Groundwater in the United Arab Emirates


Water is the most abundant natural resource on earth. However, numerous surveys have revealed that water is scarce in the UAE. For this reason, the essay focuses on groundwater as a threatened natural resource in the UAE since its supply does not meet its demand. This situation has posed adverse economic effects on the country. The rate of water consumption in the United Arab Emirates has increased significantly. For instance, the average person in Dubai consumes about 500 litres of water per day (‘UAE water consumption highest in the world’ 2013). This quantity is nearly 284% higher than the world’s average consumption of 130 litres of water per capita (‘Iranians consume water twice the global standard’ 2013). This consumption level has a significant impact on the UAE because the country’s groundwater aquifers have insufficient amounts of water to meet the demands of the growing population. This phenomenon prompted the sourcing of this vital natural resource. Sources of water in the UAE comprise 72% groundwater, 21% desalinated water, and 7% treated water (‘The impact of the commodification of water on its availability to residents of United Arab Emirates’ 2012, para. 1). The depletion of groundwater accompanied by increasing demand compels the country to seek alternative ways of ensuring that the country has enough water for its population. This essay provides an analysis of the availability, demand, and supply of groundwater in the UAE by examining how market failure can lead to depletion of the natural resource.

Scarcity, Demand, Supply, and Price Equilibrium of Groundwater in the UAE

The pricing of commodities in the UAE is determined by market forces such as demand and supply, availability of supplementary and/or complementary products, and government involvement among others. In the event of scarcity of any particular commodity in the market, demand exceeds the supply. This situation elevates the prices. As a result, the government has to regulate the prices with a view of cushioning the consumers against the consequent price escalation of the commodity. This state of affairs is evident in the United Arab Emirates. The availability of groundwater in the country has become limited (Mitchell & Howe 2012). The government puts even more pressure on the resource by providing subsidies for the resource. The low price policy contributes to the high demand for water in the country. The need for groundwater in the UAE exceeds its supply. This case poses a big challenge to the country. However, several factors have been responsible for this trend. The agriculture sector has significantly expanded over the last decade as a job creation strategy. It is also a safeguard to the rural heritage, which is a major tourist attraction (Mitchell & Howe 2012). The UAE has a rapidly growing population that creates a natural demand for residential and domestic water consumption. In Abu Dhabi, rapid industrialisation continues to take place with a crop up of commercial and residential projects. These factors have seen the demand for groundwater escalate to high levels.

These factors have simultaneously amplified the demand for groundwater. Between 2009 and 2011, the demand for water in Abu Dhabi was approximately 3,313 million cubic meters whose main source was groundwater (67%). Other sources included desalinated water that accounted for 29% and recycled water 4%. According to the Abu Dhabi Statistics Centre (2012), many gallons of water were used in agriculture, forestry, and irrigation of parks. This use accounted for approximately 72% groundwater consumption. The domestic sector accounts for 16% of the demand. Other consumers included commercial users in industries (6.5%), the government (4.5%), and others (0.5%). Groundwater consumption in agriculture, forestry, and park irrigation accounted for 94%. The worrying fact is that the supply of groundwater in the UAE continues to decline. According to the Abu Dhabi Statistics Centre (2012), the recharge rate of 4% is too low as compared to the escalating consumption frequency. Empirically, abstractions exceed 25 times the average rate of groundwater recharge. This high consumption rate exhausts the aquifers. The future pattern of the country’s groundwater is bleak since it faces depletion. The quality of the groundwater is rapidly changing as salinity rises. In 2011, 79% of the groundwater was saline, 18% brackish, and only 3% was fresh.

Impact of Increased Demand on Groundwater and Implications

Excessive extraction of groundwater has resulted in irreversible effects on the reservoirs. This practice has significantly reduced the country’s water table (Maliva & Missimer 2012). Inappropriate use of groundwater has greatly increased the cost of further water extraction from existing and new water wells. Also, it attracts other related costs that are related to energy use and purification requirements. Moreover, reduced groundwater pumping can make extraction unviable for future generations. The increase in groundwater salinity that has reduced its freshness qualities poses a health challenge to the users. The freshwater supply in the UAE ranks the lowest in the world. Therefore, unsustainable water consumption patterns in the UAE, especially in Abu Dhabi, have resulted in permanently dewatered reservoirs. The region receives less than 120 mm per annum; hence, the aquifer recharge rates are too low to offset the annual water withdrawal. This situation calls for the implementation of immediate management practices to counter the adverse effects and future implications.

SWOT Analysis of Groundwater in the UAE

  • Relative simplicity and cheapness of the resource acquisition, transportation and processing;
  • Renewability of the water as an essential resource;
  • Changes in consumers’ attitude towards groundwater use;
  • Recent alleviation of the water consumption rates due to the water usage control through wastage reduction
  • Increasing demand for water among the UAE residents;
  • Insufficiency of the existing resources and the following impossibility to use the groundwater resources to the maximum, the state total renewable freshwater amount making 50MCM per annum (Maliva & Missimer 2012) compared to the required 4.5BCM;
  • Lack of understanding among most denizens of the UAE population of the effects of water abuse and the threats that it triggers;
  • Lack of initiative in the promotion of a more adequate model of water consumption among the UAE population;
  • Lack of initiative regarding the update in the current technology so that groundwater could be reused for farming purposes
  • Using the renewable properties of groundwater to reutilize the resource as a means of irrigation for agricultural purposes;
  • Sustainable consumption of eater achieved through the reduction of groundwater used for farming purposes;
  • Increase in awareness among both consumers and water providers so that methods for a sustainable groundwater use should be suggested;
  • Protection of groundwater reserves through licensing of water supplies carried out as state reform and, therefore, established as the law to comply with (Maliva & Missimer 2012).
  • Groundwater depletion due to the lack of the resource and the increase of groundwater consumption for domestic and agricultural purposes;
  • Groundwater related challenges due to the current rates of water usage among UAE citizens.

Addressing Market Failures concerning Groundwater Depletion Prevention

For over fifty years, the UAE has depended on groundwater as its chief source for agricultural, commercial, and domestic consumption. This situation has adversely affected the water table and the quality of water. Numerous strategies have been executed to mitigate the adverse effects and prevent depletion of groundwater shortly. The use of treated wastewater and desalinated seawater is a crucial strategy that has lessened the pressure on groundwater. Purification technology has also been used to purify seawater. This strategy is a major milestone and is now adopted in many regions in the UAE, especially in areas where rainfall is insufficient (Xu, Ge, & Zhang 2012). To address this challenge, the Abu Dhabi government has adopted various measures with a view of using water efficiently, particularly in the agricultural sector. At the outset, the implementation of the new agriculture and food safety policy that is led by the Abu Dhabi Food and Control Authority (ADFCA) led to the provision of improved agricultural services and incentives to farmers to encourage sensitivity to farming practices.

In line with the Abu Dhabi Environment Vision 2030 that is led by the Environment Agency, the government has called for cooperation among the relevant authorities to formulate a five-year water conservation strategy in one accord. In 2012, the permanent committee of water and agricultural resources approved the creation of a water council that will play an administrative and harmonisation role to ensure instigation of sound water policies in the future. This move will demand close collaboration amongst the competent authorities, private sector, and civil society to ensure more rational use of water resources.


The UAE can adopt several measures to combat the challenges of groundwater scarcity. At the outset, the government can integrate quantity control such as standard market-based interventions (taxes, user fees, and subsidies). The market design can also be amended to include tradable rights and permits. Various technologies in areas such as desalination, recycling, and water-efficient plumbing should also be implemented to alleviate the menace. Public awareness of conservation initiatives is also paramount to the improvement of water resource management (Lior 2012). To improve the efficiency of water use in the UAE, there is a need to encourage farmers to adopt smart irrigation. Lior (2012) posits that gradual reuse of treated wastewater in agriculture will reduce over-dependence on groundwater. Finally, yet importantly, the UAE government and local authorities should remain at the forefront to ensure that the enacted groundwater policies are followed strictly. Specifically, water valuation should be viewed as the option for altering the groundwater used for farming purposes.

The current price of water in general and groundwater, in particular, must be calculated so that the opportunities for altering the existing system should be visible. At present, water policies leave much to be desired in terms of allocating the existing groundwater resources, as the present-day approach involves desalination (‘Groundwater’ 2012). Though allowing the UAE farmers to save an impressive amount of water, the given strategy leads to the destruction of the natural environment; as a result, the amount of water available as natural resource peter out. Herein the necessity for water valuation lies; once a detailed account of the water resources disposal is provided, the abuse of the latter becomes hardly possible. As a result, the premises for sustainable water use are created. Specifically, water purification technologies should be promoted as the most efficient solution to the current problem regarding the lack of water resources.


Water resources in the UAE continue to face a harsh situation. There is a need to create a balance in the demand and supply of water resources in the country to save the gallons of groundwater that goes to needless uses. The obtainability of groundwater in the country is declining every year. The overall quantity and quality of groundwater have also continued to deteriorate. This situation implies that the quantity of groundwater replenishment does not match the amount of withdrawal from the aquifers. Consequently, there is an increased need to seek alternative methods such as purification of the ocean and sewerage water to compensate the amounts of groundwater that lost through irrigation, domestic use, and evaporation among others. Nonetheless, the UAE is still characterised by robust development in every sector. This situation is still exerting more pressure on the balance between demand and supply of water. As a result, the UAE government will have to invest heavily in water purification technology to increase water supply for its sizeable population and continued infrastructural development. Once the approach to water use is based on sustainability, adequate allocation of resources can be promoted.


Abu Dhabi Statistics Centre 2012, The statistical yearbook of Abu Dhabi 2012, Web.

‘Groundwater’ 2012, Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi, Web.

‘Iranians consume water twice the global standard,’ Tehran Times, Web.

Lior, N 2012, Advances in Water Desalination, Wiley, Hoboken, NJ.

Maliva, R & Missimer, T 2012, Arid Lands Water Evaluation and Management Environmental Science and Engineering, Environmental Engineering, Springer, Berlin.

Mitchell, C & Howe, C 2012, Water Sensitive Cities: Cities of the Future Series, IWA Publishing, London.

‘The impact of the commodification of water on its availability to residents of United Arab Emirates,’ The University of Aberdeen, Web.

‘UAE water consumption highest in the world’ 2013, Emirates 24/7 News, Web.

Xu, Q, Ge, H & Zhang, J 2012, Natural Resources and Sustainable Development: Advanced Materials Research, TransTech Publications, Switzerland.