State-backed efforts target conservation and greener development

International rankings suggest that the natural environment in Abu Dhabi is comparatively well protected by global standards. The UAE as a whole, of which Abu Dhabi is the largest emirate in terms of size, ranked 25th out of 178 countries in Yale University’s 2014 Environmental Performance Index, which scored countries based on their environmental health, ecosystem protection and resource management. Indeed, the UAE scored higher than any other Middle Eastern nation, with the next-best-performing country in the region being Saudi Arabia in 35th place. While the UAE ranked 105th in the index’s climate and energy category and 65th in its air quality category, it came in near the top in several other areas, such as biodiversity and habitat (15th) and agriculture (17th).

Oversight & Strategy

The Abu Dhabi Environment Vision 2030 aims to improve the emirate’s performance in many of these areas. The Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (EAD) is responsible for implementing the strategy, and focuses on five priority areas: climate change, air and noise pollution, water resources, biodiversity and habitats, and waste management. Sustainability is also a key focus of the wider plan for the economic development of the emirate, and is included in the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030. The EAD, which employed 1106 people in 2013, is also responsible more generally for protecting and conserving the environment and enforcing environmental regulations in the emirate. As such, the agency is involved in a range of environmental activities, including running wildlife monitoring, conservation and breeding programmes, issuing environmental permits for industrial projects and raising awareness; it also acts as an advisor to the government on environmental issues.

Water Usage

A key environmental challenge for the emirate and wider country is the availability of water. According to World Bank figures, the UAE in 2013 had the third-lowest renewable internal fresh water resources per capita in the world (behind Bahrain and Kuwait), at 16 cu metres, with the figure down from 26 cu metres in 2007. Groundwater usage, which, according to EAD figures, accounted for 65% of water consumption in Abu Dhabi in 2012, is currently running at around 23 times the natural recharge rate.

To increase the availability of the resource, the emirate desalinates seawater, and it consumed 1.08bn cu metres of desalinated water in 2013, according to the Statistics Centre - Abu Dhabi (SCAD), up from 1.06bn cu metres the previous year and 667m cu metres in 2005. However, in addition to being a costly process, desalination uses large amounts of energy and produces brine as a waste product, which is often returned to the sea, increasing its salinity.

According to Simon Pearson, senior advisor at the EAD, at current consumption rates the usable portion of groundwater is set to run out in approximately 50 years, though he added that in some geographical areas of intensive use the figure is closer to about 10 or 20 years. Combined with anticipated levels of population growth, this suggests that production of desalinated water may need to be tripled by 2030 – something Pearson described as both economically and environmentally unsustainable.

To address the issue, in January 2014 Abu Dhabi launched a Water Resources Management Strategy, updating a version of a strategy document first prepared by the EAD in 2009. The initiative aims to increase the efficiency of water use, bringing per capita consumption down from about 614 cu metres per day in 2010 to less than 340 cu metres by 2030, as well as to minimise the environmental impact of water production and infrastructure.

According to Pearson, there is room for substantial reduction in water consumption, which he said runs at three to four times European levels on a per capita basis, as there is a high degree of inefficiency in use. This is partly a result of the subsidised price of water, which does not deter heavy use, and suggests that consumption could be brought down without necessarily imposing major constraints on wider development.

To reduce water use in the agricultural sector, which is the largest consumer of the resource, in 2010 the authorities began phasing out production of Rhodes grass. Previously responsible for the bulk of irrigation in farming, production of the grass has now been ended (see Agriculture & Food chapter). The agriculture sector in 2012 accounted for around 71% of total water consumption, the vast majority being groundwater, according to EAD figures.

The EAD is also proposing a new approach to the overall management of the emirate’s water consumption, based on the concept of a “water budget” that would set a limit on annual consumption – likely well below current levels of use – and then allocate set amounts of water to different users.

“Governments are used to working with fixed financial budgets and then allocating portions of them to users. The idea is to get people to start working the same way with resources,” Pearson told OBG.

The emirate recycles wastewater, which accounted for around 6% of consumption in 2012. In October 2013 the Abu Dhabi Sewerage Services Company said it was working with the EAD and the emirate’s government to seek approval for construction of a 200-km pipe network that would allow for all recycled wastewater in Abu Dhabi City to be put to use, as is already the case in the emirate’s second-largest city, Al Ain.

Changing Energy Mix

In common with other GCC states, the UAE has elevated levels of energy use. Per capita consumption in 2012 was among the highest in the world, according to World Bank data, at 7407 kg of oil equivalent, behind only seven other countries. Several factors account for this, such as the availability of inexpensive energy and electricity, the reliance on private cars for transport and – most importantly – the strong need for air conditioning due to the region’s climate. To reduce its dependence on hydrocarbons for electricity generation – as well as the consequent carbon emissions and air pollution – other forms of electricity generation are being pursued. Two initiatives focusing on nuclear and renewable energy are expected to generate 25% and 7%, respectively, of Abu Dhabi’s energy needs by 2020.

Sustainable Transport

The authorities have plans to encourage the growth of more environmentally friendly forms of transport and diversify away from the emirate’s heavy reliance on private motor vehicles. A bus system has been introduced in Abu Dhabi City and its environs, and there are long-term plans to build a comprehensive metro and light rail network. The imminent launch of the first phase of Etihad Rail, the UAE’s national railway project, will also offer an alternative to road freight.

In addition, the authorities intend to boost levels of walking and cycling. This includes encouraging people to commute shorter distances by living and working within mixed-use communities, rather than travelling between towns or neighbourhoods, as well as by creating dedicated infrastructure, such as Abu Dhabi’s Walking and Cycling Master Plan. Released in April 2014, the plan calls for the development of a network of some 950 km of walking and cycling paths in Abu Dhabi City and over 450 km in Al Ain by 2030.

In Abu Dhabi City, the Urban Planning Commission (UPC) has initial plans to improve infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists in the Tourist Club and Khalidiyah areas. Beyond the main island, the body has also identified areas such as Khalifa City, Mohammed bin Zayed City and Shakhbout City as priority neighbourhoods for implementing similar plans.

“Most newly constructed streets now have cycle lanes and we have comprehensive plans to cover all the major neighbourhoods in Abu Dhabi City with cycling and walking pathways by 2017,” Falah Al Ahbabi, director-general of the UPC, told OBG. Despite the twin challenges of the hot and humid environment and the large geographical size of the cities of Al Ain and Abu Dhabi, Al Ahbabi said that the schemes are popular. “People here really like opportunities to walk and cycle. We won’t see large numbers of people cycling to work in the next decade, but more and more will use bikes as a form of transport in the evening, for example” (see Transport chapter).

Working With Industry

The EAD issues environmental permits for which all industrial facilities and developments are obliged to apply and decides which projects require an environmental impact assessment before going ahead. In 2013 the agency issued 3992 of these permits. Currently, the EAD is working to facilitate and speed up such processes; for example, in 2013 it signed a memorandum of understanding for the creation of a “one-stop shop” for all environmental permits for projects in the Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi, located adjacent to Khalifa Port.

Also in 2013 the agency launched a campaign called Eltezam (“compliance” in Arabic) that aims to facilitate industry compliance with environmental regulations. The campaign’s methods include providing businesses with advice on environmental laws and requirements for permits. The first phase of the campaign targeted the ready-mix concrete sector, with a focus on reducing particulate matter emissions in order to improve the emirate’s air quality.

In November 2014 the agency launched the campaign’s second phase, aimed at the fibre reinforced plastics industry. In the future the EAD also intends to focus on other industrial sectors, including the metals and chemical storage industries.

Waste Emission & Mnagement

According to the Environment Vision 2030, each resident of Abu Dhabi generates an average of 1.9 kg of waste per day, above the OECD average of 1.5 kg, and the figure is forecast to increase several-fold by 2030, if the business continues as is. Around 65% of waste in the emirate was generated by construction and demolition activities in 2013, according to SCAD. The Centre of Waste Management - Abu Dhabi, known as Tadweer, is responsible for supervision and oversight of the sector, including the implementation of its Waste Management Strategy, which was approved and published in 2013. Tadweer extended its waste segregation campaign in 2014, deploying nearly 140,000 smart bins in targeted neighbourhoods across the emirate, for segregated collection of recyclables and general waste separately. These bins are capable of remotely tracking the current as well as historic weight of the waste in it. The centre has increased investment in machinery and manpower of late, pursuant to its goal of fostering a more sustainable waste management environment.

Efforts to increase environmental awareness regarding waste appear to be bearing fruit; for example, 88% of respondents to the EAD’s 2013 “Environmental Awareness and Behaviour Survey” in the construction industry expressed “concern” regarding waste management practices in the sector, up from 45% in the previous year. Tadweer and the Abu Dhabi National Energy Company, better known as TAQA, are working together on studying the feasibility of a waste-to-energy plant. Tadweer is in the process of developing an Integrated Waste Management Master Plan for the emirate, and waste-to-energy will be one of the points evaluated as part of the same master plan.

Sustainable Planning

Sustainability is a key element of the Economic Vision 2030 and the authorities have launched a number of initiatives to support this, including the Estidama (Arabic for “sustainability”) programme in 2008. A key element of Estidama is a sustainability rating system that awards buildings, villas and communities a score of between one and five “pearls”, covering issues such as energy and water sustainability (in addition to other non-environmental forms of sustainability, including economic). Achieving ratings at even the lower end of the scale has a substantial impact on resource use: according to the UPC, a one-pearl office tower requires 32% less energy and 40% less water than buildings built with construction practices that were in use before the scheme was launched. All new buildings in the emirate are now required to have a rating of at least one pearl, and new government buildings are required to have two pearls. As of October 2014, 330 buildings in the emirate had a one-pearl rating, 506 had a two-pearl rating, 38 had a three-pearl rating, four had a four-pearl rating and just one – the Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre – had a five-pearl rating, according to the UPC’s Al Ahbabi.

In addition, the EAD has been working with the UPC and other agencies on an ongoing update of the master plan for the urban development of Abu Dhabi City, known as Plan Capital 2030. Pearson told OBG that he believed that the updated plan, once approved, would likely propose a denser model of development outside of Abu Dhabi Island than currently exists, explaining that higher-density housing is more efficient and sustainable in terms of utilities usage than urban sprawl, and reduces the environmental and geographic footprint of the expanding city.

Protecting Biodiversity

Despite its relatively small size, the emirate hosts a wide variety of wildlife, though some of it is currently under threat. According to the latest available data from SCAD, there were 793 recorded vertebrate animal species in the emirate in 2012, of which 46 were endangered, including 16 types of mammal, 15 bird species and 10 types of fish. As for invertebrates, more than 2000 different species are found in Abu Dhabi.

The EAD is engaged in a range of efforts to assess, monitor and protect natural habitats and biodiversity in the kingdom. Prominent examples include a programme to monitor and assess the emirate’s population of dugongs – a large aquatic mammal from the same order of species as the manatee – that is both the second largest in the world as well as the densest. The agency also works with local fishing communities to avoid the accidental capture of dugongs, which is their main cause of death, and to monitor their local sea grass habitats. Thanks to such efforts, the population is currently stable, with figures of around 2900 in winter and 2291 in summer.

The agency runs a bird-monitoring programme covering coastal areas and offshore islands. The initiative collects information on issues such as the distribution, habitats and breeding patterns of selected species of birds, including flamingos and Egyptian vultures, which are native to the Jebel Hafeet area in Al Ain.

In January 2013 the EAD also launched a satellite-based project to map the impact of human development on natural habitats in the emirate, covering 59,640 sq km of land and 28,220 sq km of marine environments. The EAD uses the maps generated to support its work, such as when conducting environmental impact assessments for major infrastructure and industrial projects and also when designating protected areas (see analysis).

Breeding & Reintroduction Programmes

In 2010 the EAD established a centre for breeding endangered species, the Delaika Conservation and Breeding facility. The centre, which covers 3.5m sq metres of land, works with four main species, namely mountain gazelles, sand gazelles, the Arabian oryx and the African/scimitar-horned oryx. The agency is planning to develop the site as part of its efforts to build a “world herd” – that is, the most genetically diverse and healthy herd in the world – for each of these species. When complete in 2016, the site will feature a wide range of facilities, including a veterinary clinic, postmortem clinic, visitor facilities and quarters for visiting researchers. The centre’s work overlaps with the agency’s efforts to reintroduce endangered species to the wild, often abroad.

In November 2014 it announced plans to gradually reintroduce around 500 scimitar-horned oryx to the wild in Ouadi Rime-Ouadi Achim game reserve in Chad over five years, starting in October 2015. The species has been extinct in the wild since around the year 2000 and cannot be released in the UAE as it is not native to the area. The following month the EAD released a herd of 100 Nubian ibex into a dedicated protected area of the Wadi Rum nature reserve in Jordan; the animals will be fully released into the wild after they have adapted to the environment.


In September 2014 the EAD opened two eco-reserves, the Al Wathba Wetland Reserve and the Mangrove National Park. Both are accessible to the public and have infrastructure for visitors such as walkways and wildlife viewing stations. The Al Wathba reserve, which is roughly 5 sq km in size and is also a protected area (see analysis), consists of a man-made lake located around 40 km south-east of Abu Dhabi City and is best known for its winter population of around 4000 flamingos.

The reserve is also characterised by a high degree of biodiversity, with around 250 other species of birds, 11 species of mammals, 10 species of reptiles and 237 types of invertebrates. In 2013 the site was recognised a “Wetlands of International Importance” under the Rasmar convention.

Mangrove National Park is a 19-sq-km mangrove swamp located on the eastern coast of Abu Dhabi City that can be visited by privately organised kayak tours. In total 74,305 km of the emirate is covered by mangrove forests, according to a survey conducted in 2009. The importance of the park lies in the fact that the mangrove is listed as “vulnerable” in terms of extinction risk on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened plant species and represents an important marine and bird habitat (see analysis). The agency is also planning to open another eco-reserve to the public at the Qasr Al Sarab protected area, where since 2007 it has been running a programme to reintroduce the nearly extinct Arabian oryx (of which there are now 400 in the area) to the wild, as well as two more national parks.


The rapid development of Abu Dhabi and issues such as the scarcity of renewable water resources will pose significant environmental challenges in the coming years. The extent to which the emirate is able to meet these will depend on whether and how quickly it can introduce change in the form of planned or mooted projects, such as developing its public transport infrastructure, limiting urban sprawl and moving to a more sustainable consumption model for water.


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The Report: Abu Dhabi 2015

Environment chapter from The Report: Abu Dhabi 2015

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