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Dubai is expected to increase greenery in its parks, public gardens and along the roads this year. Up to 30 small park projects are also planned for the city as part of the government's goal of greening 8 per cent of the urban environment. It's a challenging target, but one that the government sees as vital to maintain and improve the quality of air and life in the emirate. However, is the obsession with greenery leading to a potential water crisis in the region?
The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation says that in the past 15 years, the UAE's renewable water resources have decreased by 42 per cent and predicts that per capita availability of water is expected to halve by 2050. These are shocking statistics, made even more startling when considering that Dubai receives only 67mm of average rainfall annually and consumes significantly greater than the global average, e.g. 550 litres per person per day compared to 127 litres in the UK.
Much of the water consumed in the UAE is used to maintain the manicured gardens in public spaces and commercial environments. Salman Zafar, an environmental expert who runs the website Ecomena.org, is concerned about the amount of freshwater used to irrigate the landscaping features of the UAE.
He says it requires more than half a billion cubic litres of water per year — a figure that is rising annually as more parks and gardens are developed. One option to address the issue is to use desalinated water, but Zafar says ''conventional desalination is cost-prohibitive and energy-intensive and is not viable in the long term''.
Furthermore, he says the environmental impacts of desalination are considered critical on account of emissions from energy consumption and discharge of brine into the sea. ''Brine has extremely high salt concentrations and also contains leftover chemicals and metals from the treatment process, which poses a danger to marine life,'' says Zafar.
Another approach being tried is the use of grey water. Walter Bone, Landscape Design Manager at Khatib & Alami, says, ''The use of grey water or treated sewage effluent [TSE] in the landscape provides irrigation for golf courses, resort/hotel landscapes, parks, roadways and streetscapes. TSE is collected after being treated from storm water runoff, sinks, showers, washing machines, etc, and is a great source to nourish our landscape.
''It's a better alternative than desalinated water, which is not beneficial to the natural environment. Plants actually need some of the minerals that are removed from saltwater for growth. Pure mineral water also often lacks the important natural minerals that plants need to thrive.''
With such high demand for water and a limited availability, landscaping companies are turning to innovative solutions. Bone says careful planning and smart design can reduce the consumption of water in a landscape. ''It's important that landscaping companies have strong environmental and sustainability departments within their structure.
It's my responsibility to analyse the project's needs, projected water demands for the landscape and assist in providing state-of-the-art irrigation design and storm water collection or harvesting, wherever applicable.
''With numerous projects spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa, we have found that some are affected by saltwater not from the sea, but from below the groundwater tables. Projects in Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi have been affected by rising water tables. At one point, in Doha, the water table averaged 18 metres below ground. Now it is between four metres and five metres in some areas and affecting tree and plant growth and survivability.''
Bone says the problem affects many of the projects his firm is working on. ''Over the past few years, it has been found outside the city towards the centre region and away from the coastline.''
For large-scale projects such as hotels and resorts, major road and infrastructure works, and parks in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the focus is on providing unique landscape solutions that help avoid saltwater contamination and allow the plants and trees to flourish.
A firm called Zeoplant has developed an innovative water retention additive that has the potential to cut irrigation consumption by up to 50 per cent. ''We started our activities in the UAE in 2003 when we conducted successful trials with Nakheel's Research and Development department,'' says Ralf Stahl, Managing Partner of Zeoplant. ''Nakheel at that time was the only developer in the Gulf, which insisted on moisture retaining soil additives to address the high irrigation water losses in our sandy soils.
''It's a problem that all landscape designers and homeowners face here — that of plants having very little time to use the water they receive from irrigation before it leaches away into the water table below.
Stahl adds that Zeoplant's product in the root zone of the plants improved the soil structure, increasing its water holding capacity and reducing the infiltration speed of irrigation water by up to 85 per cent. ''This means that plants have more time to absorb the water, and water loss through percolation is reduced drastically,'' he says. ''As Zeoplant is a fully natural mineral-based material, it minimises the rates of water consumption, while preventing harm to the environment or contaminating the soil.''
Zeoplant has been working with an Abu Dhabi Municipality public park project, which is estimated to have saved more than 76,000 litres of water every day. The product was introduced to the soil mix during the construction phase, which started last year. Since then, weekly monitoring of the irrigation requirements has revealed that water consumption can be reduced by more than 50 per cent throughout the year — even during extreme weather conditions during the summer months from June to September.
Impact of campaigns
In the future, water conservation is set to become a major consideration in all its uses. Stahl foresees a future where conservation will be mandatory. ''We cannot continue to waste our most important natural resource without any thought for tomorrow,'' he says.
''We see frequent campaigns by the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority and the Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority to encourage people to reduce their domestic water usage, but if we compare this to the amount of water wasted in private and public gardens, the impact of such campaigns seems rather marginal. The main problem we face in our daily business is the lack of awareness among the decision-makers.
''I'm sure that stricter laws and regulations will be imposed in the near future with regard to water usage.''
Bone explains that fresh, clean water is a limited resource. ''In the UAE we are surrounded by saltwater but our freshwater supply is decreasing on a daily basis,'' he says. ''With limited rainfall, conservation and a limit on the use of water are critical. In the future, the use of freshwater and the lack of desalinated water production will force the world to reverse the usage of both fresh and desalinated water.
''In this region, I expect to see large, solar-powered desalination facilities being constructed to produce low cost and very fresh water, which will be as pure as distilled water. In this way, we could provide an everlasting freshwater source for all residents, including our furry and feathered friends.''
Zafar says it will be necessary to strike a balance between water consumption and the use of desalination. ''The conservation of water is essential due to the rising population of the world and the UAE in particular, together with growing industrialization and dwindling natural water resources,'' he says. ''Water conservation will not only help to save it but will also conserve energy, which would otherwise be used for the desalination, treatment and transportation of water.''
Source: Ruth Khan, Special to Property Weekly