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The Water Nexus Model in the UAE Research Paper

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Updated: May 16th, 2020


In the 21st Century, the interdependence between water and energy has intensified due to the increased needs of the modern society. The issue of sustainability is critical in the contemporary times with policymakers and interested parties calling for the efficient use of resources due to the scarcity aspect. In this case, the water-energy-food nexus has developed as one of the challenging sustainability strategies, which are potentially worthwhile in the long-term. The water element is vital for sustainable development since it is related to the energy and food production. Therefore, it curtails energy scarcity and food insecurity issues. Government interventions for water sustainability initiatives are common especially in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region (Al Mulla 3).

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has prioritized the water nexus approach for food and water sustainability given that the Arabian Gulf region is characterized by water scarcity and food importation dependency. This paper will focus on the water sector of the Nexus model concerning its various aspects as depicted in the UAE’s environment.

Background and Facts about the Water Nexus Model

Water has emerged as the most significant resource constriction in the modern economies. The essence of water can be portrayed in its resourcefulness in the agricultural production and energy generation. Towards the fall of the 19th Century, concerns about environmental sustainability intensified with various governments and organizations raising concerns over water, energy, and food scarcity. Thus, the nexus model based on sustainability was introduced in different economies to curb the adverse effects of water shortages. From the food perspective, agriculture accounts for 70% of fresh water utilization, thus translating into the largest user of water (Santhosh, Farid, and Youcef-Toumi 43).

Currently, 27% of the world’s urban dwellers do not have piped water supply in their houses. By 2025, 40% of the world’s population is anticipated to reside in water-scarce regions. In the next two decades, it is projected that a 33% growth in total energy consumption will occur in the water sector. Only 0.3% of all the water in the world is available for human and animal consumption. The Middle East region accounts for 52% of the world’s total water desalination due to fresh water scarcity from natural resources (Al Mulla 4).

In this regard, the water nexus model presents various opportunities that are based on water resources. In the UAE, start-ups have emerged after the government collaborated with water and food sustainability agencies from the US. The opportunities revolve around the development of new technology to track the utilization of water and energy resources and the modification of the existing technology to suit the needs of the Emirati citizens (Zereini and Jaeschke 36)

The water nexus model in the UAE

In 2013, the UAE government in cooperation with the New York University hosted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference (COP18) to discuss issues about the energy-water-food-climate nexus. The discussions were centrally based on the issue of water scarcity in the region, which has caused energy production inefficiencies and food importation dependency.

The summit, which was labelled “It Never Rains in the GCC”, aimed at fostering the government’s interventions in the water and agricultural sector as a sustainability strategy in the market due to the intensified popularity of the Nexus models globally. To address the issue exhaustively, the panel incorporated experts from the OECD, Global Water Partnership, World Economic Forum, Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, Global Water Partnership, Qatar Foundation, UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and New York University (Al Mulla 4).

The aspects of the water nexus model in the UAE sustainability projects entail the sources of water, the demand, and supply to the Emirati people, importation, and exportation of the highly valued resources. Since water has been described as “the new oil” in the Middle East, its scarcity has triggered massive investments through the nexus approach to alleviate water-induced problems in the UAE and other GCC countries. The UAE government and the other GCC countries deliberated to invest $100 billion in water recycling and desalination projects. This aspect underscores the UAE’s move towards the embracement of the water nexus model concerning its scarcity, demand, and supply in the domestic and regional markets (Al Mulla 6). At this point, discussing the different aspects of the nexus design is essential for evaluating the sustainability of the approaches implemented by the UAE government.

Sources of Water in the UAE

The UAE is situated in the Arabian Gulf region, which is characterized by aridity, thus implying that water scarcity is an issue of paramount concern. The primary sources of water in the UAE include seawater and groundwater. The annual rainfall in the UAE is 78 mm, which translates into 150 million cubic meters of water, implying that the country cannot rely on rainfall as a dependable source of water. The seawater is usually desalinated for domestic, agricultural, and industrial uses. The groundwater is the UAE’s chief natural water resource. Water desalination was introduced in the UAE in 1973 due to the depletion of groundwater sources (Zereini and Jaeschke 42).

New technological developments characterized by desalination have maximized the use of purified seawater for domestic, agricultural, and industrial use. The desalination process for the water purification not only relies on seawater but also brine and brackish water. The desalination process involves the measurement of totally dissolved solids (TTDs) or salinity is usually in milligrams per liter (mm/l), parts per thousand (ppt), or parts per million (ppm).

The desalination process entails boiling sea water then allowing it to condense before channeling it to pipes. Afterward, the reverse osmosis procedure is applied with insignificant energy inputs whereby water filtration occurs through extremely fine membranes. The energy efficient aspect of the process is accountable for the low tap water costs in the UAE. In 2014, the UAE produced 1700 MCM of water from the desalination processes in various plants.

Wastewater treatment is another non-conventional source of water in the UAE. Treated wastewater is gaining popularity in the UAE as a strategy for handling water scarcity in the country. In 201t4, the UAE managed to produce 600 MCM of water from treated water effluent. The treated sea water is mostly used for greening the urban areas in the UAE.

Water Demand in the UAE

Due to the water scarcity situation in the UAE, there is a high demand for the resource for domestic, agricultural, and industrial purposes. Annually, the UAE consumes almost 34 cubic meters of water per person corresponding to a per capita demand of 390 liters per day (Zereini and Jaeschke 50). In 2009, the aggregate demand for water in the UAE was projected to be 4.5 BCM. The graph below indicates the UAE’s water demand per sector in 2009.

Bar graph showing UAE’s water demand (Al Mulla 6).
Fig. 1: Bar graph showing UAE’s water demand (Al Mulla 6).

Assuming that the current requirement for water in the UAE prevails, the 4.5 BCM demand is estimated to double by 2030. Future water demands in the urban sector are expected to upsurge especially in the household, commercial, industrial, and institutions due to population and economic growth prospects.

Therefore, the Ministry of Environment and Water has adopted various strategies through policy formulation that favors the Nexus, water model. Recently, a conference facilitated by the ministry aimed at implementing the International Decade for Action, “Water for Life” 2005-2015 initiative to fulfill the growing demand for water. Additionally, the ministry has implemented strategies like the UAE Scheme for Drinking Water to ensure that all Emirati citizens have access to clean drinking water. Water subsidies to the Emirati citizens account for 10% of the country’s GDP as a demand management measure (Al Mulla 7).

Water Supply in the UAE

The supply of water in the UAE is relatively outweighed by the demands due to the climatic aspects of the region that facilitate scarcity of the resource. However, the available water resources including groundwater treated, effluent water, and desalination water have been instrumental in fulfilling the water demands in the UAE albeit partially. In 2009, groundwater resources supplied 51% of the UAE’s water demand mainly in the agriculture sector for irrigation purposes and potable uses in various Emirates. 40% of the supply was fulfilled by desalinated water supplies primarily for drinking purposes. The supply of treated water was at 9%, and it was mainly used for agricultural purposes through irrigation, running amenity areas and facilities, and industrial purposes (Santhosh, Farid, and Youcef-Toumi 44).

The Federal National Council in the UAE has been concerned with the capability of the water resources to supply the water needs of the GCC country. This situation is due to the depletion of the current resources, hence the need for the adoption of strategies like the Nexus model considering the water aspect. The UAE’s burgeoning population coupled with rapid economic growth has also been accounted for the increased supply that is undermined by limited water resources.

Additionally, the increased supply inefficiencies have been subjected to over-reliance on the desalinated seawater, which is susceptible to sea pollution and cost ineffective. To alleviate the water scarcity issue, the UAE government has invested $440 in groundwater drilling projects that commenced at Liwa, Abu Dhabi. The project is aimed at acting as an emergency response strategy that safeguards the water security in cases of hazardous events like oil spillages (Al Mulla 3).

Import and Export of Water in the UAE

The UAE is one of the countries that have been hit hard by water scarcity. Therefore, the country has various promising initiatives that aim at water sustainability through the Nexus model. The GCC member country does not rely on the importation of water, but it has concentrated on the maximization of its underground, seawater, and effluent water through drilling, desalination, and treatment. The generated water is used domestically as 70% goes into irrigation and forestry projects that foster food security and environmental sustainability. The remaining 30% is used for portable and industrial use (Santhosh, Farid, and Youcef-Toumi 44). In this regard, the UAE has not been associated with the import of mineral water due to its rich history in the desalination technique of seawater purification.

Between 2002 and 2012, the UAE has been exporting bottled water to various countries such as Japan. The Masafi bottled water found its recognition in 2002 after it was approved by the Japanese regulatory authority implying that it secured the Far East market that later captured the Chinese and Singaporean markets. Over the years, the Masafi bottled water acquired various markets in the Asia, Africa, and Europe (Santhosh, Farid, and Youcef-Toumi 45).

In 2012, the Ministerial Service Council in the UAE banned the export of bottled water from the ground water resources. The motive behind the ban was based on the declining levels of the resource, which underscored its depletion. Therefore, sustainability measures settled at regulating the export of water to cater for the domestic demands that were characterized by an increased population that required the water for potable use. The restriction for exporting the bottled water was also imposed since more than 80,000 wells in the UAE risk salinity or drying up (Santhosh, Farid, and Youcef-Toumi 48). The result would trigger food insecurity, environmental degradation, economic instability, and energy inefficiency since the aspects are interrelated as seen in the Nexus model.


The Nexus sustainability model is based on the aspects of water, food, and energy security. The UAE is one of the countries that have been hit hard by water scarcity issues due to the continued depletion of water resources. The demand for water is envisaged to double from the current 4.5 BCM by 2030, which implies that the adoption of the water nexus model is relevant for sustainability purposes. The UAE government in collaboration with international agencies like the UN has initiated various projects aimed at enhancing water security in the country through demand management and strategic reserves initiatives. Since the shortages of renewable water sources are guaranteed hence inducing food and energy insecurity, there is a need for comprehensive strategies to mitigate the water problem issues in the UAE.

Works Cited

Al Mulla, Mohamed. UAE State of Water Report, 2011. Web.

Santhosh, Apoorva, Amro Farid, and Kamal Youcef-Toumi. “Real-time economic dispatch for the supply side of the energy-water nexus.” Applied Energy 122.2 (2014): 42-52. Print.

Zereini, Fathi, and Wolfgang Jaeschke. Water in the Middle East and in North Africa: Resources, Protection and Management, Heidelberg: Springer, 2010. Print.

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