How do we make water sustainable?

Why we need to produce water more efficiently and use it more wisely
How do we make water sustainable?
Nidal Hilal, Director of NYUAD Water Research Center and Professor of Engineering

It’s easy for many of us to take water for granted, yet without it, no living thing on earth could survive.

Over two billion people live in countries where water supply is inadequate, while half of the world’s population could be living in areas facing water scarcity by as early as 2025. Ensuring the sustainable use of this precious and finite resource is a critical issue, particularly in regions that suffer from water scarcity.

The GCC countries are among the world’s most water-scarce regions, with average annual rainfall of less than 100mm and very high evaporation rates of greater than 3,000mm per year, and limited reserves of groundwater. The rest comes from desalination, which comes at an economic and environmental cost.

On World Water Day, we discuss how water use can be made more sustainable in this region, focusing on new desalination techniques, water reuse, water harvesting, and better public education programs.

Read: Egypt to build desalination plants as it seeks to reduce water scarcity



The first industrial desalination plants were built in the Arabian Gulf countries in the 1950s. Until recently, most of these plants used thermal desalination, which boils seawater to produce condensed clean water. That requires a lot of energy and generates large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.

This is an acute issue since most of the country’s potable water (42 percent of the total water requirement) comes from some 70 major desalination plants, which account for around 14 percent of the world’s total production of desalinated water. Desalination also produces brine which is often disposed of without further treatment, posing an environmental risk to marine life.

In recent decades, plants have been built using reverse osmosis technology, in which a high pressure is applied across a membrane to separate salt and water. Reverse osmosis technology has brought down the energy consumption of seawater desalination from 12-18 kWh to as low as 2.5 kWh for each cubic meter of water produced.  Although reverse osmosis boasts several benefits over thermal desalination, the high pressures needed and the eventual degradation of membranes due to contaminants in the source water have driven scientists to find alternatives. This is especially true for this region where high evaporation rates and subsequent higher-than-average seawater salinity pose difficulties in long-term usage of reverse osmosis. As a result, researchers are currently exploring more sustainable techniques for both desalination and brine management.

Our work at the New York University Water Research Center involves the development of advanced membrane technology using nanomaterials to enhance the energy efficiency of desalination. Driven by the need for localized solutions, we tailor membranes better suited for the harsh conditions of the Arabian Gulf.

Using renewable energy sources is another pathway towards making desalination more sustainable. The UAE has already made significant strides in this area, with the world’s largest solar-powered desalination plant located in Abu Dhabi, while DEWA wants all desalination to be powered by a combination of clean energy sources and waste heat by 2030. These developments form another important part of the sustainable water puzzle.

The UAE has recently invested $2.08 billion in the desalination segment across Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Umm Al Quwain. The forthcoming COP28 in the UAE will raise attention to water, catalyze action, and build partnerships to achieve international water goals.


Water reuse/recycling


Water reuse and recycling must also be a key part of the equation, seeing as so much clean desalinated water is wasted on non-potable purposes, such as irrigation, landscaping, and industrial processes when wastewater could be used.

In the GCC countries, wastewater treatment plants have been built to treat and reuse wastewater, but the practice is not yet as widespread as it could be. Thankfully this is changing. For example, the UAE launched the Water Security Strategy 2036 in 2017 which set out how the country would reduce total demand on water resources by 21 percent, increase the reuse of treated water to 95 percent, and reduce average consumption by each person by half.

Water harvesting


Water harvesting – collecting rainwater and storing it for later use – is another tool that has much potential to contribute to greater supply. While the practice has not been widely adopted, there is growing interest in its potential.

The UAE performs about 1,000 hours of cloud seeding on average each year to stimulate the rainfall it receives. But there are many other simple techniques that can help capture rain and moisture. Nets can be used to trap fog and collect condensed water. Buildings can be adapted to capture rainwater for gardens. There are also ongoing trials to use solar-powered water generators that collect moisture from the air to convert it into drinking water.

More broadly, the UAE government has launched several initiatives to promote water harvesting. Championing the environment and sustainability is one of the government’s five priorities for 2023, which includes a National Strategy for Desertification that will shape efforts to safeguard the country’s natural resources until 2030.

Water conservation


Just as importantly as any of these steps, however, is using less of the water we do have. Globally, 70 percent of water is used for agriculture, 20 percent is used for industry, and only 10 percent is for domestic use. The UAE Water Security Strategy 2036 seeks to reduce the total demand for water resources by 21 percent. There are so many steps that can be taken to lower our water consumption. Innovation in agricultural techniques for more efficient water usage has already drastically reduced water use. For example, vertical farms can use a tenth of the land and 70-50 percent less water than traditional farming would demand.

Public education can also play a critical role in promoting sustainable water use, seeing as the average consumption in the UAE is reported to be as much as 550 liters per day, which is double the worldwide average. The government has launched several public education programs to promote sustainable water use, but we can all contribute in different ways. At NYUAD, we have created Water Ambassador awards for three students and one of their roles is to spread awareness of the global water challenge.

These small solutions are all vital contributors to securing water for our future generations. The theme of this year’s World Water Day is Accelerating Change, and that’s exactly what we need to do. Water is after all the key to life, and we should never forget that.

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