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Supporting groundwater sustainability research in the United Arab Emirates

Apr 2011
United Arab Emirates

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is one of the world’s most water-stressed countries and all sources of water are highly valued and must be safeguarded for the future wellbeing of the population. To support this aim the Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy provides grants for research contributing to the better understanding and management of the country’s vital water assets.

In two important groundwater sustainability projects, Borealis has partnered the Emirates Foundation and contributed significantly to support this work. These projects are part of Borealis’ Corporate Social Responsibility endeavour and the Water for the World initiative with Borouge.

The UAE faces major challenges in providing drinking water to meet the needs of its growing population, already in excess of eight million people, and its strong expanding industrial base. Currently partial of its needs are met from groundwater resources. However, with no permanent rivers or natural lakes the aquifers (water bearing substrate) are primarily recharged by rainwater. But, with a very hot climate, more than 90% of its land area comprising desert and an average annual rainfall of just 100mm, the recharging of aquifers can not keep pace with the volume of water abstracted to satisfy demand. Therefore currently, the depletion of groundwater reserves in the UAE is unsustainable.

Over the past 35 years much has been done to meet these challenges. A number of dams have been built around the country to maximise rainwater catchment and aid aquifer recharging. A series of desalination plants has been constructed to convert seawater to freshwater, and the treatment of wastewater has enabled its re-use to meet the requirement for landscape irrigation. Moreover, in seeking an economic and environmentally conservative balance of supply with demand, these measures have been supplemented by initiatives that range from system improvements in agricultural irrigation to campaigns encouraging people to use domestic water more sparingly. However, as society and industry continue to evolve within the UAE, new sustainable solutions that will match with future demands need to be found.

Better understanding gives better solutions

To facilitate the search for new and improved solutions the Emirates Foundation offers grants to suitably qualified PhD graduates to support their research into major environmental projects within the UAE – particularly water sustainability initiatives. The two projects being supported by a donation from Borealis’ Social Fund have as a significant component the deepening of understanding and knowledge of UAE groundwater volume and behaviour.

These projects are part of Borealis’ Corporate Social Responsibility endeavour and the Water for the World initiative with Borouge.

The research projects are:

Innovative Isotopic Approach to Groundwater Regions in the UAE
Led by Dr Ahmed Murad, his research team is investigating the sources of groundwater and its recharge rate in different areas of the UAE. The increase in water consumption in relation to its estimated volume and rate of replenishment shows a progressive imbalance. However, the estimates of aquifer quantities were made some years ago, may no longer be accurate and might therefore represent inadequate data on which to base water management decisions and future infrastructural projections.

Groundwater Rise in Al Ain: A Threat or Blessing?
The principal aim of this study, led by Dr Mohamed Mostafa, is to improve the management of groundwater resources in Al Ain, an oasis city in the east of the country bordering Oman, and change current and future threats into strategic storage solutions. The research is expected to provide a methodology for improving water management practices by identifying the sources contributing to the rise in groundwater in the area and manage the risks associated with it. The results of this study will include the production of a groundwater level map of Al Ain, which illustrates the ‘hot zones’ of groundwater proximity to the surface. An expected outcome is that this research will contribute value to water management decision making and resource saving.

Targeting future needs in the UAE

The Emirates Foundation is one of the UAE’s foremost philanthropic organizations. It offers financial and technical support to projects that enrich the lives of people in the Emirates, particularly in the areas of youth development, knowledge creation, and society and culture.

The Foundation facilitates links between commercial businesses and the public sector to devise new projects and strengthen existing nonprofit initiatives throughout the country. Its funding comes from programme-rated contributions and a capital reserve supported by the Abu Dhabi government and private companies. The specific initiatives supported fall within the following core areas: education, social development, environmental development, science and technology, and art and culture.