Water conservation in the GCC is slowly taking shape.
Despite the huge costs of delivering drinkable water to end users, water conservation in the GCC is still a long way from making a real impact.
If water is a precious resource in this region, you would not be able to tell it. Extravagant urban landscaping, water displays and generously private lawns are a common sight in GCC cities.
They are the most visible signs of a propensity to waste that greatly exacerbates high water needs arising from cooling, cleaning and drinking requirements in a hot and arid environment.
Potable water is expensive, as it is mainly derived from seawater, and has to go through an elaborate desalination process. The cost of desalinating a cubic litre of water in the UAE is 3.76 dirham, according to alternative energy and water treatment company EnviTech.
The costs experienced by end users, however, are negligible, thanks to extensive subsidisation across the region.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, per capita water consumption in the GCC is the highest in the world. Abu Dhabi has the dubious honour of topping the list, an average resident consuming an astonishing 550 litres a day.
In comparison, the average person in India only needs 25 litres to satisfy his daily water needs.
This extraordinary waste is a headache to utilities. Already stretched by the energy demands of a growing, increasingly urbanised and industrialising population, they could do without the energy costs associated with desalinating water for superfluous use.
Together with a developing environmental awareness, these concerns have pushed some governments in the region
to take action.
The United Arab Emirates is the first country taking tentative steps towards curbing consumption. Dubai’s DEWA and Abu Dhabi’s Environment Agency (EAD) have been running awareness campaigns to encourage a less wasteful approach.
The Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council has introduced the Pearls Ratings System as part of its Estidama sustainability programme, which requires a minimum standard of water and energy savings in newly constructed buildings.
The EAD in May launched a pilot project installing water saving devices in taps.
With water conservation here in its infancy, opinions are divided as to how best encourage moderate consumption. Water can be saved in variety of ways.
These range from awareness campaigns, enforcing green buildings regulation, installing water saving devices in households to increased water tariffs.
Higher tariffs for water would certainly help fight the biggest cause of waste: irrigation. According to Alexander Klomsdorff, chief technical officer at EnviTech, irrigation accounts for 76 percent of desalinated water use in Abu Dhabi.
Klomsdorff supports the idea of higher tariffs: “I think water tariffs should be altered. They should reflect the real cost of water consumption in order to make people feel that water is a valuable good which needs protection.”
“The biggest obstacle to water conservation is the lack of awareness in the population. As water has been subsidised for a long period of time the people are not aware that it is the most precious resource,” adds his colleague Alexander Bergfeld, business development manager at EnviTech.
“The tariffs should be such that people respect the use of energy and water,” agrees Mario Seneviratne, director at Green Technologies, a consultancy specialising on sustainability and green buildings, who perfers tariffs to forcing people into installing water saving devices, or mandating minimum savings.
“Adjusted tariffs are more important than regulation.”
Toufic Halabi, project manager at Grohe, also believes that waiting for government regulation, in effect in other parts of the world, is not enough. “Its nothing we can rely on, that’s going to take years. In the short term, its about convincing people, one at a time.”
Grohe sell water saving devices for domestic use, such as aerators which mix air into the water coming out of a shower, so reducing the flow rate. Talabi has been active in launching campaigns to raise awareness for water conservation, and the ease with which water consumption can be reduced by installing these simple yet effective devices.
Halabi recently received the results of a pilot project Grohe had undertaken with the help of DEWA, installing their Contropress taps in the ablution area of a mosque.
The results show that monthly water consumption was reduced by around 30 percent. Armed with such figures, Halabi is confident he can convince the public of the financial viability of the installing such devices. “We think we can convince the public.”
Wheras Halabi is hesitant to call for government regulation he does think that financial incentives, like reducing bills to cover installation costs, might be helpful. The EAD scheme is an example of how households are receiving financial help from the government, as the water saving devices are being distributed and installed free of charge.
Seneviratne is sceptical about regulation, he believes that regulation would only ever implement a minimum standard, and would be inadequate in reducing the environmental impact of government or commercial buildings.
“Regulation cannot be adequate, because regulation means that everyone will be doing this. The threshold will be low. Everyone can save 10 percent of energy and water, but we want private industries and government funded projects to be setting their benchmark at savings of 30 to 40 percent.”
Seneviratne advises companies in the region on LEED certifications for buildings, a US based system similar to the Peals System. Both systems require savings of electricity and water at the levels demanded by Seneviratne.
Beside the issue of irrigation, the concept of green buildings is crucial to water conservation. Initial steps towards mandating green standard may have been taken in the UAE, but the rest of the GCC have yet to follow suit.
And while there seems to be a general reluctance by govenments to force water conservation on companies and households, the case for following Abu Dhabi’s lead is strong, some say.
“What’s happening in Oman, Qatar, what’s happening in Saudi Arabia? Do we see that happening there? No. People don’t care. And that’s the point, you need to have those mandated green building codes everywhere. Otherwise you are going to have wasteful consumption,” comments Abhay Bhargava, industry manager at consultancy Frost & Sullivan.
Given the state of the property market, it is also questionable even whether Abu Dhabi’s Pearls System will do enough in the near to medium term, however.
The recession has caused an overhang of existing buildings, or buildings coming onto the market soon, especially on the commercial properties side.
Landmark Properties, a Dubai real estate company, predict that no genuinely new commercial office developments will be launched in the UAE within the next seven to 10 years.
“If we take the building stock done over the last 10 years, in relation to today’s benchmark, I don’t even want to say how inefficient they are,” comments Seneviratne.
But government regulation for retrofitting existing buildings to enhance their green credential is seen by many as unfeasible. Adding simple instruments such as aerators, can be done at little additional cost.
But many features of green buildings are best incorporated into the design, and would be costly to retrofit. “It is crucial to implement green technology at the planning phase of each project,” stresses Klomsdorff.
To be able to reuse wastewater, for instance, adequate piping would have to be installed.
Reused water is an important aspect of water conservation. Grey water, which has been used in showers and the kitchen, is relatively unpolluted and can be easily treated.
After treatment, it can be used for flushing toilets or feeding irrigation systems. As the technology develops, sewage treatment plants are becoming more compact, making it easier to use in buildings and developments.
Reusing wastewater at the source benefits water conservation, as it reduces the loss of water through transportation. The amount of water lost in leaking pipes is considerabl, with up to 50 percent of water coming from centralised water production lost on the way, according to Envitech’s Bergfeld.
Another use for treated grey water is district cooling. Dubai has been making headway in this regard, issuing a directive to district cooling providers to develop alternatives to using potable water.
Dubai-based Palm Utilties, which encompasses both Palm Water and Palm District Cooling, have already set up a pilot plant set up which makes use of treated water for cooling purposes.
Black water, sourced from the toilet, can also be purified to the extent that is can be used in district cooling, but can not legally be used for irrigating crops.
However, there are ways to reduce the use of potable water in irrigation. Water can simply be dispensed underground explains Klomsdorff.
“Instead of just spraying fresh water over all plantation areas, which causes high losses as a significant portion of the water will evaporate in the heat before it reaches the roots of the plants, efficient irrigation systems will direct the water on the ground or even underground to the roots. Water savings of around 50 percent are normal.”
Irrigation and wastewater treatment can even be combined. Reed ponds can be used to filter sewage, explains Peter Neuschaefer, director of environment, water and energy at construction company Wagner Gulf Biro.
The roots of the plants clear the effluent, which acts as a fertiliser, producing water of sufficient quality to use in swimming pools. The company has so far sold 18 such wastewater treatment plants so far in Dubai and Qatar, according to Neuschaefer.
Water conservation is an issue in which innovation and creative thinking is pushing the boundaries.
Wagner Gulf Biro currently runs a labour camp in Dubai, a pilot project in which effluent treated by one reed bed is used to cool and clean solar panels, greatly increasing their performance before being used for irrigation and landscaping purposes.
Return on investment
If environmental concerns are not sufficient to sway companies and the public into turning to water conservation, financial considerations provide an equally good incentive.
From a cost perspective, there is no excuse to not fit buildings with wastewater recycling facilities, thinks Seneviratne.
“With energy it is difficult recovering your investment, as the rates are cheap. Water rates are also cheap, but the disposal charges, especially if there is no sewer and wastewater has to be transported by tanker, are pretty expensive.”
In the GCC, where many places are not connected to a sewer, the decentralised self-sufficient wastewater treatment is appealing to municipalities and owners alike.
“A sewer is a major undertaking for a city. Dubai inner city has a perfect sewer, but if you go out to Jebel Ali there is no sewer there. So the payback period of putting a blackwater treatment system there is, lets say, three years,” says Seneviratne.
The payback period for an entire green building is not much higher, believes Klomsdorff.
“A return on investment of five to eight years is realistic considering around 30 percent higher initial investment compared to conventional buildings. In remote areas where water and power, in the form of diesel for generators, is supplied by tanker trucks even shorter return on investment periods can be achieved.”
The case is even more convincing for water saving devices. Installing a simple water saving device in a tap can save around 73,000 litres a year, according to Klomsdorff.
Halabi is keen to stress that the economic feasibility of his product range: “You don’t have to pay more to save more. You can buy any product from us, from the top of the line to the most commercial, they all have water saving devices in them.”
With a little forward planning, governments, companies and households not only end up saving water, but also money.
Abu Dhabi’s Environment Agency is looking to save 75 billion litres of water every year by installing a two dollar device in taps.
In May, Abu Dhabi’s Environment Agency, the EAD, started its outreach to residents of the Tourist Club Area, the most densely-populated area in Abu Dhabi city.
It plans to install an average of five to six water-saving devices in 55,000 household over the next 12 months. The campaign aims to eventually install the tiny devices into every tap in every home, mosque, government and commercial building in the emirate.
The devices, which comprise of an O-ring and mesh gauze and are installed free-of-charge, will save as much as 30 percent on domestic water consumption per household without noticeable effect to the consumer, says the EAD, while costing less than two dollars each.
Once Phase 1 is complete, Abu Dhabi will save approximately 11 billion litres of water every year, according to the Environment Agency.
After evaluating the first phase, the EAD will move to install the devices in the rest of Abu Dhabi City, Al Ain, and
“In the next three to five years, we aim to install the devices in every home, government office and business premise in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, which will save 75 billion litres of water every year – the equivalent of 30,000 Olympic swimming pools, or 50 million large water bottles,” says Dr. Mohamed Dawoud, manager of the Water Resources Department at the EAD.
“It seems that people are beginning to understand the seriousness of water conservation in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi,” adds Dawoud.
Experts fear that Abu Dhabi could face water shortages as soon as 2012 because of projected population growth.
100 percent of Abu Dhabi’s piped drinking water originates from the Arabian Gulf and is then desalinated in processing plants located along the coastline.
Solar and green buildings
Solar panels are derided as gimmicks by experts on green buildings. To make a real impact, solar power generated on residential rooftops must be fed back into the grid. Abu Dhabi aims to do just that.
Critics argue that it is a misconception that the Middle East is a natural home for solar power, just as it is that solar panels can substantially reduce the energy gain of a building.
Solar may help boost a building’s green credentials, but in terms of energy saving there are far better options available, they say.
On a large scale residential or office building, even covering the entire façade with solar photo-voltaic panels will likely only succeed in providing two percent of energy needs, says Nicholas Lander, senior associate at Inhabit.
The real drain on most office developments is lighting, which can account for up to 50 percent of a building’s total power output.
“If you are looking at a small building with no local power access then PV panels can be an excellent source of power for the building. But if you are talking about commercial, PV panels are only useful as part of large scale power plants,” he told the Architect Middle East magazine in July.
It is not that solar panels are inherently useless, if every home was to install them the effect could be dramatic, but currently there is little financial incentive to do so.
This problem has been identified by the Abu Dhabi Distribution Company (ADDC), who are about to launch the Solar Rooftop Programme (SRP). The programme aims to install a total capacity of 500MW of solar power in small-scale application on private homes by 2030, and feed excess capacity into the grid.
At the same time, it will provide financial incentives to households who install solar panels, the ADDC have said on its website.
While the company has not provided details on these incentives, they could involve a variation of feed-in tariffs, a form of renewables subsidy practiced by countries around the world.
Nick Carter, director general of the Abu Dhabi Regulation & Supervision Bureau announced in June that Abu Dhabi would be paying the operators of solar plants the differential between the cost of production and the retail price for electricity.
The hotel industry is starting to cater for to the green awareness of its clientele. Hotels are massive consumers of both water and electricity. But travellers’ increasing awareness of green issues has encouraged hotels to adopt a more eco-friendly approach to business.
So now is the time for hoteliers to improve on their hotel’s eco-credentials, writes Harriet Sinclair from Hotelier Middle East.
And there are simple steps that can make a significant difference. Improving the eco-credentials of a hotel can be done without resorting to a complete overhaul of the buildings system, says Louis Hakim, chairman of Philips Middle East, who highlights the benefits of energy efficient lighting.
“LED bulbs use 20 percent of the power of a current incandescent bulb and last up to 25,000 hours, compared with 1,000 hours for a standard bulb.” Tarek Zakaria, intelligent building system manager at ABB says that going green can have several desirable effects.
“Many guests want companies to promote the ‘go green’ initiative by adopting solutions that would increase comfort and also have less impact on our environment,” says Zakaria.
“A second reason why we do believe people care, even indirectly, is because of cost. If a hotel is saving 30 percent on energy costs they could pass those savings on to the customer. It doesn’t take much to work out that people will be happier if the cost of a service is reduced,” adds Zakaria.
While existing hotels can benefit from new technology, new hotels have the opportunity to integrate the green-ethos in to their building on a much larger scale.
“Hoteliers may be coming in to green projects a little late. Often how green a hotel can be is decided from the blue-print stage. That is when we need to be getting involved and looking at being a green hotel,” says cluster director of technology for Mövenpick, Issam Abbas.