The announcement for a new desalination plant in Umm Al Quwain increases the total number of freshwater producing plants over 70, bringing attention to the water shortage issue in the UAE.
In a country where a shortage of fresh water remains a very current issue, the Emirates News Agency (WAM) has just announced that a consortium of companies will undertake a $900 million project that will see the construction of the UAE’s largest desalination plant in the northern emirates to date.
The plant will be built in the northern Emirate Umm Al Quwain.
“The Federal Electricity and Water Authority, FEWA, a consortium consisting of ACWA Power and MDC Power Holding Company, an entity fully owned by Mubadala Investment Company, has entered into a water purchase agreement for a 150 million imperial gallon per day desalination plant in the Emirate of Umm Al Qaiwain,” WAM reported. “The plant will utilise Seawater Reverse Osmosis technology.”
The news agency explained that FEWA will hold a 20% stake, while ACWA Power and Mubadala will each own 40%. The government of Umm Al Qaiwain will join as a partner in the project and will own a stake at a later date.
According to WAM, construction is expected to commence in the second half of 2019, with initial water production scheduled in 2021.
Addressing the water shortage
The UAE and greater GCC region are known for their arid expansive deserts, but not so much for their abundance of water. After all, the total renewable water resources (TARWR) per capita in GCC countries in 2014 was just 86.6 cubic meters, compared to a global average of almost 17,575 cubic meters, the IPI Global Observatory noted.
In the face of this scarcity, the GCC, and the UAE, have had to resort to desalination to keep their taps running and the water bottles filled. Today, most of the UAE’s potable water (42% of the total water requirement) comes from some 70 major desalination plants, which account for around 14% of the world's total production of desalinated water, the country’s government site states. 96% of overall freshwater in the UAE is provided by desalination, according to the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment.
According to State of Energy Report 2015, the demand for water grew largely at a rate of 35.8% from 2008 to 2012.
Today, the UAE is home to the highest consumers of water in the world. According to Utilities ME, daily per capita water consumption in the Emirates averages 500 litres, about 82% above the global average. This consumption continues to grow, bringing with it an alarming environmental debate.
The environmental cost
Powering these 70 Emirati desalination plants requires untold amounts of fossil fuels, which in turn produces endless amounts of CO2.
But that’s not the extent of the damage to the environment. The end process of desalination results in freshwater, but also in brine.
Brine is the concentrated salt water that remains after the process of purification is complete. It is often deposited while warm back in the ocean, which many experts believe is harming marine ecosystems.
Roughly more than half the brine produced in the world comes from four middle eastern countries: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar, with Saudi Arabia alone responsible for 22% of the effluent, the BBC notes.
The UAE’s desalination plants produce around one-fifth of the world’s brine, Robert Matthews, Visiting Professor of Science at Aston University, Birmingham, UK, writes for The National.
In the second part of this article, we look at what solutions the UAE is looking at to help address the issue of water shortage and over reliance on desalination.