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UAE inspires innovators to turn tide on water crisis

UAE inspires innovators to turn tide on water crisis
26 Mar 2024 09:38

Mays Ibrahim (ABU DHABI)

As the world is grappling with a mounting burden of water stress, the UAE is making strides in addressing one of the critical challenges of our time with a multi-pronged approach, according to experts.

They hailed the UAE’s holistic approach in its endeavours with a particular focus on investments in technology, innovation and infrastructure all the while rallying international collaboration to mitigate the crisis.

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The UAE leadership has been actively involved in addressing water challenges. On February 29, under the leadership of President His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Mohamed bin Zayed Water Initiative was officially launched, marking a significant step towards addressing one of the most critical challenges of our time.

The initiative’s primary objective is to raise awareness about the severity of the water scarcity crisis and expedite the development of innovative technological solutions to effectively tackle its associated challenges. Fostering greater international cooperation to mitigate the crisis and stimulate investment for the benefit of present and future generations are among other key objectives.

World Water Day 2024 was celebrated on March 22 under the theme of “Water for Peace” with calls for global unity towards a more stable and prosperous future. 

“We must act upon the realisation that water is not only a resource to be used and competed over – it is a human right, intrinsic to every aspect of life,” the UN said in a statement.

With over 3 billion people worldwide relying on water that crosses borders, cooperation is essential. Yet, only 24 countries have comprehensive agreements for shared water resources, according to the UN, underscoring the pivotal role of water as a buttress of peace or a source of conflict.

“There is an urgent need, within and between countries, to unite around protecting and conserving our most precious resource. Public health and prosperity, food and energy systems, economic productivity and environmental integrity all rely on a well-functioning and equitably managed water cycle,” the UN statement said. 

UAE’s Water Security EffortsChaired by His Highness Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and vice-chaired by His Excellency Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak, Chairman of the Executive Affairs Authority, the Mohamed bin Zayed Water Initiative is committed to elevating the importance of water scarcity on the global agenda.

On March 1, the initiative joined forces with XPRIZE, a renowned innovation platform, announcing a monumental partnership in the launch of the XPRIZE Water Scarcity competition, featuring a total prize purse of $119 million.

The five-year global competition aims to inspire innovators worldwide to revolutionise the reliability, affordability, and sustainability of water desalination technologies. By incentivising groundbreaking solutions, the competition is poised to unleash a wave of creativity aimed at ensuring global access to clean, potable water.

Beyond the Mohamed bin Zayed Water Initiative, the UAE government has prioritised water scarcity in the national agenda through a number of other initiatives, showcasing its commitment to shaping a more resilient and water-secure future for all. Recognising the crucial link between water and food security, the UAE is elevating water considerations into its broader food security agenda, emphasising the importance of holistic dialogue on these interconnected issues, said Nada Abubakr, Middle East Director of Global Water Practice at Ricardo Group PLC. 

The National Food Loss and Waste Initiative-Ne’ma, the Food Security Strategy for 2051, and the Net Zero 2050 strategy, which includes a dedicated pillar for agriculture, offer other examples of ongoing efforts in this regard. The National Water and Energy Demand Management Programme also includes a specific quota of water for agricultural use, Abubakr noted. 

According to Nahla Nabil, a sustainability strategist based in the UAE, the government’s strategic investments in technology, innovation, and infrastructure constitute another important component of the country’s water security efforts. 

These efforts include the development of renewable energy-powered desalination plants, the implementation of water conservation regulations, and the promotion of efficient irrigation methods. “These efforts are part of a broader commitment to sustainable development and environmental stewardship in the region,” she said. 

“The Mohamed bin Zayed Water Initiative is paramount because it directly tackles the critical challenge of global water scarcity by fostering collaboration, driving targeted investment, and gathering great minds to support research and development in water conservation technologies, and promote sustainable water management practices globally,” Nabil added. 

Water Scarcity CausesThe WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program (JMP) 2023 update report revealed that in 2022, around 2.2 billion still lacked safely managed drinking water. According to the report, 115 million people currently drink surface water, which carries health risks. 

“Achieving universal coverage by 2030 will require a six-fold increase in current rates of progress for safely managed drinking water, a five-fold increase for safely managed sanitation, and a three-fold increase for basic hygiene services,” the report stated. 

Progress towards achieving universal accessibility to potable water by 2030 is still lagging significantly, according to the UN Blueprint for Acceleration SDG 6 Synthesis Report on Water and Sanitation 2023.

Current factors driving water security make it “harder to plan and manage water security with confidence”, said Nada Abubakr. Rapid population and economic growth further strain water sources, increasing demand for this finite resource. Aging infrastructure contributes to significant water losses through pipe breakages along the water network, exacerbating the problem, she added. 
Mismanagement and the overuse of natural water resources, including groundwater extraction and inefficient irrigation techniques, further deplete reserves. 

Political conflicts hinder transboundary dialogue on shared river basins, leading to an inequitable distribution of water resources, Abubakr said.

Geographic factors, such as the region’s limited freshwater sources, restrict options for water supply, while increasing salinity levels in groundwater aquifers degrade water quality, further complicating the issue, she noted.

“Water scarcity in our region is primarily driven by its arid and semi-arid climate, which results in low rainfall and high evaporation rates. Furthermore, urbanisation, population growth, and agricultural demands intensify the strain on already limited water resources,” Abubakr added.

Alicia Dauth, a Senior Associate Consultant and a Chartered Environmentalist, identified the region’s population and economic growth, coupled with the threat of climate refugees, as causes for concern. 
“Our water resources are becoming limited, and our water quality is another reason to worry.

Additionally, an increase of water related weather events, such as low precipitation (causing water stress) or short-term, intense rainfall events causing flooding and runoff. The increase of thermal temperatures is causing increased evaporation loss. 

“This all equates to too much water or too little water, and we need to make a plan on how we can manage and prepare for the drastic fluctuations of available water resources for a growing population,” Dauth said.

Complexities of Climate ChangeThe causes of water scarcity are multidimensionally compounded by climate change. Significant among the many ramifications are rising sea levels, which poses a significant risk of water contamination when saltwater intrudes into freshwater sources, rendering them unusable for human consumption, according to Abubakr.

“Rising temperatures combined with prolonged periods of below-average precipitation leads to a reduction in water levels for surface water sources such as rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. The rising temperatures are also melting glaciers and snowpack in mountainous regions at an accelerated rate, reducing runoff during the dry season,” she said. 

Moreover, shifting flood risks and extreme weather events, driven by climate change, can damage water infrastructure, leading to disruptions in water supply systems, Abubakr added.

Climate change-altered weather patterns also exacerbate water scarcity, Nabil said.
“This means we’re seeing droughts and floods becoming more severe and less predictable than before. In regions like MENA, climate change contributes to higher temperatures and evaporation rates, reducing surface water availability while increasing water demand for agriculture, industry, and human consumption,” she said. 

Long-term Implications Unchecked water scarcity poses significant long-term implications, particularly on agriculture and food security.

“Agriculture is the largest consumer of freshwater globally, and water scarcity can lead to reduced crop yields, increased food prices, and food shortages. This can lead to economic instability and increased poverty, especially in rural areas dependent on farming.

“Moreover, water scarcity can lead to political conflicts over water resources, further threatening food security and social stability,” Nabil said. 

Abubakr explained that insufficient water for irrigation will lead to a decline in agricultural productivity, potentially leading to initial spikes in food prices and eventual shortages. Farmers may be compelled to prioritise crops that require less water or are more drought-resistant, resulting in reduced agricultural diversity. 

“If water scarcity persists, farmers will be forced to abandon their lands, leading to displacement of communities heavily reliant on irrigation, and eventual land degradation and desertification. The negative impacts of water scarcity will be felt by the broader economy through their respective supply chains that are directly reliant on water availability”.

Leveraging TechnologyBy enhancing efficiency, technology can play a crucial role in addressing water scarcity and bolstering water security. 

Water recycling technologies enable the reuse of wastewater for non-potable purposes, like irrigation, Abubakr noted. 

Novel water supply technologies, such as water-from-air technologies, offer alternative sources of freshwater for consumers, and smart sensors and IoT devices are enabling utilities to manage their assets in real-time making, them more resilient to stressors and shocks caused by climate change, she added.

According to Dauth, water-from air technologies hold promise. This method, which includes fog harvesting, extracts moisture from the air to generate drinking water. Devices like atmospheric water generators (AWGs) filter this moisture, with solar-powered AWGs gaining traction in sunny climates like the UAE, she explained. 

According to Nabil, technology can play a pivotal role in addressing water scarcity by blending modern innovation with traditional water management practices. 

“This combination leverages the strengths of both approaches-using technologies like AI and remote sensing to improve efficiency and effectiveness, while also drawing on the wisdom of traditional methods such as rainwater harvesting and Aflaj systems.”

This collaborative approach maximises water availability, optimises usage, and adapts age-old practices to meet present-day needs. The integration also preserves cultural heritage, rendering water solutions that are more sustainable and community driven.

“There is no one size fits all approach to addressing water scarcity – we are all facing various water challenges from water quality to water quantity to water storage and water distribution,” Dauth said. 
“Desalination, rainwater harvesting, drip irrigation, water recycling, and fog harvesting are just a few of the many solutions that can help address water scarcity in water-scarce countries.”

“These technologies have the potential to transform the way we use and manage water resources efficiently, but let’s not leave it all to technology. We must also do our part in conserving water,” she added. 

Global Frameworks At the global level, establishing comprehensive water policies and regulatory frameworks is crucial to ensuring equitable access to water resources, Abubakr said. 

“A water policy ‘blueprint’ can be a powerful motivator for coordinated action at a global scale. An effective water policy can clearly articulate the objectives for water management and use and provide a roadmap for water policy reform. The policy should be prescriptive enough to commit governments to action, with agreed roles and accountabilities, against which to measure the progress of reform and through which to ensure efforts are aligned,” she said, noting that continuous implementation, monitoring, and improvement of these policies over time is essential. 

Abubakr also pointed out that the OECD Principles on Water Governance provide a framework for governments to consider when designing and implementing water policies.

According to Dauth, the UAE intends to launch a multi-layered non-profit initiative to demonstrate its commitment to the global water concern which requires a callout for global action. 

“Looking into the situation on a microscale, we know that by working collectively through the development and implementation of innovative and sustainable ways we can all bring affordable and replicable smart water reuse solutions to the world,” she added.

Risk of Global Conflict The United Nations World Water Development Report 2024, released by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) on World Water Day 2024, underscores how tensions surrounding water are escalating conflicts globally. 

“As water stress increases, so do the risks of local or regional conflict. UNESCO’s message is clear: if we want to preserve peace, we must act swiftly not only to safeguard water resources but also to enhance regional and global cooperation in this area,” said Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General.

“Water, when managed sustainably and equitably, can be a source of peace and prosperity. It is also the literal lifeblood of agriculture, the major socioeconomic driver for billions of people,” said Alvaro Lario, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and Chair of UN-Water.

The new report published by UNESCO, on behalf of UN-Water, revealed that droughts from 2002 to 2021 affected over 1.4 billion people, killed over 21,000 more, and triggered $170 billion in economic losses. As of 2022, half of the global population faced severe water scarcity at some point during the year. Climate change is expected to exacerbate these challenges, posing acute risks to social stability, the report said.

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