A ministry for change

Published online 21 January 2018

This is how the UAE is managing its scarce natural resources in the face of harsh environmental conditions.

Louise Sarant

Saad Al-Numairy, advisor to the UAE's climate change minister.
Saad Al-Numairy, advisor to the UAE's climate change minister.
© United Arab Emirates Ministry of Climate Change & Environment
Except for urban centres such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, the UAE is almost entirely desert. But the population and the economy of the Gulf emirates have taken off despite unfavorable conditions, such as scorching temperatures, minimal freshwater resources and extensive desertification.

To mitigate the effects of climate change and manage its meagre natural resources, the country is currently investing in energy efficient cooling, in upgrading traditional rainwater drainage systems, flood barriers and in building new desalination plants, as well as establishing a ministry for climate change.

Nature Middle East spoke to Saad Al-Numairy, the advisor to the climate change minister and head of the UAE delegation at the UN Environment (UNEP) General Assembly in Kenya, to discuss his country's plans. Responses come in the wake of an announcement by the Zayed International Foundation for the Environment of a plan to organize an international science conference on pollution, to be held in Dubai in May 2018 and in partnership with the UNEP.

Nature Middle East: The UAE has gone through an incredible population boom and rapid modernization, creating new environmental challenges. Which do you see as the most pressing ones today, and what is the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment doing about it?

Saad Al-Numairy: Tackling water scarcity is a priority for the UAE. Since last year, water has become the responsibility of the Ministry of Energy. It makes sense because the biggest source of freshwater in the UAE is desalinated seawater, which uses lots of energy. Cement factories and thermal power plants in the UAE create large quantities of exhaust heat, so we decided to use this energy to power desalination plants to generate electricity and water. This technology, called multi-flash distillation, is far less polluting than burning fuel. In fact, it is only in an emergency that desalination plans resort to burning fuel, the rest of the time they use exhaust heat to generate drinkable water from seawater. For water conservation, we have restored 123 traditional, small-scale recharge dams — old systems that collect rainwater, primarily to recharge our aquifers, which have been overused in the past by conventional agricultural projects. In summer, power plants function at higher capacity due to increased air conditioning demand, and as a result produce more exhaust heat that, in turn, will help desalinate larger volumes of water. The surplus water that cannot be added to the pipe network will also be discharged into our aquifers to help raise their levels.

NME: How are you dealing with the byproduct of desalination and its impact on coastal aquifers? And what can be done to deal with harmful algal bloom that blocks reverse osmosis membranes?

SA: Most desalination plants in the UAE discharge their brine into a pond where the salt gets diluted before pouring it back into the sea. On a smaller-scale, direct discharge occurs, especially in the case of farms which use brackish water in the first place. The algae are not man-made: it is the result of a change in water temperature and nutrient content, and plants have contingency plans to deal with the blooms.

NME: Give us an overview of the UAE's agricultural endeavors?

SA: In the past, we have used too much water for conventional agriculture, which explains the state of our aquifers today. We have operated a shift, however, and the ministry has trained farmers in high-tech techniques like hydroponics and aquaponics. We mostly grow greens and some vegetables like aubergine, courgette, tomatoes, lettuce and fresh herbs. Lately, the number of acres cultivated has been reduced, but yield has improved. Using agricultural high technology techniques, like soil-less, drip or intermittent irrigation and greenhouses, we have been able to grow 16-metre tomato plants. The local production covers a good portion of our food needs, and we import the rest from India, Pakistan and Africa mostly. Our plan is to expend our modern farming endeavors to urban agriculture by using rooftops and containers, and embedding hydroponic systems into buildings.

NME: The UAE ranks among the world's 30 top CO2 emitters. You are hosting a conference on pollution, but what has been done, and what is in the works to drastically reduce CO2 and other emissions in the country?

SA: We have a national target to improve air quality. Our biggest emissions come from power stations, and most of the energy produced is used to cool homes and offices. To lower the AC energy consumption, we have set up a centralized system that cools water to 4°C and pumps it into the building through a pipeline. In Dubai and Abu Dhabi, we have a few streets equipped with this system which consumes half of the energy of traditional AC systems. In terms of private cars, most of them are still conventional, but hybrid vehicles are now on the market, and we will start importing electric cars soon. We also have emission standards for cars, and a system of labeling of the vehicles' energy consumption. Most of our home appliances, lighting systems and AC are all energy efficient. We have also started implementing Carbon Capture Systems (CCS) in the iron and steel industry since November 2016. This is a world's first fully commercial CCS facility. The captured CO2 is transported via pipeline to Abu Dhabi National Oil Company oil reservoirs for enhanced oil recovery. 

NME: You now have the only ministry in the world that includes Climate Change in its name. 

SA: The UAE might be among the most affected by drought and temperature rise. Our coastline is very low-lying and susceptible to sea-level rise. If drought spells continue or are exacerbated, our system of aquifer recharge will suffer. There are still uncertainties, but if the worst predictions there won't be anything left. To make life more comfortable for our population, we need to increase our energy production. Most of our power stations operate on natural gas, and our target for renewable energy is 27% by 2030 from solar and wind. The rest will be provided by our planned nuclear program.