A group of endangered Arabian Oryx rests in the shade of trees at the Arabian Wildlife Centre (AWC) in Sharjah Image Credit: Gulf News archive

Dubai: Thirty small-scale solar-powered desalination plants will be operational in the next 15 months to provide animals with watering holes in Abu Dhabi's desert environment.

Two of the plants are already in use desalting brackish water from underground aquifers into fresh potable water, said a water resources expert from the Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi (EAD).

However the cost of using solar power for bigger desalination plants that produce millions of litres of fresh water for mass human consumption is still too high, said Dr Mohammad Dawoud, Manager of Water Resources Department at EAD.

Currently the cost of one desert desalination plant is Dh3 million.

Each plant will be of identical size with the same desalination capacity of five cubic metres of water per hour. The plants will be operated remotely and solar power will be harnessed by solar panels spanning 300 square metres at each site — enough to create 45 kilowatts of electricity per hour.

"The purpose of the plants is to establish a water source for the thousands of animals in the middle of the desert where there is no power. There will be no impact on the environment and the operating cost for the next 15 years is lower than transporting oil to use to create energy," said Dawoud.

The plants will be working six to eight hours everyday. Brine, or waste water, will be pumped to an evaporation lake measuring between 30 to 40 metres in diameter and fenced off to keep animals at bay. It will also be sealed underground to avoid any leaks into to the ground water.

"Very little salt will actually be produced. Around three cubic metres of water will be discharged per hour into the evaporation lake. From time to time it will have to be maintained and the salt removed and disposed of in a landfill," said Dawoud.

A subsurface irrigation system will pump some of the freshwater water back underground in order to create irrigated land to grow fodder for the animals.

According to the International Desalination Association, the daily production of desalinated water in the UAE is 8.4 million cubic metres. It was announced last year that future desalination production investments by Abu Dhabi and Dubai were pegged at up to $40 billion (Dh146.8 billion) to meet increasing water demand.