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Currently, UAE faces tremendous challenges in attaining environmentally sustainable status and becoming more immune to climate change as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been regarded as one of the driest countries of the world with very low level of renewable water resources far below the UN water scarcity threshold of 1,000 cubic metres per capita per annum. Until now, such tremendous demand has been met through the exploitation of groundwater resources and desalinated water with the catastrophic effect of reduction in groundwater supply by 18 per cent since 2003, as the total water consumption exceeds 24 times the natural recharge capacity. At this rate, as per the estimates of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, 1.8 billion people will suffer from lack of water by 2025.The consumption of water and its related challenges assume importance in UAE as it has been observed through various reports & journals that the extent of availability of renewable water resource in the Gulf countries is among the lowest in the world.
As per the findings of the recent Food Security report published by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED), the availability of water resources in the United Arab Emirates as well as all the other Gulf countries was alarmingly low with less than 100 cubic metres per capita every year vis-à-vis 6,000 cubic metres per capita which is the industry standard globally. Further, additionally 13 other gulf countries including Oman and Jordan were grouped as water scarce up to a severe extent at less than 500 cubic metres per capita. As a corollary to the aforesaid problem, the report also states that as more than half of the UAE’s basic food requirement is imported, the region’s domestic crop productivity and irrigation efficiency are sub standard and high losses have been were reported in post harvest transportation phase or other parts of the food chain.
The same assumes great importance to me as well as the entire community of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as such rapid depletion of natural resources as well as non-availability of natural resources such as water can drastically lead to change is lifestyle and put tremendous pressure on existing resources in the absence of any remedial measures by the Government or the community at large.
The preparation of the report takes into account various data collected from secondary sources such as books, articles, journals, newspapers, research papers available both online & offline towards the understanding of UAE’s current situation on the environmental sustainability map. Upon perusal of such articles & papers, it was evident that the result was an urgent need to improve the current scenario of alarmingly low levels of water resources which assumes greater importance in view of significant pressure on the United Arab Emirates (UAE)’s existing resources due to the influx of expatriates due to globalization of rapid expansion of the economy at large.
However, in recent times, there has been a widespread realization at the political level that water management is required for the further growth story of UAE apart from taking initiatives to increasing supply through desalination, successful development of the country. In 2005, a key milestone in this regard was achieved with the establishment of the Ministry of Environment and Water. Over the last decade, the need for proper water resource management and the reduced usage of water demand have been highlighted on several occasions, with increased awareness campaigns launched at both the local and national levels.
Further, the legal aspects have also been considered seriously when it comes to environmental regulation. The Government of UAE has been working on water conservation law, which aims at putting in place an established legal mechanism for the management and use of water in the region. At the regional level, Abu Dhabi established a law requiring drilling contractors working in Abu Dhabi to have a drilling license. The United Arab Emirate Chief has also issued a number of other environmental regulations pertaining to preservation of water, including committee level decisions on groundwater management and an administrative order that aims at regulating drinking water.
This apart another way which has been resorted towards curbing demand for water use is through charging of fees for water usage. In January 2011, the Government announced new water and electricity tariffs; although the same was not made applicable for UAE nationals for their houses and farms. In addition to the same, in August 2011, it was interesting to note that the Dubai Supreme Council of Energy announced the absence of any further hikes of water and electricity charges over the next years. The resultant solution was that the whole tariff system turned out to be quite complex and has given rise to a larger debate over the level of charges paid by expatriates vis-à-vis UAE nationals.
In continuation of the legal developments, the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority has recently launched the Zera’atona campaign, aimed at mainstreaming agricultural policies, including strengthening of the legal framework as well as provision of support to farmers.
The need of the hour is to improve irrigation efficiency of the entire Gulf region. If the same is enhanced from 46 per cent 70 per cent, it could result in savings of around 50 billion cubic metres of water which is enough to produce more than 30 million tonnes of cereals. The significance if the same can be understood form the fact that the same amounts to about 50 per cent of total imports of cereals in the region. The fundamental approach to the problem of water & food security needs to be altered after giving due credence to the environment, climate, water scarcity and dependency on third party suppliers for food products which is required in this region. A greater adaptation towards newer technologies like solar desalination plants and enhanced relations with neighboring countries can go a long way in ensuring a sustainable supply of food. Further, greater involvement of the private sector entities in addition to the sustained efforts of the Government can go a long way in ensuring that the private sector entities get the correct technology at the right value. In the event that sustainable food security makes a sound business proposition to the private sector, the Government subsides can also be reduced commensurately thereby reducing the fiscal burden on the company and providing the necessary impetus for greater involvement of the community at large. The above argument assumes importance as some of the private sector entities take care of the entire food chains system starting from farming all year around to delivery of final goods to consumers.
In the light of the aforesaid discussion, in my personal opinion, there are two areas of policies which should be considered mandatorily with the aim of assessing UAE population’s impact on water resources. The first area deals with population policies, while the second one deals with water management strategies. In view of the high net migration rate in the UAE, greater importance should be placed on migration management in the region as a part of the population policies. The same need not consider the fertility aspect as aggregate fertility rates for both UAE nationals and expatriates are low at 1.9), and they in themselves do not account for a major factor in population increase.
Traditionally, due to the need for both cheap labor & skills, the UAE has had adopted an open policy with respect to migration. It was in 1976 that the UAE Government officially announced its level of international migration as satisfactory, but also expressed the desire to reduce the same as it was too high, and the official policy to lower immigration level was announced. Thus, a focused strategy towards identification of the occupations where phasing out of expatriates was to be done on a priority basis was decided on the part of the administration of several GCC countries. The banking and public relations sectors are examples of such occupations which have been considered in the UAE. In line with the aforesaid developments, recently, employers in Dubai are now required to adhere to a new work permit quota system and are also bound to obtain pre-approval certificate in order to sponsor individuals for work purposes.
As part of the agricultural policy framework, technology researches as well as incremental enhancements in the regulatory regime are the key requirements presently. Other measures such as lending support to local farmers, emphasis on water-saving irrigation technologies and increased usage of wastewater also needs to be incorporated within the overall framework of UAE’s agricultural policy. Further, in the case of imported food, tight controls needs to be exercised to ensure the quality of imported produce as well as enhancing the capacity of stockpiling of key crops which needs to be executed along with conservation of precious water reservoirs. This apart, transnational cooperation, which has already begun to take place, is also important from conservation perspective.
At the individual level as well conservation should be encouraged through public awareness campaigns with a view to expanding the current reach of audiences. Additionally, conservation should be also be preached through high tariffs for exceeding certain ceilings for both nationals of the United Arab Emirates as well as foreigners instead of relying only on awareness campaigns. The water and electricity awareness issue could also be incorporated in the standard visa application process as a means of increasing awareness level among incoming passenger levels. Further, integration courses could be developed for non-nationals, including guidelines on water saving & its importance on humanity & mankind.
To economize the whole process of water resource management system, several other steps also needs to be undertaken such as the present system of existing water subsidies should be reconsidered & gradually abandoned as statistics have reported that water is currently sold at 25 percent below its cost price in the markets when the normal demand & supply factors are allowed to operate freely in the economy. At the maximum, subsidies could be granted to only those who have made an adequate saving of water over a given period, or to below poverty line families. In order to eradicate this issue permanently, decision makers at all levels need to be involved in the process of water management strategy.
There is also a pressing need for water resources to be evaluated and monitored, and making both trans-regional and transnational cooperation a top priority at the central level. This apart, the top central level committee representatives should also incorporate water issues in cross-sectoral policy agendas. Such political persuasion should also include other areas affecting water, such as trade, manufacturing, agriculture, or migration so as to have holistic impact.
An attempt and vision needs to be incorporated so that United Arab Emirates (UAE) may take the lead in advocating for water and sanitation issues at the global forum, such as the UN. To ensure the demand & supply side balance increased initiatives needs to be undertaken for further investments in clean, eco-friendly desalination along with investments in storage facilities. The UAE Government may also consider bi-lateral cooperation treaties with other “water rich countries” and other states facing similar problems, including states as Singapore or Australia. Thus, to ensure that population growth does not constitute a threat to the UAE’s water resources, technological advances, an adequate regulatory framework, and close cooperation with neighboring countries needs to be undertaken for higher socio-economic development of the region.