Water conservation is the need of the hour given that the UAE lacks renewable water resources. Government authorities, corporates and individuals are campaigning to reduce water consumption.

More than 70 per cent of the Earth's surface is covered by water, 97.5 per cent of that is salt water, leaving only 2.5 per cent as fresh water. Only one per cent of this figure is said to be accessible for direct human use.

While this amount of water has sustained life for a long time, decades of liberal exploitation of this vital resource is beginning to show its impact across the world, including this region. The UAE, for example, has one of the highest consumption rates per capita in the world.

"According to our 2006 statistics, 64,926 million gallons of water was consumed in Dubai, and according to the latest statistics, the UAE is the world's third-largest (per capita) water consumer after the US and Canada," says Amal Koshak, Manager - Investor Services, Dubai Electricity and Water Authority.

The real picture
These statistics are alarming when you consider that the UAE has a lack of renewable water resources.

Samuel Keehn, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-approved Environmental and Sustainability Manager, Energy Management Services Int, says, "The UAE has one of the lowest resources of clean water on earth.

"It rarely rains, there are almost no natural bodies of water and the underground water tables are small and vulnerable to infiltration of seawater. This factor combined with one of the highest per capita uses of water make it obvious that the country faces serious water challenges.

"The only solution has been to desalinate large amount of water from the Gulf, which requires heavy and expensive facilities and fuel consumption, along with negative effects on the Gulf's water and ecosystems."

Dr Ahmad Murad, Head of the Geology Department, UAE University in Al Ain, says that in the past groundwater was the main source of water for different uses in the UAE.

Agriculture accounts for about 80 per cent of the groundwater used in the UAE.

"Unfortunately, these days due to the climatic conditions of the country and heavy groundwater pumping accompanied by factors such as population growth and a rise in the standard of living, desalinated water is the main source for different uses," he says.

The demand for desalinated water, however, shows no signs of abating. In fact, according to Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa) statistics, demand for desalinated water in Dubai rose by about 11.5 per cent in 2006. This kind of increment, as Keehn mentions, will definitely have an impact on the environment.

However, there is a move towards incorporating environment-friendly technologies in desalination plants.

Bassem Halabi, Group Business Development Director, Metito Overseas Ltd, says, "A quick look at the projects in the field of seawater desalination that are available on the market today reveals the magnitude and size of these plants.

"There is an increasing trend of higher plant capacities and due to the limitation in the availability of power more plants are incorporating energy recovery systems that reduce the power requirements.

"There is also a trend for hybrid systems, which is a combination of membrane desalination and thermal desalination, especially when coupled with a power plant."

However, there are several other steps that can be taken to address a shortfall in the supply of water. Murad says that the important thing is to manage the use of groundwater.

"The implementation of a long-term strategy for integrated water resources management to provide sufficient quantities of water for the future is also recommended.

"Statistics show that the reserve of the water (total of desalinated and groundwater production) has exceeded the production of groundwater. So stopping the pumping of groundwater for some time will help increase the levels of groundwater in major aquifers in the UAE," he says.

Halabi says that an important factor that can make a difference is recycling.

"In the waste water sector, recycling can offer tremendous environmental benefits. It will reduce reliance on costly desalinated water for industrial and irrigation applications, thus reducing extra demand on power that can be polluting.

"It can also treat the effluent to a standard that is safe for disposal (if not needed) into the sea. Recycling can also take care of the waste sludge problem (which is being faced currently) by composting the by-product and packaging it for use as fertiliser," he says.

Rising demand
Halabi does see an increasing demand for high quality recycled wastewater these days.

"One method that is currently experiencing great success is the use of membrane bioreactor technology for treating domestic or municipal waste water. This technology is capable of producing an effluent that is rapidly finding more uses and applications in both municipal and industrial sectors," he says.

Metitio has employed this technology in the Palm Jumeirah waste water treatment plant. They have also completed a larger plant for the Green project for Emaar among other waste water treatment and recycling projects.

Water usage reduction methods are also being implemented on a development-wide basis at the Burj Dubai, one of Dubai's prestigious real estate developments.

"The waste water from the development will be collected and sent to a central treatment plant to process the effluents - using the latest membrane technology. Water treated in the plant will then be used to irrigate open spaces within the development.

"A large percentage will be processed further, and used to top up the lake and the district cooling plants. A part of the surface water from Burj Dubai will feed the lake and increase the water level, which would otherwise drop due to evaporation.

"The rest of the surface water will feed the creek in compliance with the requirements of Dubai Municipality," says an Emaar spokesperson.

Government bodies such as the Dubai Municipality and Dewa and several hotels and companies based in Dubai are also actively engaged in water conservation. The Fairmont Dubai is one of them.

"According to a study by a facilities management company, Dubai hotels use between 650 and 1,230 litres of water per guest," says Alka Patel, Public Relations Manager at The Fairmont Dubai.

"It makes sense to invest in water conservation initiatives not only from an environmental standpoint but from an operational one," she says.

The Fairmont Dubai has 3,200 faucets, which includes guestrooms, kitchens and public restrooms. In an effort to conserve water, the hotel has unveiled a plan to install aerators or flow restrictors on all faucets in the hotel.

This is expected to reduce consumption of water by almost 35 to 40 per cent. Normal faucets deliver three to four gallons of water (11 to 13 litres) per minute, facet aerators can cut this amount in half with no detectable difference in performance.

The hotel also has water conservation features at the accommodation facilities.

"Fairmont Hotels and Resorts has long been an environmental leader in the global hospitality industry," says Michelle White, Fairmont's Director of Environmental Affairs.

White says the trend towards water conservation and energy efficiency is very relevant in the UAE today considering that with the desalination process, a gallon of water costs more than a gallon of gasoline.

As part of their focus on corporate social responsibility, the Shangri-La Hotel, Dubai also has a water savings checklist in place in every department to ensure that the waste is minimal.

"One of our best practices is the usage of laundry waste water after it has been treated, as well as water collected from air-conditioning units to irrigate the hotel's landscaped areas.

"In addition, we are also planning to install a water flow control system for all bathrooms in guestrooms and public areas in order to better control the water flow, allowing for less wastage," says Chithrananda De Alwis, Director of Engineering, Shangri-La Hotel, Dubai.

Pacific Controls Systems LLC, one of the 16 buildings in the world to get a platinum LEED certification, also has several water conservation features in place such as waterless urinals at their company's headquarters in the Techno Park in Dubai.

Sustainable solution
Keehn says that there's a lot that commercial establishments can do to cut down their water usage.

"The first task is always to determine how much water you are currently using, assuming this is an existing building or setting a design baseline for a proposed project. Once the known water usage baseline has been set, a project can look at places that are inefficient and find solutions.

"Fixing leaks, installing more efficient faucets with sensors/timers, showers, dual flush toilets, and waterless urinals all are proven technologies.

"Dual plumbing installations and water recycling within a building are more intensive, but also conserve a great deal more water. Individual usage patterns and landscape decisions also have significant impacts on the amount of water a building uses," he says.

Murad also says that using other sources and cheaper alternative methods to produce water such as solar energy will also help.

"I think a fee for exceeding the limit of water allowance for each person should also be applied. Increasing awareness among people about water conservation especially through the younger generation will also help."

Dewa has been very proactive in raising the awareness of organisations, particularly the government departments.

"Dewa meets and educates decision makers in these departments on a regular basis, in addition to holding educational workshops that aim at cutting down the water consumption of these departments. Our efforts in raising the awareness of government departments have resulted in savings worth Dh12 million in 2006," says Koshak.

Conservation concepts
Koshak says that Dewa's conservation team also visits schools in a long-term objective of instilling the concept of conservation in children.

Dewa has also been strongly targeting Dubai mosques, and in 2006, managed to cut down 40 per cent of their water consumption by installing water saving devices in bathrooms and ablution areas.

"We have also been active in launching media campaigns, targeted at consumers and children alike. Our conservation team capitalises on all global, social and religious events and utilises them to instill the conservation mentality.

"We are also in the process of launching our 'Best Consumer Award', which will show our appreciation to those who have been managing their electricity and water usage efficiently," says Koshak.

Sadek Owainati, Founder and Chairman of the Board of the Green Building Council, says, more needs to be done to conserve water.

"I am happy to see public awareness announcements by Dewa educating people about the scarcity of water and the need for conservation. It's important that we don't waste a resource we have so little of."