The Soft-Path Approach for Sustainable Water Management

Introduction: Problem Context

The water situation in Abu Dhabi Emirate is largely complicated due to a complicated climate situation. Along with this, the increase in the population size supported by a significant economic growth provokes great challenges for the local water sector as it is expected that the resource demand will increase by over 30 percent by 2030 (ADWEC as cited in Chowdhury & Rajput, 2015). The statistical data and forecasts indicate the need for efficient water management practices including groundwater conservation, re-use of reclaimed greywater, and proper distribution of desalinated seawater to meet a plethora of needs. The present thesis suggests that the soft path approach to water management can become an appropriate solution for the current issues.

Research Objectives

Considering the scope of the present-day and expected future challenges in Abu Dhabi, there is a strategic need for understanding the current water use patterns and resource management practices in the emirate. Thus, the research aimed to analyze current demand management measures and explore possible integrated water demand management regimes. Additionally, it aimed to evaluate if the soft path for water can be feasibly implemented here. The ultimate objective was to suggest potentially effective measures for water regulation in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi based on identified weaknesses.


To attain the formulated objectives, the qualitative methodology was employed because it allows a detailed description of a subject and the establishment of relationships between the studied variables. Consistently with the purposes of the study, the purposive sampling technique was utilized to select appropriate organizations operating within the local water sector. ADWEC, AH, MG, MS, EAD, RSB, and LEAD were chosen because they could share their first-hand experiences and knowledge needed to support the research aims. To collect empirical data, interviews were conducted among the respondents. Additionally, since qualitative methods are characterized by a high level of subjectivity, to increase the credibility of research findings, the interview results were analyzed by using high-quality scholarly and professional evidence and supportive theoretical data.

Water Supply Management

Water supply management approach focuses on the distribution of resources consistently with current water demands. This managerial system aims treat water from various sources and deliver it to the user via a distribution network. Thus, such an approach leads to massive investments in dams and water distribution systems. However, Patch (2010) states that the given managerial model can be successful only in ideal situations where water resources are unlimited. It means that in an arid environment such as Abu Dhabi, it is difficult to achieve sustainability with the supply-side approach. Additionally, it is possible to say that it may be difficult to meet the growing water demands in Abu Dhabi not only because of the scarcity of freshwater resources but also because of residents’ non-progressive perceptions of water conservation practices.

Water Demand Management

Water demand management is an essential part of water management in general as it employs various demand forecasting tools. The major purpose of the methodology is to ensure sufficient quality and quantity of supplied water based on its intended use, e.g., irrigation, drinking, etc., across all seasons. Thus, it aims to build capacities needed to conserve water and make it available even during drought. Overall, water demand management and accurate forecasting can help decision makers be ready for future changes. However, the accuracy of forecasting may be undermined by multiple variables including seasonal variations, lack of similar technologies among consumers, water pricing, and so on.

The Soft Path Approach

Compared to the discussed traditional managerial models, which are primarily used in Abu Dhabi nowadays, the soft path for water is a holistic approach to water management defined as “long-range planning that includes quantitative and qualitative methods to design options for freshwater policy that are economically feasible, environmentally sustainable and socially responsive” (Brooks & Holtz, 2009, p. 158).

The given methodology is similar to the water demand management model in a way that both of them advocate for water efficiency. However, the soft path encompasses many other dimensions of water consumption including behaviors, attitudes, practices, technologies that individuals, communities, and cities have developed over time. In other words, the soft path acknowledges the complex interaction between human activity and the natural environment.

Water Resources in the Emirate

Nowadays, Abu Dhabi has two major sources of water: groundwater and desalinated seawater. The former constitutes 64% of the total water supply, while the latter accounts for 28% of water supplies. Groundwater is almost exclusively used for drinking while desalinated water is utilized for both drinking and other domestic purposes and irrigation. Additionally, reclaimed wastewater accounts for only 8% of total water supplies, and is mainly used for irrigation.

Thus, one of the major hindrances to the sustainable water supply is the fact that the emirate heavily depends on groundwater abstraction and seawater desalination. Their overconsumption poses such environmental threats as minimal replenishing of groundwater resources and increased salinity levels in the sea due to the discharge of salts after the desalination process.

Increase in Cross-Sectoral Use of Desalinated Water (Percentage by Sector)

Rapid population growth and expansion of non-oil sectors represent two other important factors defining a need for the soft path approach implementation within Abu Dhabi as they hinder water management sustainability and reveal the necessity for more efficient water distribution and conservation practices. The table depicted on the slide demonstrates that the consumption of desalinated water has already increased in recent years in multiple sectors, especially in agriculture and commerce. At the same time, according to ADWEC (2016), Abu Dhabi may experience an average increase of 32.42 MIGD in water demand from 2011 to 2030.

It is also important to note that desalination plants are costly ventures requiring massive investments. Thus, the current level of investment in desalination will not be able to sustain the water needs of the growing population and industries. It means that from a cost consideration, building additional desalination plants does not constitute a sustainable solution in the long-term. Therefore, it is valid to say that other solutions may be required.

Treating Water as a Service

It is a central concept of the soft path approach, which implies that water is managed as a means to an end and not an end in itself. It refers to activities aimed to meet users’ needs in water supply; organizational cooperation and partnerships aimed to enhance the service quality and efficacy. The interviews referred to two major themes related to the given principle including investment in water production, and incentives to minimize water usage.

It was identified that seawater desalination and wastewater treatment plants are a major investment in the water sector. For instance, in 2016, the total volume of production of the nine desalination companies accounted for 270,241 MIG, and it is expected that by 2019, the desalination capacity in the emirate is going to rise, contributing 96.5 percent of all produced water. Moreover, nowadays Abu Dhabi has over 40 plants for wastewater treatment working across the Emirate. Together they comprise 7,770 km of sewers and 490km of the recycled water network.

As for the incentives to minimize water usage, they include water tariffs, water efficient-irrigation systems, and water fixtures.

Water Tariffs

Water tariffs implantation may be regarded as the main incentive to minimize water consumption consistent with the soft path principle as it directly targets consumer behaviors and aims to make people rethink their lifestyles because of the economic implications, and be more responsible for their consumption habits. As the table demonstrates, different marginal rates were applied for Emirati nationals and expatriates. As stated by Srouji (2017), the water tariff of 2015 did not have a significant effect on water demand in nationals’ households because the price elasticity of demand was lower among them. The revised tariffs are expected to have a greater impact on water consumption behaviors across the population groups, but the data on the given matter is not available yet.

Ecological Sustainability

The principle of ecological sustainability refers to the recognition of ecosystems as legitimate users of water; development of a supportive environment for sustainable water use. The important aspects of ecological sustainability identified by the interviewees included awareness campaigns, wastewater treatment, TSE discharge, and government regulations.

The primary awareness campaigns discussed by respondents include the ‘Stay in the Green’ and ‘Are you in the red or are you in the green.’ Both the campaigns have the same objective of persuading Emiratis to reflect on their water and electricity consumption. The latter is also integrated with the new water tariffs implantation activities.

As for the water sustainability initiatives, newly introduced standards and projects help to increase the indicators in the given sphere. For instance, the Pearl Rating System aims to rate buildings based on their sustainability: the fewer volumes of water are used for irrigation and other purposes, the more scores, the building receives. In a similar way, the water sector in Abu Dhabi currently strives to achieve a 100% reuse rate of the treated wastewater by developing the appropriate infrastructure and technologies, as well as standards and regulations.

Conserving Water Quality and Quantity

The principle of conserving water quantity and quality refers to the creation of cascading water systems, i.e., utilization of wastewater as an input for another use. The major themes related to the principle, which were discussed with interviewees, include water quality regulations, and reuse of desalinated water for irrigation.

The Water Quality Regulations are essential because they form the framework upon which water quality is matched with water uses. High level of compliance with them can be observed in the area of drinking water. For instance, the research findings provided by the National reveal that Abu Dhabi is one of the Emirates where the quality of desalinated drinking water meets the World Health Organization standards (Todorova, 2012).

As for the relevant regulations for the use of recycled water, the Regulation and Supervision Bureau is in the process of developing a framework for regulating district cooling. Thus, there is a possibility that TSE may be used more extensively in the future for district cooling due to the associated electrical cost savings when compared to air cooled systems.


Backcasting is the way of planning, which starts with defining future goals and visions and then looks backward to design necessary policies and regulations. In Abu Dhabi, organizations implement the combination of forecasting principles and development of long-term goals and scenarios. Such planning activities help identify the major obstacles to sustainable water consumption much better and design appropriate initiatives to eliminate those barriers. For instance, “efficient management and conservation of water resources” is one of the major priorities outlined in Environment Vision 2030 (Environment Agency, n.d., p. 06).

To achieve this, the government and local organizations aim to address the problem of water overconsumption, and inefficient distribution of reclaimed water resources. Accurate water demand projections can support the planning of use and distribution of water resources to satisfy the expected demand.

Main Managerial Gaps

The discussion of the current managerial practices and initiatives with interviewees revealed that Abu Dhabi has a solid foundation for the soft path approach. Nevertheless, to be more successful, the water sector must aim to fill the following gaps:

  • First of all, it is observed that the production of desalinated water remains the major area of investment yet it cannot affect consumer behaviors and directly contribute to greater resource distribution efficiency. It is essential to further promote the culture of water conservation in the emirate, and invest in more diverse water management projects similar to the STEP project, which helps increase the volume of treated water and reduce the wastewater wastages.
  • Secondly, although there are many laws, policies, and programs focused the promotion of water security in the emirate. However, the lack of a standardized approach to sustainable water management activities can undermine these efforts. For instance, there are no standards for the use of different types of water resources in district cooling. Moreover, it was noted that improvements in the infrastructure for collecting and distributing treated wastewater to prevent the use of higher-quality water for irrigation are required.
  • Thirdly, the level of reusing the treated wastewater remains significantly low, while over 60% of the total volume of consumed water is groundwater, and nearly 30% − desalinated water (Australian Water Association, 2017). Considering that the risk of groundwater source depletion is extremely high in the region, there is a need to increase sustainable utilization of wastewater and recycled water, targeting current irrigation and district cooling needs.

Institutional Capacity for the Soft Path

The success in the implementation of the soft path largely depends on well-developed institutional capacity, which can be divided in eight major themes including human resources, informational resources, financial resources, political environment, policy and legal environment, community awareness, technological solutions, and practical considerations.

Interviewees’ responses made it clear that the strongest institutional capacity themes in Abu Dhabi include policy and legal environment, political environment, and technological solutions.

In the political environment, there is a collaboration between organizations in the water sector, as well as between the governmental and private sector entities. Some interviewees also claimed that Abu Dhabi has a well-developed active water conservation plan integrated into the land-use planning. Lastly, the majority of respondents agreed that the sector sufficiently encourages the use of automatic irrigation systems, which allow preventing significant system-wide water losses.

The interviews also revealed that the themes of community awareness and involvement, financial resources, information resources, human resources, and practical considerations have significant gaps. For instance, some respondents stated that not all entities have full-time staff dedicated to water conservation and access to training in matters of water conservation. Additionally, there was no consensus regarding effective information sharing and utilization of recent research evidence by staff members. It was also identified that the level of collaboration among different stakeholder groups, i.e., community members and the public, and distinct sectors might be limited. At the same time, a comprehensive and cross-sectoral approach is key to success in the implementation of the soft path.


Based on the discussed institutional capacity gaps, the following evidence-based recommendations were made:

  1. To attain desirable changes in the water sector, it is essential to develop an extensive knowledge base and improve knowledge management and information sharing practices among the organizations because the availability of efficient technological resources and the access to recent evidence on the most important issues can help employees be better prepared for the soft path approach.
  2. A few minor regulatory deficiencies were identified indicating that the water regulatory framework should be re-examined and more targeted and comprehensive policies must be designed to ensure efficient use of water across sectors.
  3. It is important to provoke a behavioral shift in Abu Dhabi residents and increase their level of involvement in the water management endeavors because the effectiveness of water conservation laws will achieve their objectives if all the stakeholders become part of the changes in the water sector. Community education and awareness promotion campaigns are a way to do so.
  4. The water budget should be reviewed based on the realigned priorities so that it becomes predictable. By being predictable, the financial resources will be allocated more effectively across the priority areas (identified gaps and weaknesses).
  5. To strengthen the institutional capacity for the soft path approach, it is important to ensure the availability of full-time staff specialized in water conservation in across the sectoral and governmental facilities and increase the access to training in the organizations.
  6. At the political level, it can be recommended to promote the emergence of private-public partnerships because they are associated with such advantages as a reduced financial burden, greater innovativeness, and stimulation of new technologies/initiatives development and implementation.
  7. Since water wastages are largely defined by technological factors, the government should aim to advance the technological capacity. For instance, it can be recommended to invest in computational pipeline monitoring and other leakage detection systems. Moreover, to prevent huge wastages of water to the environment, the network for the use of treated wastewater the agricultural and industrial sectors is to be improved.
  8. Due to the absence of a comprehensive institutional approach to resource management, water management activities may be poorly coordinated across the organizations and stakeholders. Therefore, the creation of an entity, which would be specialized in water sustainability within the emirate, can help achieve significant enhancement on the way towards sustainable future.

Future Research

The findings of the literature review and interview analysis revealed a few promising methods that can help achieve greater resource management sustainability. Their further research is needed.

First of all, it was identified that distinct water use control practices have a different level of effectiveness regarding improving water consumption behaviors among the emirate residents. Thus, it is important to deepen the understanding of water valuation tendencies in community members through investigation of consumers’ major perceptions of water wealth and behavioral characteristics to develop targeted awareness promotion campaigns and conservation incentives.

Secondly, it was identified that agriculture is one of the sectors that consume most of the water resources in Abu Dhabi. Thus, it is important to investigate all possible solutions, which may lead to greater water use efficiency there. For instance, it is possible to research the level of irrigation-efficient technology use within the sector, agricultural organizations’ capacity of attaining the full-potential benefits associated with such technologies, as well as farmers’ current level of knowledge about available innovative irrigation technologies and ways to operate them. The given data will help develop effective targeted education strategies and promotion campaigns that would support water conservation efforts.

Thirdly, future studies should also target to quantify the gains made from the implementation of new water tariffs. This research will help understand pricing-behavior dynamics better.

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"The Soft-Path Approach for Sustainable Water Management." Premium Papers, 20 Jan. 2023,


Premium Papers. (2023) 'The Soft-Path Approach for Sustainable Water Management'. 20 January.


Premium Papers. 2023. "The Soft-Path Approach for Sustainable Water Management." January 20, 2023.

1. Premium Papers. "The Soft-Path Approach for Sustainable Water Management." January 20, 2023.


Premium Papers. "The Soft-Path Approach for Sustainable Water Management." January 20, 2023.