s biodiversity, air quality, water resources, waste management, marine water quality and the effects of climate change. Its activities include raising awareness on critical environmental concerns and implementing and enforcing government policies.

The body also monitors and surveys habitats and species, and engages in conservation measures. Its groundwater resource management includes, among other things, controlling the access to groundwater by permitting the drilling of wells as well as monitoring changes in groundwater reserves and groundwater quality.

The EAD also takes a holistic approach to oversight of the management of all water resources, and is promoting a water budget approach as a way to rationalise the consumption of water, as well as supporting innovative work to conserve water and reduce the energy footprint from desalination. Its enforcement framework includes inspections, the levying of fines and overseeing fees. The emirate-based agency works in coordination with the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment on regulation and implementation of laws.

Informed Analysis

The UAE is taking steps to utilise data-driven analysis in environmental policymaking at the national level, and the Abu Dhabi government and the EAD are pivotal actors in this regard. The EAD places emphasis on using good data to inform policy. This is illustrated by EAD projects such as the comprehensive habitat mapping completed in 2015, the EAD’s continued support for the Abu Dhabi Global Data Initiative and the Eye on Earth movement that held its second successful summit in October 2015 bringing together data experts from around the world to promote the availability and use of environmental and societal data with the goal of sustainable development.

Thanks to concerted efforts to develop and implement effective environmental policy, the UAE’s national-level ranking on the Yale University Environmental Performance Index has improved since 2010, when it was ranked 152nd out of 163 countries on the list. Although it outperformed other countries in the region, in 2016 the UAE fell on the index rankings to the 92nd position out of 180 countries from 25th place in 2014.

Building Standards

As Abu Dhabi’s skyline continues to grow, sustainability in construction is increasingly important. “Estidama”, which means sustainability in Arabic, represents the vision to create a sustainable Abu Dhabi by preserving and enriching the emirate’s physical and cultural identity, while improving the quality of life for its residents. The programme is managed by the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council (UPC). One of the key components of Estidama is the Pearl Rating System (PRS), the Arab world’s first sustainability rating system designed to assess the sustainability performance of buildings, communities and villas. The PRS aims to address issues regarding the sustainability of a given development throughout its lifecycle from design through construction to operation.

September 2010 marked a significant milestone towards a transition to a more sustainable built environment within Abu Dhabi as the PRS became a mandatory requirement for all new developments within the emirate. The PRS is currently mandatory for proposed new-construction villas, buildings and community projects that fall under the ownership of developers. The PRS has been integrated into the building permit process at the various municipalities such that the construction of an applicable development is only possible if a project complies with the PRS requirements.

According to Estidama’s statistics, as of January 2016, 12,187 villas and 1076 buildings had received Pearl Ratings under the programme, while the total number of projects reached 1208. The programme is founded on four pillars of sustainability: environmental, economic, social and cultural.

In 2015, the initiative “gained a new level of maturity”, Falah Al Ahbabi, director-general of the UPC, told OBG. The programme has evolved from a period of education to one of refinement, in which it is now working closely together with technical experts and sustainability experts who have been trained by the UPC and independently assessed, called Estidama Pearl Qualified Professionals (PQPs). Additionally, by monitoring trends in submissions, Estidama has been able to identify gaps in “green” practices and offer additional guidance to developers. Estidama thus ensures that villas, buildings and communities are both designed and constructed sustainably. As Al Ahbabi explains, the construction phase “is where a project is at greatest risk of losing its Pearl Rating”.

However, Estidama’s construction audit process assists project teams with minimising risk associated with non-compliant development through closely monitoring a building’s progress in line with the expected construction timeline. The PQPs work alongside building contractors and consultants to ensure a building achieves its targeted Pearl Construction Rating.

Thoughtful Development

Abu Dhabi international airport’s Midfield Terminal Building is a key success story for the Estidama team, which is still closely involved with the project during its construction phase. As the largest single building to receive a Pearl Rating, its project team has achieved a 3-Pearl designation, 1 Pearl above the mandatory 2 Pearls for government projects. With 20m people expected to be using the airport within a few years, it will be an especially powerful tool for “sustainable communication”, said Al Ahbabi, “leading by example and able to effectively demonstrate sustainable practices to a very large audience”.

Another landmark development with an Estidama certification is a set of Abu Dhabi Education Council schools with a 3-Pearl rating. These are to be used as a model not only for green design and construction standards, but also for studying the benefits of these practices for end-users. Monitoring of these facilities is expected to “provide examples of how the productivity levels of those living, working and learning in healthier environments can be increased,” Al Ahbabi explained.


Sustainability is set to remain the fundamental cornerstone of Abu Dhabi’s environmental policy in the coming years, with private and public sector collaboration key to developing cross-cutting solutions that take into account environmental, economic, social, cultural and technological considerations. Continued growth will also likely be a key driver of innovation and sustainability as the emirate strives to minimise the environmental impact of an ever-expanding population. Commitment to sustainability programmes will be critical in this regard.

The progress being made through initiatives like Estidama and the partnerships across government agencies – including with private sector players – will continue to present opportunities for investment in technology that reduces the carbon footprint and enables Abu Dhabi to develop further as an international leader in environmental innovation and sustainable development. The ability of Abu Dhabi to adapt to new realities appears certain.

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The Report: Abu Dhabi 2016

Environment chapter from The Report: Abu Dhabi 2016

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