The Emirate of Abu Dhabi has abundant supplies of water. This may seem to be a bold statement to make, however, despite the fact that the Emirate receives very little rainfall and is largely a hyper-arid desert, it has by far the longest coastline in the UAE. Aside from the plentiful water available in the Arabian Gulf, large deposits of underground water lie under the surface, which have taken millions of years to form.
Unfortunately, the waters of the Gulf are unfit for human use without treatment that is costly, both in financial and environmental terms. Moreover, the underground reserves, which today provide nearly sixty-five per cent of the Emirate's freshwater supply, are being over-exploited (used much faster than they are naturally replenished).
The abundance of salt water and the scarcity of fresh water have had a major hand in shaping the ecology of Abu Dhabi as well as the culture and practices of its people, who have had to make do for thousands of years with what the land and sea provided. Today, rapid growth and economic development are creating ever-higher demand for water. The scant rainfall is insufficient to replenish groundwater levels, which are now falling rapidly due to the water being pumped from thousands of wells for agriculture, forest plantations and the rapidly expanding urban areas. In fact, water use in Abu Dhabi is now twenty-six times greater than the estimated annual re-supply through rainfall. Moreover, desalination, a costly technology that turns seawater into fresh water, has both technical limitations and significant environmental costs.
Much of the underground water reserves in Abu Dhabi are millions of years old. In recent decades, the profound changes in the demand for water have come to present urgent and serious challenges both to the sustainability of utilising those water resources and to the future development of Abu Dhabi.
This chapter highlights the story of water in the Emirate: its ancient origins and its remarkable accumulation in vast underground reservoirs, as well as how it has been extracted and used historically and today. It also explains why Abu Dhabi is currently confronting a water crisis and how this must be addressed in the near future.