The Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD) revealed that Abu Dhabi’s scarcity of naturally renewable water resources has been worsened by the increased demand for groundwater and withdrawal from aquifers.
This has imposed significant environmental challenges which have contributed to the increase in salinity, pollution, lower water levels, depletion of stocks and deterioration of the groundwater reserves. As a result, some areas within the emirate have been classified as depleted, while digging new wells is prohibited, EAD said in a statement to the Emirates News Agency (WAM).
Abu Dhabi faces the issue of water resources scarcity due to its location in the dry zone belt, which is characterised by low rates of natural renewal of the aquifers. This is a result of weak rates of precipitation, which range from 90 to 140 million cubic meters per year only. The water scarcity rises with the increasing rates of development and population, and there is a higher demand for water for human consumption, which is also due to economic development. EAD stressed how meeting water needs is necessary towards maintaining healthy ecosystems, preserving the environment, and providing food.
Dr. Sheikha Salem Al Dhaheri, Secretary-General of EAD said: “Groundwater is considered a non-renewable resource in Abu Dhabi, and its. natural recharge rate is extremely limited. In fact, it only occurs in the Hajar Mountains area. Groundwater represents around 60 percent of the total water resources used in the emirate, while desalinated water accounts for approximately 30 percent, and the remaining 10 percent is attributed to treated wastewater. About 65 percent of the water resources are used for irrigation in the agricultural sector, forests, gardens and parks.”
She emphasised that among the most significant threats are excessive use of groundwater for agricultural purposes, insufficient awareness of users, and the limited natural regeneration of groundwater. The problem is aggravated by the increasing rates of the current pumping of groundwater in the emirate due to the expansion of the agricultural sector and the need for water, which currently reaches 2,100 million cubic meters annually. This represents about 20 times the quantities of natural feeding of underground reservoirs.
She noted that because of excessive pumping of groundwater from reservoirs, the levels have decreased and its quality has deteriorated in many areas. She stated that 79 percent of reserves have become highly saline, 18 percent are brackish, while only 3 percent can be considered fresh groundwater. This is according to the classification of quality and salinity of water set by EAD.
Al Dhaheri advised that if the current situation continuations, then usable groundwater reserves of the emirate will be depleted during the next few decades, especially in areas with dense irrigation rates. However, this could change with regulating the use of available groundwater in a sustainable manner, along with wise planning and management for its increasing demand. This can be achieved by increasing the use of recycled water (treated wastewater) in the agricultural and forestry sectors, whilst diverting water supplies to desalinated water sources, away from groundwater sites that do not naturally regenerate.
Sheikha Al Hosani, Executive Director of the Environmental Quality Sector at EAD announced that there are currently over 100,000 ground wells across the emirate, including over 53,000 working wells located at more than 24,000 farms. The quantities of underground reservoirs in Abu Dhabi from the agricultural sector amount to 1,756 million cubic metres, which constitutes to 84 percent of the total groundwater used. Similarly, 248 million cubic meters, or 12 percent are for the forest sector, and 86 million cubic meters, or 4 percent are used for the parks and gardens sector.
She mentioned how EAD is considered the body authorised to regulate groundwater uses in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, as the agency focuses directly on preserving groundwater whilst actively contributing to the integrated management of groundwater, either desalinated or recycled. The agency has worked laboriously to preserve groundwater resources in Abu Dhabi by updating the legislative and legal frameworks governing groundwater. This is also achieved through monitoring, collecting data on groundwater changes and its quality, and using modern technologies for preservation.
Managing groundwater is achieved through education and raising awareness among users regarding rationing and coordinating with all relevant partners to unify efforts for conservation and implementing several strategic projects.
Within the framework of carrying out its direct regulatory role about the extraction of groundwater, in 2018, EAD completed the first inventory of groundwater wells in Abu Dhabi. Through this inventory over 100,000 groundwater wells were counted, classified, registered, and documented within a first of its kind atlas, comprised of a condensed ten-volume report. These wells were classified into working, non-working or control wells among many other definitions. There are large amounts of data in the groundwater atlas issued by EAD and it is also available on the agency’s website.
The inventory helped update the groundwater salinity map. In addition, salinity and level data is collected through a monitoring network that covers all parts of Abu Dhabi and an annual report of these results is always issued. The groundwater in the emirate is classified according to its salinity into four main types, including fresh groundwater, saline groundwater, high saline groundwater and highly saline groundwater.
In 2020, EAD launched a three-year program to assess deep underground reservoirs and determine underground storage, its quality and potential for future exploitation.
EAD is also responsible for issuing licenses and regulating the drilling of groundwater wells in accordance with the Abu Dhabi Groundwater Law issued in 2016. This strengthens the legal framework and ensures groundwater is utilised efficiently, thus contributing to the long life of water reservoirs.
The Groundwater Law enables EAD to issue groundwater licenses for farms and forests, by which the maximum permissible amount of water extraction is determined and the activities in which the water will be used. The amount of water required will be determined using the crop calculator, a tool invented by EAD and its partners, which aims to enhance the efficiency of water use in farms and forests. This is achieved by calculating the amount of water needed for each crop, considering the climate and soil conditions. Work is also underway to prepare a calculator suitable for different tree species.