The crisis of providing usable water is a major challenge for the future of all mankind, as the percentage of fresh water out of the total water on the Earth’s surface is only half a percent, which deprives a third of the world’s population of access to clean water today, whether due to the actual scarcity of water or economic scarcity. The GCC countries, in particular, suffer from water scarcity due to their dry and hot desert climate and low rainfall throughout the year.
This scarcity of surface water resources has prompted the region’s population to search for other sources of water. We can look at what the Emirate of Abu Dhabi in the UAE did as a vivid example of this, as the Emirate relies on groundwater by 60%, while desalination of seawater provides 35% of its water supply, and only 5% of clean water comes from wastewater recycling efforts.
Water is used in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi depending on different sources in the population, industrial, commercial and governmental sectors. However, statistics have found that agricultural activities alone in the UAE consume a total of 70% of the groundwater withdrawal. At high rates, that could reach 2 billion cubic meters annually of water, which is 26 times higher than the natural regeneration capacity of groundwater. This threatens the country’s water security and risks its limited resources with complete depletion within 55 years.
In order to find a practical solution to this problem, the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center (KAPSARC) cooperated with the Environment Agency in Abu Dhabi and the Abu Dhabi Food and Water Control Authority. They conducted a research study to find the optimal way in which the Emirate of Abu Dhabi can reduce agriculture’s consumption of groundwater, while meeting the growing demand for agricultural products at the same time, in pursuit of environmental sustainability, economic efficiency and social justice.
Obviously, the first step toward this solution was to set a limited budget for the annual water consumption from groundwater sources, and then study the nature of crops grown in the Emirate and the level of its water consumption, and determine all of its economic value in UAE dirham. Afterwards, the researchers inserted these data into a linear programming model designed specifically to calculate water saving methods in agriculture and achieve the maximum economic benefit, according to a number of conditions and scenarios presented.
Various scenarios have found that the best possible economic and environmental outcome is to set a maximum limit for the annual agricultural consumption from groundwater by about only 1 billion cubic meters annually, with the possibility of importing some crops with high water consumption from abroad. This scenario can create an economic value exceeding 2 billion and 700 million AED, and prolong the life of the groundwater by 22 years to 77 years.
Among the crops that researchers recommend to localize are red pepper, pumpkin, sweet corn and squash, due to its low cost of production locally compared with the cost of import. They also recommend to reduce the cultivation of date palm, fodder such as alfalfa and Rhodes grass that are used as fodder for livestock, peas, cucumber and okra, where the cost of local production of these crops exceeds the cost of importing and it’s sold at a loss locally.
In spite of the importance of this analysis’ outcomes and its major applications in reality, the researchers pointed out that this model shows some aspects of shortcomings that can be improved in the future, as they did not take the cost of transport into their accounts. They also faced several problems in the lack of data, and did not consider some other important factors in determining the quantities of production, such as calorie concentration in crops, the amount of agricultural land required and its cultural significance. However, this research as a whole provides valuable insights for policymakers to determine the optimal use of water in Abu Dhabi, which will prolong the life of its groundwater sources and make its agriculture more sustainable and prosperous.