Abu Dhabi taking action to protect environmental treasures


Climate change, dwindling natural resources, pressure on ecosystems from urban expansion, pollution and waste management are all global challenges that are having an impact in Abu Dhabi, whose delicate environment is characterised by extremes of temperature and landscape. Over the last few decades, extraordinary economic and population growth has increased the pressure on this ecosphere, which has long been of concern for the emirate’s government.

Protecting the environment has been woven into the fabric of Abu Dhabi’s development plans. Sustainability and optimal use of resources are seen as vital to the future well-being of its people and the ecosphere. Authorities have crafted a host of programmes and agencies to further the sustainability agenda, while efforts to promote the environment have become pillars of emirate policy. All of this has profound implications for the emirate’s future, and affords lessons for the region and the world.

Challenging Times

Abu Dhabi covers 84% of the UAE’s land area, making the emirate’s environmental health crucial to the country. Expanding at around 3% a year in recent times, its population doubled in the 10 years to 2015, when it reached 2.78m – 12 times its size in 1975. Growth in the economy and population have affected the environment in a number of ways. As economic expansion has driven up per capita income, consumption has risen for industrial goods and services, many of which have a larger environmental footprint. Moreover, increasingly higher levels of income have also altered diets in ways that require more from the environment than the local biosphere can easily provide for.

Water Supply

The UAE has one of the world’s highest per capita incomes but one of its lowest biocapacities. With a landscape consisting largely of desert and the salty mud flats that stretch along the coast, Abu Dhabi relies on imports and industrial processes – such as desalination for drinking water – to meet domestic needs. Meanwhile, a harsh climate – average temperatures range from 22.8°C to 35°C, and can reach 50°C in the height of summer – requires extra water to run cooling and irrigation systems, demand that is largely met by using further industrial processes that affect the local environment. Groundwater – which is used in irrigation – is currently being extracted at 25 times the natural recharge rate; the emirate receives an average of just 87.4 mm of rainfall per year.

Air Quality

Above ground, too, curbing pollution is a challenge. Rapid growth has multiplied the number of vehicles on roads, contributing to a deterioration in air quality. Alongside emissions from industry and other sectors, this releases gases such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, in addition to ozone, a secondary pollutant mainly from the transport and industrial sectors. Particulate matter, while a natural component in arid, desert areas like the UAE, is also created by the interaction of gases like sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.

Urban expansion threatens the emirate’s biodiversity. Abu Dhabi is home to 51 indigenous species of mammal, yet six are on the “threatened” list. Some 78% of the emirate’s fish stocks are over-exploited, according to the “State of Environment 2016” report. Disposal of waste is a further issue: the UAE produces 1.65 kg of waste material per person per day, below the rate of 2.04 kg in the US but still a challenge in terms of management and recycling.

The EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service calculated that average global temperatures in 2016 were 0.2°C hotter than in 2015 – itself a record-high year. The consequent rise in sea temperatures affects marine life, while higher sea levels also contribute to coastal erosion. It also prompts more frequent extreme weather events: sand storms in Abu Dhabi have reportedly been increasing in number.

This all adds up to a major set of challenges, as a series of successive international conferences have recognised. In 2015 the COP21 UN Conference on Climate Change gathered leaders from more than 150 countries in Paris and produced a wide-ranging global agreement to tackle these issues.

The UAE played an active role at the conference, where countries submitted their goals for the next five years – or nationally determined contributions (NDCs) – and looked at greenhouse gas emissions targets. The gathering declared the aim of limiting global temperature rises to 2°C by 2050. Results of NDC implementation will be presented at the next meeting in December 2017.

Plans & Programmes

At the conference, the UAE was commended for the scale and ambition of its NDCs, with the country’s sustainability programme being already well advanced. Unusually for any country, the UAE has a Ministry of Climate Change and Environment at the federal level, which has drawn up a National Biodiversity Strategic Action Plan 2014-21. The emirate’s key policy initiatives, including the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 and Environment Vision 2030, have long-recognised the need to balance social and economic development with environmental sustainability.

The vision recognises the need to “balance economic growth with environmental sustainability”, and declares that enforcement of legislation codifying this will go hand-in-hand with incentivising people and businesses to respect nature. It employs a two-pronged approach of statute and incentives: the government encourages compliance by implementing legal best practices and creating the capacity for individuals and companies to comply, while also demonstrating to them the personal and financial benefits of environmental sustainability.

The development plan also highlights the role the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (EAD), the emirate’s lead organisation for pursuing and coordinating policies in this sphere. The EAD was instrumental in drawing up the “State of Environment 2016” report, which is based on years of detailed research and draws on data from across the emirate and the country. A key part of the EAD’s role so far has been to enable accumulation of accurate data, which in the past has often been lacking. The Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative, supported by the EAD and the UN Environment Programme, in turn connects this data work with international organisations.

The EAD contains within it the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Group (ADSG), which looks for ways to drive the private sector to adopt environmentally sustainable practices. An inclusive, network-based body, the ADSG helps companies, regardless of size, to build the capacity they need to implement the emirate’s targets, and helps train industry professionals and spread information in the wider business world. The EAD also supports the UAE’s chapter of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the Emirates Wildlife Society (EWS). The EWS-WWF undertakes various awareness programmes in the UAE, while developing its strategy for protected areas. “Biodiversity knows no borders”, its director-general, Ida Tillisch, told OBG, so projects must engage across national frontiers to protect endangered species and environments. Much of the EWS-WWF’s work is in marine conservation, on which it partners with a number of Gulf governments (see analysis).

The EAD works with various national and international organisations. In a memorandum of understanding with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, it carries out a project that monitors and protects dugongs and their seagrass meadows, many of which lie around Abu Dhabi’s offshore islands. The EAD also supports efforts to help migratory species, and to reintroduce species to habitats from which they have recently vanished.

Other partners include Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital and Emirates Falconers’ Club – falconing being an enduring tradition in Emirati culture – with which it assists in conservation to enable the practice to be passed down to future generations.

Tackling Change

On its 20th anniversary in 2016, the EAD identified nine key challenges facing the emirate’s environment, many of which are just as applicable regionally: the unsustainable use of groundwater; declining air quality and the increasing risk of respiratory illnesses; the local impact of climate change; insufficient waste infrastructure; declining marine water quality; land pollution and soil degradation; habitat loss, alteration and fragmentation; overexploitation of wild fish populations; and unsustainable water usage in forests.

For many of these issues, measuring the scale of the problem has been a substantial task, and one in which Abu Dhabi has made great strides. “In 20 years the EAD’s single biggest achievement would have to be going from no real data about the environment to where we stand today,” James Duthie, director of PR and communications at the EAD, told OBG.

The EAD has used a Driver-Pressures-State-Impact-Responses (DPSIR) model, which is a framework for describing the interactions between society and the environment developed by the European Environmental Agency, to examine the drivers, or forces, pushing environmental change in the emirates, then the pressures those forces exert on the environment. The next step is to determine the impact of these forces on the ecosphere, human health and the economy, and then to ascertain what responses are appropriate to address these changes.

Data Collection

Under the DPSIR model, accumulating accurate data is key. In air quality, for example, the main pressure on the environment comes from industrial pollution, transport emissions and natural dust events. Given that these factors are airborne, Abu Dhabi may also be affected by events taking place outside the emirate.

To determine the impact, as well as formulate responses, starting in Abu Dhabi and then spreading outwards, the EAD has organised a system for monitoring ambient air across the UAE, using 20 fixed stations and two mobile units to measure concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, ozone and particulate matter. A network of e-links connects the EAD’s own facilities to monitoring facilities run by other entities, such as oil and gas companies, and meteorological stations in other emirates.

The results of such monitoring reveal that ozone and particulate matter are the greatest challenges, though sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide concentrations generally fall within national environmental standards set by the federal UAE authorities.

In response, the EAD has begun scientific inquiries into tropospheric ozone conditions to determine policies and regulations that will have the greatest effect in reducing its levels. Similar scientific work is being carried out with particulate matter – crucial work, given that there is no specific standard as yet for acceptable levels of very fine particulates known as PM25, which are more dangerous to public health than larger, coarser varieties of airborne dust. “We need to understand the composition of particulate matter, whether it is natural or anthropogenic,” said Duthie. The research will provide a basis for establishing such a standard, which can then shape regulatory measures. Such work is crucial to reducing air pollution, which the World Health Organisation sees as the planet’s greatest environmental health risk.

Abu Dhabi plays a leading regional role in the scientific research supporting bodies such as the EAD. In one notable example, it was the first in the Gulf to complete a greenhouse gas inventory at the local, emirate level. Two cycles of this research have now been completed, the second of which introduced an additional survey of wetlands. Abu Dhabi’s lead in this regard established the UAE as the only country besides the US to have such a survey, and its example in this field has since been emulated by Dubai.

Reducing Air Pollution

Moves have already been made to tackle air pollution. Given that transport is a major factor, one response is to cut or eliminate fuel subsidies, making petrol more expensive.

At the national level, the UAE has been gradually doing this in recent times, while enforcing higher fuel efficiency and cleaner diesel requirements in the nation’s vehicles. Since 2014 the UAE has used ultra-low-sulphur diesel, reducing its sulphur content from 500 parts per million to 10. At the emirate level, Abu Dhabi’s Department of Municipal Affairs and Transport (DMAT) has been reducing emissions, too, with 88% of the department’s buses achieving Euro 4 standards on efficiency for diesel fuel.

The DMAT is also conducting research into the feasibility of introducing electric buses, and more broadly, electric vehicles. A regulation introduced in 2010 has already switched 25% of all government vehicles from using petrol and diesel over to less-polluting compressed natural gas.

In industry, a programme to gather real-time data from smoke stacks is under way, with a pilot project at the Umm Al Nar power plant. Some segments are addressing the polluting effects of their processes. A carbon-capture project being engineered at an Emirates Steel plant in the Industrial City of Abu Dhabi, for example, will capture gas and re-use it in enhanced oil recovery projects by Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (see Industry chapter).

Water Consumption

Water also remains a major challenge. Economic and population growth have greatly increased water consumption in the UAE, where 62.6% of this comes from groundwater, 32.6% from desalinated water and the rest from wastewater. High usage is having an impact on the quality and availability of groundwater, with just 3% of it now considered fresh. Desalination plants release polluting emissions that also impact human health and discharge brine that can damage marine life.

Responses to this have taken various forms. One is demand-side management through hikes in water tariffs, the most recent of which took place in January 2017. Another is the Strategic Tunnel Enhancement Programme, which will collect all of Abu Dhabi’s wastewater via a single pipe system and deliver it to treatment plants. Scientific research on new uses of wastewater is ongoing, notably at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, which is also looking at ways to use solar power in desalination, thereby reducing reliance on gas-fired power plants (see Utilities chapter).

To protect groundwater, regulations have been established governing the drilling and usage of wells. Under a new groundwater law issued in late 2016 that placed exploitation of this resource under EAD guidelines, installation of water meters is required at wellheads and desalination plants to enable accurate measurement of water extraction. The EAD has capped consumption from wells, and oversees regular maintenance and upkeep of these to minimise losses. Professional standards for drilling wells are also being introduced. Violators of these regulations are subject to stiff fines or imprisonment, highlighting the emirate’s sensitivity to water misuse.

Enforcement of rules and regulations has long been an issue in environmental protection. As the EAD expands its data collection capabilities, a vital next step is to identify areas that require specific regulation, then ensure that citizens, expatriates, private enterprises and public corporations all abide by the rules. The EAD’s approach is two-fold: enforce new laws by punishing violations, yet assist organisations and individuals by giving them the tools to meet required standards. “You have to help the people you are trying to regulate,” said Duthie.

Education and awareness are central to this. One example of such efforts is Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre in Al Ain, at the entrance to a wildlife park and resort, which educates visitors in the natural and cultural history of Arabian deserts, and promotes conservation and sensitivity to the environment. Meanwhile, organisations like the ADSG work closely with businesses to inform them of the impact of their activities and then help build their capacity to change.

Private businesses often have their own sustainability programmes. Rotana Group, a Riyadh-based entertainment firm that operates hotels and resorts in Abu Dhabi, has an initiative called Rotana Earth that produces regular reports on sustainability, and promotes conservation of water, energy and materials, along with better waste management and various social, economic and governance initiatives. By highlighting such projects, the ADSG aims to inspire other hotel groups to follow suit. “Fundamentally, people and companies want to do business with sustainable businesses,” said ADSG director-general, Huda Al Houqani. “The ADSG provides a grandstand for people who are sustainability champions.”


In tackling environmental pressures, few underestimate the scale of the challenges the emirate faces. Yet for all the challenges, Abu Dhabi has made extraordinary progress in recent times, not least by placing sustainability at the heart of its development strategy. Renewable energy, smart cities, demand-side management of water and energy, and encouragement and deployment of the latest, least-polluting technologies are all areas in which the emirate surpasses many of its peers. Because many of these issues are regional or global in nature, too, Abu Dhabi’s initiatives can serve as an example that inspires actors far beyond its borders.

As more reliable data is collected and networks built, regulation can be fine-tuned, while education and awareness campaigns work to improve social and economic habits. While much remains to be done, Abu Dhabi is working to meet its environmental targets, and building a sustainable future.

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The Report: Abu Dhabi 2017

Environment chapter from The Report: Abu Dhabi 2017

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