Opinion: What happens when the water dries up?

As you fly into Dubai’s magnificent airport, the view out of the window is dominated by a forest of skyscrapers. As the aircraft gets lower, you see that many of them are unfinished with working cranes festooned on top of them.

And the lower you go, more preparations for future buildings become clear. In the middle of all this, the sharp tip of the tallest building in the world – the 828m Burj Khalifa – pierces the sky; a reminder this is no ordinary city or country but one where records for consumerism are regularly broken and unimaginable oil-based wealth rules.

At least it does for now. Dubai is said to be running out of deposits of oil and is trying to build up its tourist and trading industries to replace it. But the capital of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi, the biggest of the seven Emirates that make up the federation, has oil reserves that could last another couple of hundred years. What none of the members of the federation have, however, are adequate reserves of fresh water. The Farmers Weekly party, just back from UAE, 
were reminded each day of our stay that all the wealth and oil in the world cannot replace water.

Yes, of course, oil does make it possible to desalinate salt water. We visited several horticultural holdings producing covered crops of cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and the like. All had their own desalination plant to purify whatever water they could pump from beneath their holdings. Much of that was used to cool the greenhouses which would otherwise have been too hot for plants in summer months. The rest was used for irrigation, often through hydroponic systems using growing mediums that are more water efficient than planting into the ubiquitous sand.

But there is growing concern that the saline water currently being pumped from below might dry up. On one holding we visited, a manager was, on behalf of the government, looking into ways of saving up to 40% of the water used for crops. He told us that when his ancestors farmed date palms and camels in the area (camel milk and dates formed most of the Bedouin’s diet for centuries), water could be found a few meters down. Three years ago when he built his greenhouses he had to sink a bore 30m to find a supply. This year he had to drill down 70m to maintain the flow.

Such stories were typical and have been getting worse since oil was discovered as recently as 1966 and the population exploded. Meanwhile, about 90% of the food consumed by eight million people has to be imported. Of that population, 82% are ex-pats, many from around the Middle East and beyond brought in to provide services for the 18% of Emiratees. Some ex-pats are western managers who complain the sheiks are so wealthy they take insufficient care to employ labourers with the necessary skills to work efficiently and save water.

Let’s be clear, both water and oil are still flowing, and with no income tax or health charges it’s easy to see why the UAE is an attractive, luxurious place to live and work. The Farmers Weekly party enjoyed our visit with good food – too much, we wasted some – and excellent service. But it was clear that it cannot continue indefinitely; the Middle East is just a microcosm of what will be facing much of the world when the water dries up.

David Richardson farms about 400ha of arable land near Norwich, Norfolk, in partnership with his wife Lorna and his son Rob.

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