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Desalination a Barrier to Improved Sustainability in the Gulf Region

Leon Kaye | Wednesday February 15th, 2012 | 7 Comments
Waterfall at Dubai Mall, courtesy Leon Kaye

Waterfall at Dubai Mall, courtesy Leon Kaye

Walking through cities like Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha, the visitor realizes how critical water is to these vibrant and thriving countries. Forty years ago fresh water was a valued resource, found only in limited groundwater sources, oases, and the famous wadis that provide patches of green in the beige and barren Arabian desert.

Fast forward to 2012, and these rapidly growing cities are unrecognizable from the villages of a half century ago. True, the discovery of oil has led to the construction of an amazing highway infrastructure, new port facilities, schools and of course in Dubai, posh hotels and malls. And with the vigorous economic growth, the new homes, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of expatriate workers needed to transform the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain, required plentiful sources of water.

Desalination has been the answer. Massive desal plants had their role in Dubai’s metamorphosis from a dusty trading village to a global business and entertainment center. Nearby Doha will host the 2022 World Cup and a bevy of other world class events. With temperatures that creep towards 50 degrees Centigrade (122 Fahrenheit) in the summer, these cities’ development would not have been possible without cheap and ready access to water.

But the abundance of water has come at a cost. The process requires huge amounts of energy and leaves behind hazardous waste. Furthermore, easy access to water has encouraged the abuse of this precious resource. Citizens of the Gulf countries pay nothing for water; and for the expatriates who are the vast majority of the population in this region. Add the fact that energy in all forms is free or subsidized depending on whether you are a citizen or foreigner, and there are no reasons for consumers or business to be mindful of their water consumption.

The lack of water stewardship is blatantly clear when you drive through Dubai. Massive shopping malls boast not only the requisite air conditioning, but also waterfalls, ice rinks, enormous fountains, an indoor ski hill and an aquarium. Meanwhile annual flowers, which are always thirsty for water, are often the landscaping of choice.

Some changes are on the horizon. Abu Dhabi has launched some solar powered desalination plants, but the amount of water they can process is a microscopic amount compared to the United Arab Emirates’ total water consumption. Meanwhile groundwater wells are drying up and the entire Gulf region has become even thirstier for water. The region will invest as much as US$100 billion in additional desalination projects, but at a US$1 rate to process one cubic meter of water. The cost is eight times that of the price of reaping water from groundwater processes. In sum, desalination consumes anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of the energy resources throughout the Arabian Gulf region.

Businesses must take the lead, but they have little incentive as water is priced too cheaply for property developers and managers to bother. Nevertheless using more drought resistant plants, scaling back water features from future projects and urging employees to be mindful of their water usage would be a start. Pricing water as a valuable resource and not a commodity to which everyone is entitled would also nudge consumers, but that is not a political reality at the moment. In the meantime, take a look at the results of desalination:

Leon Kaye is currently spending a month in the Middle East; next week he is in Qatar. He is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and Earth911.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

Dubai Fountain, in the shadow of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building (for a tribute to Whitney Houston, click here)

Dubai Fountain & Burj Khalifa, courtesy Leon Kaye

Dubai Fountain & Burj Khalifa, courtesy Leon Kaye

Ski Dubai, Mall of the Emirates (Penguins have unfortunately been moved in)

Ski Dubai, courtesy Leon Kaye

Ski Dubai, courtesy Leon Kaye

The Ice Rink, Dubai Mall

Ice Rink, Dubai Mall, courtesy Leon Kaye

Ice Rink, Dubai Mall, courtesy Leon Kaye

The Pearl Monument, Doha

Photo of Pearl Monument and Fountain courtesy Leon Kaye

Photo of Pearl Monument and Fountain courtesy Leon Kaye

Dubai Aquarium at the  . . . Dubai Mall

Dubai Mall Aquarium, courtesy Leon Kaye

Dubai Mall Aquarium, courtesy Leon Kaye


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  • http://progressivetimes.wordpress.com/ T. Caine

    Great article.

    This kind of thing is ridiculous and it underscores how these overnight cities stand as the nemesis to sustainability efforts. Dubai represents everything that the developing world should avoid in their future of urbanization. We can only hope that Dubai ends up failing and realizes the repercussions of their new found cultural norms. 

  • Ali Sleiman

    Perhaps the writer should also point out that the desalination plants are always coupled to a power station and the process of producing water uses the waste heat that is coming from efficient gas turbines.  Of the few images above:  
     Dubai Mall fountain uses TSE (Treated Sewage Effluent), reprocessed water from treatment plant. 
    Ski Dubai has basically very little to make up every day, and so does the huge aquarium.

    I realize that local and foreign residents consume a little more than usual, and the answer to this should be through education and awareness, not by increasing the tariff.  

  • http://twitter.com/leonkaye Leon Kaye

    Thanks for the comments. The answer is not to have Dubai “fail,” as too many decent people from around the world come here for an opportunity to build a better life. And there are nascent sustainability efforts–we have to remember that these countries in the Gulf took 20 years to reach a point that took us in the west two or three centuries. And even if waste heat is used, as the second commenter correctly pointed out, too much energy is used to desalinate water–and more than a little more than usual water is used here–far too much. Education and awareness of course are important; but it’s human nature to abuse something that is underpriced. 

  • sasboy

    Just install solar panels on all the buildings in Dubai and Doha and see how the carbon footprint of these cities is slashed.

    It turns out Dubai is already planning the world’s biggest solar power plant –


    • http://twitter.com/leonkaye Leon Kaye

      Thanks @sasboy . . . it’s getting there. They certain have plenty of roof space! 

      • RR

        Leon, if you havent done so already, take a trip over to Aspire park and there you will find a man-made lake with fountains surrounded by a few acres of manicured grass. Or you could always follow a water truck around town, they’re easy to find just follow the water trail

  • GreenGuy

    In a country like Saudi Arabia, nearly 60% of its local fuel consumption is gulped down by its desalination plants.  Since the public has to pay only 1% of the actual water cost, nobody really values water.  Nobody cares to educate the people about the value of water and its environmental impact.  The first step must be creating awareness among people.