A water management expert has proposed that oil tankers be used to import fresh drinking water, thus taking the pressure off desalination plants and dwindling groundwater sources. Dr Hussein Amery, a professor in the Colorado School of Mines, said oil tankers could be re-used as water tankers, but a system would be needed to make these tankers safe for carrying water.

"This policy will not only reduce transportation costs but also help meet the fresh water requirement," he told Gulf News. "Complete dependence on desalination plants is not the right approach because desalination plants are vulnerable, at certain levels, to ecological disasters such as the recent oil spill from the oil tanker Zainab."

It sank off Jebel Ali and polluted the sea along the Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman coasts, forcing the authorities to shut down the desalination plants and causing a water shortage in residential areas.

"Had the oil spill not been controlled in time, or had there been more incidents like this, there would have been a big water shortage crisis in the country," said Amery, an expert on water and the environment. In addition, water desalination is expensive and energy-consuming.

Another reason for water shortages in the region is the exploitation of underground water. As a result, oases and natural springs are drying up fast. Amery, who is here to deliver a lecture at the American University of Sharjah on "Water Crisis in the Middle East", said technology should be developed to create "artificial rain" to augment ground water.

"Another means of improving the fresh water supply is the 'bag and drag' formula," he said. This involves the use of big water balloons to carry huge quantities of fresh water. "These big balloons are filled with fresh water and then dragged over the sea."

Amery also called for strict water management policies to reduce usage. The amount of water used for farm irrigation should be reduced in arid countries like the UAE. Instead, they should import "virtual water" in the form of food and avoid devoting scarce water to irrigation.

The water could then be put at the disposal of the growing urban population. He also recommended efficient irrigation technology and drought-resistant crops which thrive in dry environments.

"Countries in this region, which has one of the world's highest population growth rates, should control population growth," he said. A massive campaign to educate the public about water management is needed. He also suggested abolishing water subsidies to force consumers to reduce use.