The United Arab Emirates (UAE), one of the world’s richest oil countries, is struggling to meet its population’s demand for fresh water. With a population at 9.4 million and growing, the UAE has been working to find alternative solutions to provide enough fresh water for the Gulf state. Earlier this week, the UAE unveiled the world’s largest water desalination reserve at the country’s International Water Summit in Abu Dhabi.

The Gulf country’s new water reserve is located under the Liwa Oasis in the south of the country and is 160 kilometers (99 miles) from desalination plants near the coast. For 26 months, the reserve continued to retain desalinated water until it reached its maximum capacity at 26 billion liters (6.8 million gallons). In case of emergencies, the reserve can provide the country with approximately 100 million liters (26.4 million gallons) of water a day.

water desalination

Satellite image of the Liwa Oasis to the South of the UAE where the reserve is located. (CC: ADWEA)

Although the UAE is geographically located directly on the Persian Gulf, alternatively called the Arabian Gulf, the conglomerate of The Emirates does not have any rivers that flow through the country and has minimal rainfall throughout the year. For the past 10 years, the UAE has worked to develop its water desalination technologies to ensure the country has enough water to suffice its current daily rate of water consumption, which is at 600 liters (158.5 gallons) per person.

The UAE currently spends approximately AED 12 billion ($3.3 billion) a year on water desalination to meet its peoples’ needs. According to Minister of Environment and Water Rashid Ahmad Bin Fahd, the shortage in groundwater has resulted in an exponential increase in the demand for fresh water. “Around 70 percent of available fresh water is used by the agriculture sector, while water demand in the urban sector has more than doubled,” the minister elaborated.

Water desalination remains one of the country’s most viable options for access to fresh water since the majority of its natural groundwater reserves have largely depleted. Desalinating the Gulf’s water, the salinity of which currently stands between 35,000 and 37,000 parts per million, is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, which are also running low in the UAE.

Last week, the UAE held the 2018 International Water Summit which was part of Abu Dhabi’s Sustainability Week. The summit was put together to provide a platform for stakeholders to further the development of water sustainability.

While the UAE is geographically and historically one of the world’s most water-scarce regions, cities like Cape Town in South Africa have a far more pressing predicament. Last week, South African officials announced that Cape Town is counting down to Day Zero – a day when the city will turn off its taps if residents do not cut water usage to 87 liters or less.