Spring of life: Innovative water sources reduce the strain on supply


Abu Dhabi is redoubling efforts to conserve dwindling groundwater reserves and boost water conservation. It is especially important as the emirate is mostly hot and arid, and natural freshwater is limited. Around 65% of the emirate’s water supply comes from groundwater, according to the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD). Conserving this resource is a major challenge, with the UAE ranking 63rd out of 67 countries – ahead of Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia – in terms of sustainable water withdrawal in the 2018 Food Sustainability Index published by the Economist Intelligence Unit and the Barilla Centre for Food and Nutrition.

Agriculture is an important contributor to this scarcity, as the sector accounts for less than 1% of GDP but consumes around 60% of all water used: 39% for productive agriculture, 11% for greening and landscaping, and 10% for forestry, according to research firm Fanack Water. The unsustainable extraction of groundwater for irrigation has caused the resource to deplete far quicker than the natural recharge rate.

New Sources

To meet growing demand for groundwater, Abu Dhabi is turning to non-conventional sources of water, including treated wastewater. The EAD is working with Department of Energy and Abu Dhabi Sewerage Services Company to increase the reuse of treated water in forestry and agriculture to dampen demand for groundwater. In 2018 some 300.1m cu metres of treated wastewater was produced, with reuse measuring at 169.6m cu metres. Total capacity for wastewater treatment stood at 473.7m cu metres, highlighting its potential.

Reduction Strategies

Abu Dhabi has introduced various reduction and efficiency strategies to help it reach its target of lowering total water demand. Legislation was approved in 2016 to protect groundwater and included regulations and permitting procedures for excavating wells; the introduction of small desalination units in farms; and the monitoring of water usage to control consumption levels through meters.

The EAD is utilising research and monitoring to understand how groundwater capture works and evaluate groundwater needs for crops to avoid over-irrigation. In January 2019 the EAD launched a groundwater atlas to help track and analyse groundwater reserves and promote efficient resource management. The atlas maps out changes in groundwater levels in areas of agricultural activity, and summarises the quantity, quality, properties, location and depth of water resources to identify instances of overuse.

Efforts to secure the water supply have long been a policy priority. In September 2017 the country introduced the UAE Water Security Strategy 2036 with an aim to reduce total demand for water by 21%, reduce water scarcity, and increase the reuse of treated water and national storage capacity.

Securing Supply

In addition to identifying new, innovative sources for water and prioritising conservation, Abu Dhabi has been building its strategic water reserve capacity. In January 2018 the emirate completed work on the $540m Liwa aquifer, the world’s largest desalinated water reserve, with a capacity of 26bn litres of drinking water. Work included injecting desalinated water into natural aquifers that are connected to wells to be tapped in the event of an emergency. The reserve can provide at least 180 litres of drinking water to around 1m people for up to 90 days.

The emirate is now one of the world’s largest producers of desalinated water, with nine plants and a total daily production capacity of 4.4m cu metres. Most drinking water is sourced from desalination plants, with the supply standing at 1.1bn cu metres in 2018. Of that figure, 879.7m cu metres were produced within Abu Dhabi and 212.8m cu metres were imported from Fujairah. Capacity is set to increase, with a large-scale desalination facility at the Taweelah Power and Water Complex due to be fully operational in 2022. The Dh3.19bn ($868.32m) plant will have a capacity of approximately 909,000 cu metres per day.