In 2010 it was estimated that the United Arab Emirates had access to a four day reserve supply of fresh water, an amount that was deemed insufficient. To minimise the vulnerabilities in its water supply network, Abu Dhabi, the largest of the UAE’s seven emirates, recently completed the construction of an artificial groundwater recharge system under the Liwa Desert. Surplus water from the Shuweihat desalination plant is pumped into a natural aquifer via 315 injection wells. The aquifer can hold 26 billion litres, enough to provide 180 litres per day to one million people for 90 days.
The UAE is one of the world’s most water-scarce countries, but has managed to avoid a crippling shortage of fresh water through desalination. Desalination plants supply more than 95 per cent of the country’s drinking water, a reliance that poses a risk to the water supply. In rare circumstances desalination plants are shut down for extended periods. In 2008-09, for instance, four desalination plants in the UAE were temporarily closed following an outbreak of harmful algal blooms, colloquially known as red tides. The algal blooms can clog the fine membranes that filter seawater, leading to decreases in water production of up to 40 per cent and increased operating costs.
Storing water underground reduces the amount of water that is lost to environmental flows, an important factor in a region that experiences high evapotranspiration rates. Dams still play an important role in water storage in the country, with 130 dams capable of storing up to 120 million cubic metres of water. Most of the dams are designed to allow water to slowly seep into aquifers. As there are no river networks in the country, however, inflow is entirely dependent on rainfall.
The UAE’s artificial groundwater recharge system could be adopted by other water scarce countries in the Middle East. For the majority of the Gulf States surplus desalination water can be diverted to aquifers relatively easily once appropriate groundwater storage sites are identified. In other parts of the Middle East, however, this might not be an option due to high construction and operating costs.
Energy remains the greatest ongoing cost for desalination plants and electricity networks outside of the wealthy Gulf States are underperforming as demand outpaces supply. While the UAE plans to derive a quarter of its electricity from nuclear power by 2021, and its first reactor is scheduled to come online in 2018, the technology is likely to remain out of the reach of many other countries in the region.
Solar desalination plants could produce water at a lower operating cost and could be a more appropriate option for these countries. According to some Emirati energy consultants, solar energy is already cheaper to deploy and operate than nuclear reactors in the Middle East, partly due to difficulties in obtaining cooling water for nuclear facilities. A desalination plant that operates entirely on solar power is under construction in eastern Saudi Arabia and, if it operates as intended, could provide a template for energy-poor parts of the Middle East.
Groundwater recharge utilising surplus water from desalination facilities could go some way toward strengthening the water security of Middle Eastern countries. Large-scale desalination facilities that utilise traditional energy sources are likely to remain out of reach for many countries in the region, but emerging technologies that take advantage of renewable energy sources could be a suitable alternative. If so, groundwater recharge using surplus water from these plants could become an option that helps to reduce water scarcity across the region.