Feb 5, 2013

The Issue of the UAE and GCC Water Footprint

The issue facing the UAE's water resources is hardly a new development. Throughout history we have had a scarcity of natural water.  As difficult it is to imagine, fatal droughts were commonplace even just a few decades ago.  Today water is readily available and we believe it is being taken for granted.  

The government subsidization of water is there to provide us with enough water while affording us to live in luxury inexpensively.  We have a seemingly endless supply of cheap water.  So what is there to be worried about?

The modern lifestyle of the mixing pot UAE society has given rise to a depreciated understanding of the impact of our water consumption. Water is more central to life and much more costly (source needed) than oil.  Amazingly, the UAE, GCC and other arid nations where water is naturally scarse are consuming water in uncharacteristically high amounts.  Our aim in this article is to better understand why, quantify and locate data to demonstrate water consumption, and gradually build a working list of real projects or ideas we can.

First we hope to quantify the amount of water being used daily by each person (on average).  Keep in mind that the majority of this water is used in farming and irrigation; however the amount is still stunning.  In 2008 we saw a shocking international report that the UAE is the world’s second worst per capita consumer of water (source required).  In 2012. We have an article stating we are among the world's highest consumers of water per capita and that by 2013 our per capita consumption was supposed to be nearly halved1. The main difference between the UAE and Europe, North America, and even many other parts of Asia, is the lack of natural spring and rainwater.  The USA and Canada have bounds of fresh water lakes, rivers, springs, and rain water. In the UAE those resources have been exploited, and with exponentially growing populations, there will never likely again be a time when oases and rain reservoirs will produce a significant part of drinking or irrigation water (*citation required). 

The government of the UAE subsidizes not only government water for irrigation, mosque ablution areas, toilets, schools, etc., but also that used for private use by local families, farms, profit making companies, and expatriates alike. In effect, we are blessed and cursed to pay a very low fee for an incredibly scarce and highly valuable commodity with an extremely ecological footprint commodity.  

Additionally, the government indirectly incentivizes water consumption by plant selection and through beautification of public spaces.  Though plants do play a role in climatization, decreasing wind and dust storms, and making our cities more green, the result of such policies tend will cost an incredible amount in the long term.  

So what can we do to make a positive impact on water consumption?

Citizens and governments alike need to realign their preferences and choose plants that grow naturally in the desert and can survive on little to no additional water. Finally, and perhaps most embarrassingly, regional governments still subsidize the production of locally produced wheat, used for animal feed that is incredibly water intensive.  Farms are allowed free or extremely cheap water to produce this wheat, then due to the low demand and oversupply, the government often buys it back well above the market price and sells it for a huge loss.  The water is subsided; the wheat is not even needed.  However many families are farmers and this is the only way they know how to make a living.  So ending the subsidy outright wouldn't achieve a positive overall response for society.  Saudi Arabia, for example, is phasing this subsidization out completely by 20162.  

Such practices are akin to paying locals who owned taxi licenses 1000 AED per month for a certain period after the taxis were all privatized (citation required). It exists only to diminish the loss due to increased competition and new entries to markets. More so these measures exist to control supply and demand in the favor of the desires of the people of the country. However, much as we are seeing in the west, the subsidization of products like corn end up costing the consumer much more in the long run due to loss of jobs, mass production practices, health and safety concerns, and increased taxes (or in the case of the UAE, a similar effect of decreased social benefits due to subsidization costs).

In the modern UAE, there isn’t a middle class family who can’t afford to have a maid, cleaning service, or some form of very cheap labor to take care of their basic needs. These cheap laborers, however, come to the UAE for a short term, are often mistreated, and very rarely have any long-term admiration of the country or its people. As such, they are exceedingly wasteful and, to the passive nonchalant resident or local, gleefully so. They will routinely leave water flowing to a garden for hours on end, only to have that precious water seep into the desert underutilized. The same is true for washing cars, washing dishes, washing the front entrance, washing at schools, municipal buildings, police car parks, embassies, car washing companies, gas stations, marinas, etc.

The people who will have to live long term with the consequences of the water waste are generally unaware or apathetic to the ongoing waste, and they don’t actually themselves touch much of the water regardless, there is very little accountability. The government doesn’t fine or discourage over consumption. To date there have been but very few public awareness campaigns about water waste, and a few measures taken by responsible individuals, companies, and government bodies to reduce water waste in the UAE.

The Business Case for Reducing Water Consumption

This is a simple consideration.  Will it save money to save water?  The obvious answer, in a country where fresh water is costly to produce, is yes.  However we need to look deeper than our water and electricity bills and consider the holistic cost of using water.  We need to think about the future without being overly dramatic and see how much we will be paying to replenish water supplies.  We need not look any further than famine stricken countries in the region where water is not a given but a necessity for life.  Look to Sudan or Somalia and see what will happen if our populations grow, oil revenues reside, and drinkable water is not available.  

More importantly, for us to get out of the habit of over consuming water and other natural resources, we need to stop thinking about how much money we spend per month on such resources, but how much it costs starting from the government desalination operations, to the distribution, to the opportunity costs.  

We could have, for example, built a factory to desalinate water in a family stricken country, saving lives and possibly creating political stability (Google "Water Wars" for numerous examples, conspiracies, and predictions).   Imagine if the governments saved a few hundred million Riyals, Dirhams, or Dinar per year on water production.  Now imagine what kind of job creation or charity programs they could create with that extra money.  That result would have a significant, positive ripple down effect on the people. 

Naturally people imaging drastic ways of changing habits and expensive gadgets to save water.  However, the simplest lifestyle and government policy shifts can save tons of money.

The need for real and productive examples of water saving is eminent.  We will be asking government bodies, companies and non-profits for their collective responses but the most convincing accounts will be from individuals.  Please send us your ideas and any evidence supporting your method's success at info@sustainablesquare.com

1 http://www.uaeinteract.com/docs/UAE_per_capita_water_consumption_550_litres_per_day_survey/30613.htm