Dubai’s Expensive Water World: An Overview
Dubai seems like a water utopia for a desert city. Travelers may ski within a huge mall where penguins play in newly produced snow, or they can scuba dive in the deepest pool in the world.
Over 22,000 gallons of water are sprayed into the air by a fountain, which is said to be the largest in the world, in time with music played on nearby speakers.
But the city needs fresh water, which it lacks, to keep its splendor. So it turns to the sea, assisting in hydrating a fast-expanding metropolis with energy-intensive desalination systems.
It costs money to do all of this. According to experts, Dubai’s dependence on desalination harms the Persian Gulf because it produces brine. This brackish waste product raises the salinity of the water when combined with chemicals used in the desalination process.
Additionally, it damages fisheries, coastal populations, biodiversity, and the temperature of the water around the coast.
Climate change and constructing Dubai’s multibillion-dollar islands through land reclamation are further factors straining the Gulf. Among the waterfront properties for sale is a $34 million private island in the form of a sea horse that is located within the man-made archipelago.
According to a 2021 study published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin on ScienceDirect, a website that hosts peer-reviewed research, desalination plus climate change will cause the Gulf’s coastal waters to warm by at least five degrees Fahrenheit over more than half of its area by 2050 if immediate action is not taken to mitigate the harm.
The most populated city in the United Arab Emirates, Dubai, has responded to the damage with new technology and environmental programs, but demand is mounting to do more.
The idea of hosting the United Nations global climate meeting, or COP28, in the city later this month has already caused controversy due to fossil fuel investments made by the United Arab Emirates and other participating nations.
Even without regard to Dubai’s ostentatious recreational amenities, water is necessary for life. Desalination delivers drinking water to a population in need.
According to a 2022 sustainability study, the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority provides water to over 3.6 million residents in addition to the city’s active daytime population of over 4.7 million visitors. The utility anticipates that these figures will rise by 2040, driving up demand for clean water.
The sustainability report states that the city desalinated almost 163.6 billion gallons of water last year. An average of one and a half gallons of brine are discharged into the ocean for every gallon of desalinated water produced in the Gulf.
The largest facility of its sort in the world, the Jebel Ali Power and Desalination Complex in Dubai, uses pipes to extract seawater, treats it, and then distribute drinking water into the city.
However, fossil fuels power the 43 desalination facilities in Jebel Ali. In 2022, the United Arab Emirates produced over 200 million tons of carbon, ranking among the world’s highest per capita emissions.
For nearly 50 years, seawater desalination has been essential in the United Arab Emirates, but, due to severe drought, other coastal areas such as Carlsbad, California, have recently embraced this technology.
Leading the nation in desalination, Florida is contemplating pipelining desalinated water from Mexico farther north in Arizona.
Desalination has long been practiced in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, among other Gulf nations. Dubai’s economy is centered on tourism, real estate, and aviation, unlike that of its oil-rich neighbors. However, the city’s vast architectural infrastructure was made possible by the oil boom of the 1960s and 1970s, which was short-lived.
“It’s a brand,” said Khaled Alawadi, associate professor of sustainable urbanism at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi. “Any tourist destination, especially if you have potential competition from the region, likes to dominate.”
Inspired by the emirate’s rich history of pearl diving, Deep Dive Dubai is an underwater city built like a big oyster, with water filling six Olympic-sized swimming pools.
The world’s tallest structure, the Burj Khalifa, was created by Emaar and Adrian Smith. It utilizes 250,000 gallons of water a day on average and needs a peak cooling capacity that is equal to about 10,000 tons of melted ice.
The 30-acre Burj Lake and its five dancing fountains at the base of the structure feature a wastewater reclamation technology by Hitachi that replaces the water lost every day from the fountains by using the sewage from Burj Khalifa.
The water supplies of the Gulf are being strained by the development of Dubai’s man-made islands. According to one study, the water’s average temperature around HHCP Architects’ Palm Jumeirah island rose by about 13 degrees over a 19-year period.
Algal blooms, also called red tides, are an excessive proliferation of tiny algae in the Persian Gulf that are linked to brine, industrial waste, and land reclamation, according to another study. Desalination plants have been compelled to scale back or stop operations due to certain of these dangerous blooms.
“Developing close to the water is much more preferred than developing in the desert landscape, and you are increasing the coastline,” Dr. Alawadi said.
Mr. Smith, the state-run utility, and HHCP Architects declined to comment on this report.
In an effort to curb its massive resource use, Dubai has launched environmental efforts. Among these are plans to cut energy and water usage by 30% by 2030 and achieve 100% renewable energy by 2050.
The nation has gone so far as to employ scientists to chemically induce clouds to produce rainfall (though there is scant proof that this method works) and has encouraged hotels in Dubai to use atmospheric harvesting to manufacture their own water.
Faisal al-Marzooqi, an associate professor at Khalifa University who studies water desalination in the United Arab Emirates, claimed to have pressured officials to forbid establishments like water parks and metal manufacturing plants from using potable water for purposes other than drinking.
“During a time when water is really valuable, there could be better ways to do things like recreational activities,” he said.
He continued by saying that the water in the Gulf was already hypersaline and that the biodiversity of the region was in risk due to the rising salinity levels.
The average global seawater salinity is from 3.5 to 4.5 percent; the Persian Gulf lies at the lower end of this range, which makes it more susceptible to brine. Twenty-one species of fish that depend on coral are at increased risk of going extinct as a result of the loss of about 70% of the Gulf’s coral reefs.
According to a 2021 study published in the professional journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, these changes have caused a $94 billion annual loss for tourism, aquaculture, and fisheries in the region.“This is a really big problem,” Dr. al-Marzooqi said.
Mangroves and sea grass meadows in the region are also having difficulties. These ecosystems serve as crucial breeding sites for commercially valued species, such as pearl oysters. They can also absorb significant amounts of greenhouse gas from the atmosphere and assist in stabilizing wave cycles and erosional forces.
Their decrease has led to the world’s largest “dead zone,” a marine desert devoid of the typical biodiversity found in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea.
Dead zones have spread worldwide since the 1970s; one is in the Baltic Sea, which is three times larger than Maryland.
“We have our own in the Gulf of Mexico, where all the water going down the Mississippi deoxygenates and everything dies,” said Bruce Logan, director of Pennsylvania State University’s Institute of Energy and the Environment.
Dubai, though, is moving forward. Reverse osmosis is largely regarded as the most effective and environmentally benign desalination technology currently available, and the city mandated that it be used in all new desalination plants starting in 2021. However, the majority of the nation’s desalination facilities continue to employ multistage flash distillation, an outdated method.
Multistage flash distillation depends on heat, in contrast to reverse osmosis, which eliminates salt and other impurities by forcing water through a semipermeable membrane. Although reverse osmosis can now achieve the same, desalination was initially explored by the United Arab Emirates because it was a more suitable method for handling the high salinity of the Gulf.
Furthermore, multistage flash distillation produces a significantly hotter byproduct than brine, severely upsetting the ecology even though both technologies produce brine.
The utility’s new Hassyan Power Plant in Dubai, which has been running on natural gas rather than coal for more than a year, will employ reverse osmosis desalination. It is anticipated that the $3.4 billion project will produce over 140 million gallons of water each day.
The utility has started looking at environmentally friendly ways to recover and manage brine utilizing membrane distillation and Zero Liquid Discharge, two technologies that experts believe can handle wastewater and saline water.
Despite global research efforts, approaches that tackle the issue on a large scale have not yet been implemented.
Despite the efforts, Dubai faces criticism. “I don’t see a lot of initiatives, to be honest,” Dr. al-Marzooqi said. “I feel the focus is more on renewable energy powering the systems, but there’s almost zero talk about brine.”