Water conservation is an issue which should concern us all, especially here in the United Arab Emirates, and it’s not one to be taken lightly. We all enjoy being surrounded by green and pleasant landscapes, but is our obsession with green spaces to a decline in drinking water in the UAE? Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says that in the last 15 years, the UAE’s renewable water resources have decreased by 42%, and predicts that per capita availability of water is expected to halve by 2050. These are shocking statistics, made even more startling when you consider that Dubai receives only 67mm of average rainfall annually but consumption is significantly greater than the global average – 550 litres per person per day, compared to 127 litres in the UK.
Environmental Cost of Green Spaces
Much of the water consumed in the UAE is used to maintain the manicured gardens which bring us all so much pleasure and provide a haven for birds and wildlife in our gardens, public spaces and commercial environments. Salman Zafar is an environmental expert and runs the popular information portals EcoMENA and Cleantech Solutions. He is concerned about the amount of freshwater which is used to irrigate the landscaping features of the UAE, which require over half a billion cubic litres of water per year – a figure which is rising annually as more parks and gardens are developed. One option is to use desalinated water. Salman commented, “Conventional desalination is cost-prohibitive and energy-intensive and is not viable in the long term. In addition, the environmental impacts of desalination are considered critical on account of emissions from energy consumption and discharge of brine into the sea. Brine has extremely high salt concentrations and also contains leftover chemicals and metals from the treatment process which poses a danger to marine life.”
Use of Greywater
Another approach being tried is the use of greywater. Walter Bone, Landscape Design Manager at Khatib & Alami, said, “The use of greywater or TSE (Treated Sewage Effluent) in the landscape provides much-needed irrigation for golf, resort/hotel landscapes, parks, roadways and streetscapes. TSE is collected after being treated from storm water runoff, sinks, showers, washing machines etc, and is a great source to nourish our landscape. It’s a better alternative than desalinated water which is not beneficial to the natural environment. Plants actually need some of the minerals that are removed from saltwater for growth. The use of pure mineral water also often lacks the important natural minerals that plants need to thrive.”
With such a high demand for water and a limit to its availability, landscaping companies are turning to innovative solutions to maintain the greenery which we all find so attractive. Walter Bone explained how careful planning and smart design can reduce the consumption of water within a landscape. “It’s important that landscaping companies have strong environmental and sustainability departments within their structure. As a US-licensed Landscape Architect, it’s my responsibility to personally analyse the project’s needs, projected water demands for the landscape and assist in providing proper state-of-the-art irrigation system design and storm water collection or harvesting, where applicable.
“With numerous projects spread out throughout the MENA region, we have found that some projects are affected by saltwater, not from the sea, but from the below-ground water tables. Projects from Doha, Qatar, Dubai and Abu Dhabi have been affected by rising water tables. At one point, in Doha, for example, the water table averaged 18 metres below ground. Now it is between 4 – 5 metres in some areas and is greatly affecting tree and plant growth and survivability.
“We’re seeing this problem affect many of the projects we’re currently working on. Over the past few years, it has been found outside the city ‘proper’ towards the centre region and away from the coastline. In Dubai and Abu Dhabi, in particular where projects consist of large-scale hotels and resorts, major roadway and infrastructure works, contemporary urban design and park projects, our focus is on providing unique landscape solutions which help avoid saltwater contamination and allow the plants and trees to flourish.”
Water Retention Additives
Ralf Stahl, is Managing Partner of Zeoplant LLC which has developed an innovative water retention additive that has the potential to cut irrigation water by up to 50%. He explained, “We started our activities in the UAE in 2003 when we conducted extremely successful trials with Nakheel’s Research & Development Department. Nakheel, at that time, was the only developer in the Gulf region which insisted on moisture retaining soil additives in order to address the high irrigation water losses in our sandy soils. It’s a problem that all landscape designers and homeowners face here – that of plants having very little time to use the water they receive from irrigation before it leaches away into the water table below.
“By adding our product into the root zone of the plants, the soil structure is improved to the extent that the soil’s water holding capacity is increased and the infiltration speed of irrigation water is reduced by up to 85%. This means that plants have more time to absorb the water and the water loss through percolation is reduced drastically. As Zeoplant is a fully-natural mineral (rock) based material, it minimises the rates of water consumption while preventing harm to the environment or adding contaminants to the soil.”
Zeoplant has been working in cooperation with an Abu Dhabi Municipality Public Park project which is estimated to have saved over 76,000 litres of water every day. The product was introduced to the soil mix during the construction phase which began in 2014. Since then, weekly monitoring of the irrigation requirements has revealed that water consumption has been reduced by over 50% throughout the year – even during the extreme weather conditions during the summer months from June to September.
In the future, water conservation in the UAE is set to become a major consideration in all its uses. Ralf Stahl foresees a future where conservation will be a mandatory requirement. He’s passionate about the issue, “We cannot continue to waste our most important natural resource without any thought for tomorrow. We see frequent campaigns by DEWA or ADWEA to encourage people to reduce their domestic water usage but if we compare this to the amount of water wasted in private and public gardens, the impact of such campaigns seems rather marginal.
“The main problem we face in our daily business is the negligence and missing awareness of the decision-makers. I’m sure that stricter laws and regulations will be imposed in the near future in regards to wise water usage.”
Walter Bone agrees, “Fresh, clean water is a limited resource. Here in the UAE we are surrounded by salt water but our freshwater supply is decreasing on a daily basis. With limited rainfall, conservation and a limit on the use of water is critical. In the future, the use of fresh water and the lack of desalinated water production will force the world to reverse the usage of both fresh and desalinated water. In this region, I expect to see extremely large, solar-powered desalination facilities being constructed to produce low cost and very clean fresh water which will be as pure as distilled water. In this way, we could provide an everlasting freshwater source for all the UAE’s residents, including our furry and feathered friends.”
Salman Zafar predicts that it will be necessary to strike a balance between water consumption and the use of desalination. “The conservation of water is essential due to the increasing population both of the world and the UAE in particular, together with growing industrialisation and dwindling natural water resources. Water conservation will not only help to save water but it will also conserve the energy which would otherwise be used for the desalination, treatment and transportation of water. The biggest challenge for the UAE is not finding different water sources but decreasing the demand for it as well as minimising water losses,” he concluded.
Dubai alone is expected to plant around 50 million flowers in its parks, public gardens and along the roadside during 2015, and up to 30 small park projects are planned for the city to meet the government’s target of greening over 8% of the urban environment. It’s a challenging target but one which the government sees as vital in order to maintain and improve the quality of air and of life in the Emirates. Properly-designed irrigation systems and the use of innovative products which retain moisture in the soil and reduce the amount of water our green spaces need are vital if we wish to continue to enjoy our green oasis in the desert, while maintaining the basic human requirements of fresh, clean drinking water for everyone.
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