For a desert city, Dubai seems like an aquatic paradise. Visitors can dive in the world’s deepest pool or ski inside a large shopping center where penguins play in the freshly made snow. A fountain, considered the largest in the world, sprays more than 22,000 gallons of water into the air, synchronized to music from surrounding speakers.
But to maintain its opulence, the city depends on fresh water that it does not have. That’s why it turns to the sea, using energy-intensive desalination technologies to help hydrate a rapidly growing metropolis.
All this has a cost. Experts say Dubai’s reliance on desalination is harming the Persian Gulf, producing a brackish residue known as brine that, along with chemicals used during the desalination process, increases salinity in the Gulf. It also raises coastal water temperatures and harms biodiversity, fisheries and coastal communities.
The Gulf is also affected by climate change and efforts to build the multi-billion dollar Dubai Islands through land reclamation. The beachfront real estate properties on offer include a $34 million private island shaped like a seahorse, situated in the man-made archipelago.
If immediate action is not taken to counter the damage, desalination, combined with climate change, will raise the temperature of Gulf coastal waters by at least five degrees Fahrenheit over more than 50 percent of the area by 2050, study finds of 2021 published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin on ScienceDirect, a site for peer-reviewed articles.
Dubai, the most populous city in the United Arab Emirates, has taken steps to address the damage through environmental initiatives and new technologies, but pressure is mounting to do more. Later this month, the city will host the United Nations global climate summit, known as COP28, a notion that has already soured tension over fossil fuel investments by the United Arab Emirates and other participating countries. .
Beyond fueling Dubai’s eye-catching recreational features, water is essential to sustaining life, and desalination provides drinking water to a thirsty city. The Dubai Electricity and Water Authority supplies water to more than 3.6 million residents along with the city’s daytime workforce of more than 4.7 million visitors, according to a 2022 sustainability report. By 2040, the Utility company expects these numbers to increase, increasing demand for drinking water.
The city desalinated approximately 163.6 billion gallons of water last year, according to the sustainability report. For every gallon of desalinated water produced in the Gulf, an average of one and a half gallons of brine is released into the ocean.
In Dubai, the Jebel Ali Energy and Desalination Complex, the largest facility of its kind in the world, channels water from the sea, sending it through a series of treatment phases, and then to the city as drinking water. But Jebel Ali’s 43 desalination plants run on fossil fuels. The United Arab Emirates produced more than 200 million tonnes of carbon in 2022, one of the highest per capita emissions in the world.
Seawater desalination has been a lifeline in the United Arab Emirates for nearly 50 years, but other coastal regions, such as Carlsbad, California, have recently adopted the technology in the face of severe drought. Florida is a national leader in desalination, and further inland, Arizona is considering piping desalinated water from Mexico.
Desalination efforts have also long been used in other Gulf countries, including Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Unlike its oil-rich neighbors, Dubai has an economy based primarily on tourism, real estate and aviation, although its brief oil boom of the 1960s and 1970s provided the financial foundation for the city’s infrastructure of architectural grandeur. .
“It’s a brand,” said Khaled Alawadi, associate professor of sustainable urbanism at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi. “Any tourist destination, especially if it has potential competition from the region, likes to dominate.”
At Deep Dive Dubai, the equivalent of six Olympic-sized pools of water fill an underwater city shaped like a giant oyster, inspired by the emirate’s pearl diving heritage.
The Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, developed by Emaar and designed by Adrian Smith, uses an average of 250,000 gallons of water per day and requires a maximum cooling capacity equivalent to approximately 10,000 tons of melted ice. At the foot of the building, the 30-acre Burj Lake and its five dancing fountains utilize a Hitachi wastewater reclamation system that reuses wastewater from the Burj Khalifa to replace fountain water lost each day.
The construction of artificial islands in Dubai also puts pressure on the Gulf’s water resources. One study found that the average water temperature around Palm Jumeirah Island, designed by HHCP Architects, rose about 13 degrees in 19 years. Another study cited land reclamation, along with brine and industrial waste, as a cause of the overgrowth of microscopic algae in the Persian Gulf, known as algal blooms or red tides. Some of these harmful blooms have forced desalination plants to reduce or close operations.
“It is much preferable to develop near water than to develop in a desert landscape, and it is increasing the coastline,” Dr. Alawadi said.
The state utility, Mr. Smith and HHCP Architects declined to comment for this article.
Dubai has announced environmental initiatives to address its huge resource consumption, including an effort to reduce energy and water demand by 30 percent by 2030 and source 100 percent of its power generation from renewable energy sources to 2050. The country has even looked to the sky. as an alternative source of water, hiring scientists to chemically stimulate clouds to produce rain (although there is little agreement that this process actually works), and encouraging hotels in Dubai to produce their own water through atmospheric harvesting.
Faisal al-Marzooqi, an associate professor at Khalifa University who researches water desalination in the United Arab Emirates, said he had pressured government officials to prevent facilities from using potable water for functions that do not involve drinking, such as metal fabrication and water parks. .
“In a time when water is really valuable, there might be better ways to do things like recreational activities,” he said.
He added that increasing salinity levels in the Gulf was dangerous because the water was already hypersaline and adding more salt threatened the Gulf’s biodiversity.
The overall salinity of seawater is typically 3.5 to 4.5 percent; The Persian Gulf is at the latter end, making it more vulnerable to brine. About 70 percent of the Gulf’s coral reefs have disappeared, and 21 species of coral-dependent fish are at high risk of extinction. These changes have resulted in a regional loss of $94 billion a year in tourism, aquaculture and fishing, according to a study published in 2021 in Marine Pollution Bulletin, an academic journal.
“This is a really big problem,” Dr. al-Marzooqi said.
The seagrass meadows and mangroves in the area are also struggling. These ecosystems are important breeding areas for species of commercial value such as pearl oysters; They also help stabilize wave rhythms and erosion forces and can absorb large amounts of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Its decline has contributed to creating an oceanic desert devoid of the usual biodiversity found in the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf, the world’s largest so-called dead zone.
Since the 1970s, dead zones have proliferated around the world, including one in the Baltic Sea, three times the area of Maryland.
“We have ours in the Gulf of Mexico, where all the water coming down the Mississippi becomes deoxygenated and everything dies,” said Bruce Logan, director of the Energy and Environment Institute at Pennsylvania State University.
But Dubai is moving forward. In 2021, the city required that all new desalination projects be built using what is widely considered the most efficient and environmentally friendly desalination technology available: reverse osmosis. However, most of the country’s desalination plants still use an older technology called multistage flash distillation.
Unlike reverse osmosis, which removes salt and other contaminants by pushing water through a semipermeable membrane, multi-stage flash distillation relies on heat. Decades ago, when the United Arab Emirates began exploring desalination, the technology could better handle the high salinity of the Gulf, although now reverse osmosis can do the same. And while both technologies create brine, the byproduct of multi-stage flash distillation is much hotter, further disrupting the ecosystem.
The new Hassyan power plant in Dubai will use reverse osmosis desalination and has been running for more than a year on natural gas instead of coal. The $3.4 billion project is expected to generate more than 140 million gallons of water per day.
The utility has begun investigating sustainable options for managing and recycling brine through zero liquid discharge and membrane distillation, technologies that experts hope will treat saline water and wastewater. However, techniques that address the problem at scale have not yet been applied, although solutions are being investigated around the world.
Despite the efforts, Dubai faces criticism. “To be honest, I don’t see many initiatives,” Dr. al-Marzooqi said. “I feel like the focus is more on renewable energy powering the systems, but there’s hardly any talk about brine.”