On the last leg of our journey of dropping our daughter off to university in the UK, we flew from Edinburg to Abu Dhabi. As our flight touched down in Abu Dhabi, my mind went back to 1960's, when a Scottish engineering company called Weir Westgarth installed the first desalination plant in Abu Dhabi. 96 per cent of domestic consumption of water - from drinking water to showers - comes from one of the 70 desalination plants located in the UAE.
From Abu Dhabi, we drove into Dubai, where I lived for 17 years before coming back to India 11 years ago, I was astounded by what I saw. There was nothing that I recognised! Everything that I remember of Dubai has changed completely. More buildings, a completely changed skyline, 12 to 14 lane roads, traffic moving at greater speeds…. all my senses have been bombarded by the 'new Dubai'. I was also invited by a group of aware residents to deliver a talk on the science and reality of climate change.
Water was a discussion that I had with several people on this trip. The magnitude of the efforts to provide water to the residents is mind boggling. From a population of around 0.1 million in 1960's to over 9 million in 2017, the effects and efforts of desalinating water is massive. The science behind the process brought to the region to service the oil driven population boom has remained unchanged. Boil seawater to evaporate H2O, re-mineralise the purified water, and deposit the by product - brine, back into the Gulf.
A lot of electricity is used to desalinate water. In the UAE fossil fuels are burnt to generate the electricity, which as we all know is the main cause for global warming and the resulting extreme climate events that are devastating. So not only is the process of desalination carbon-intensive, but it also contributes to making the Arabian Gulf one of the world's most salty and potentially most uninhabitable bodies of water, a problem compounded with currents weak enough to be likened to that of a great lake.
According to The National, the GCC's desalination plants alone account for 0.2 per cent of the entire world's electricity consumption, about 38 TWh per year - energy enough to match the UAE's total consumption for more than four months. Consumption is expected to increase in the region from 42 cubic kilometres per year in 2012 today to 200 cubic kilometres by 2050.
Brine, the residual saline slush from desalination, is produced at a 1:1 ratio of freshwater production. For every litre of fresh water delivered to homes a litre of high-salinity brine is deposited back in the Gulf. Over decades, brine pollution in the Gulf has amounted to hundreds of cubic kilometres with about another 40 cubic kilometres of high saline water deposited into the Gulf every year.
To combat the dual problems of conventional desalination plants, the government seems to be making some big plans. In February of this year, Saeed Al Tayer, the Managing Director of Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) said that solar-powered reverse osmosis will be commissioned. This will reduce the expense of Dubai converting seawater into potable fresh water, use renewable energy instead of burning fossil fuels, and reduce the environmental impact by using the reverse osmosis technique to generate 305 million gallons per day by 2030. By using lower cost renewable energy to power desalination plants, Al Tayer said Dewa will save $13 billion between now and 2030.
As I come back to India I cannot help thinking that so much more can be done by nations like the UAE, because they have the resources at their disposal, small populations to deal with, and a government structure that can implement change quickly. All they need is the motivation to move in a holistic manner to take a leader ship stance in the region. The UAE has the opportunity to lead the Middle East into becoming a sustainable nation. Will the powers to be realise this potential?
The writer is an author, speaker, trainer, consultant, an entrepreneur and an expert in applied sustainability.