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Photo 1: Sea of Abu Dhabi, UAE (Source: Devinevox, Flickr).
Water demand for household, commercial and industrial use will increase as a result of population and industrial growth. These higher demands can be met if water resources are conserved and well managed. Meanwhile, water demand for agriculture is expected to remain the same as a result of declining groundwater resources and a lack of arable lands.
Desalination of seawater and brackish groundwater will continue to be a viable option to increase water supply. Considering recent cost-cutting innovations in the desalination process, this alternative may prove to be a relatively inexpensive option in the near future.
In a water-thirsty country like the UAE, water cooperation at local, regional (with GCC countries) and global levels is crucial to help achieve water security for residents, future development and the environment. Water security addresses environmental protection and seeks good governance for water resources. It also aims to end the fragmented responsibility for water between various authorities, municipalities, countries and regions, and to integrate water policies across all sectors: finance, planning, agriculture, land use, energy, tourism, industry, education and health.
The following initiatives can help save, protect and maximize water usage benefits in the UAE.
Strategic water reserves through aquifer recharge
Groundwater recharge to renewable aquifers from natural run-off and precipitation represents a significant resource. The UAE has taken steps to enhance this recharge by constructing dams, retarding surface flows and allowing water to infiltrate into the aquifers. It is also pioneering groundwater storage using artificial recharge, which is a promising tool for strategic water reserves as it is safer and more reliable than tanks and other industrial facility storage in terms of time and location.
Brackish water use in agriculture
Significant potential quantities of brackish groundwater exist in non-renewable aquifers. This water is presently used for irrigation to a limited extent. However, its use for the irrigation of salt-tolerant crops could represent a significant expansion of the usable quantity of water for agricultural use. Research is being conducted into the development of salt-tolerant crops in many parts of the world, including the UAE, particularly at the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) in Dubai. This research should be supported and expanded to develop a sustainable agriculture sector using brackish water in order to alleviate the overexploitation of fresh groundwater.
GCC water grid
The main objective of the GCC water grid is to secure national water systems in emergency conditions by interconnecting them, providing strategic and reliable water back-up and diversifying seawater and freshwater sources.
For any systematic assessment of the state of water resources in the UAE to be carried out, and in order to model future scenarios, developing and monitoring relevant data sets is of prime importance. In 2002, the UAE launched the Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative, which could play a crucial role in this regard.