Water profile of United Arab Emirates

Source: FAO

Geography and Population

caption Map of the United Arab Emirates. (Source: NASA)

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) (24°00' North, 54°00' East) is a federation of seven emirates: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, Umm ul Quwain, and Ajman. It is situated in the eastern corner of the Arabian peninsula and is bordered in the north by the Persian Gulf, in the east by the Gulf of Oman and Oman, and in the south and west by Saudi Arabia. Six of the seven Emirates lie on the coast of the Persian Gulf, while the seventh, Fujairah, is situated on the eastern coast of the peninsula and has direct access to the Gulf of Oman.

The total area of the United Arab Emirates is about 83,600 square kilometers (km2), of which 77,700 km2 is mainland surface area, where the population lives. The total area of the many, and generally uninhabited, islands is about 5,900 km2. Over 90% of the land is desert. In 1994, the agricultural area was estimated at 72,374 hectares (ha), of which 66,682 ha were available for agricultural production, while the remaining 5,962 ha were occupied by farm buildings and surrounding wasteland. In 1993, the total cultivated area was estimated at 54,512 ha, of which 21,683 ha consisted of annual crops and 32,829 ha of permanent crops.

The total population is about 1.9 million according to United Nations (UN) estimates (1995), of which only 16% is rural. According to the 1995 national census of the Ministry of Planning, the population was about 2.4 million, including both nationals and foreigners. Unofficial estimates suggest that over 80% of the population is made up of nonnationals. Table 1 shows the distribution of the area and the population, including resident foreigners, over the different Emirates in 1993.

caption Table 1: Mainland area and population by emirates (estimate by the Ministry of Planning, 1993). (Source: FAO)

By far the largest emirate is Abu Dhabi and Abu Dhabi City is the capital of both the emirate and the whole country. It also has the largest population numerically, but at the same time the lowest population density among the emirates. Dubai, which has the highest population density, is considered the business capital and the most important port in the country. Over two-thirds of the total population are concentrated in these two emirates. Average annual population growth has been estimated at over 3.5%, including both nationals and foreigners. The male population accounted for over 66% of the total population in 1995, mainly because of male immigrant labor force.

In 1994, agriculture employed an estimated 9% of the labor force and accounted for less than 2% of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). The main source of income is the revenue from oil exports. The last five-year plan concentrated on the manufacturing sector, in order to attain a balance in growth with other industries and a diversification of sources of income. Besides development planning at the federal level, each emirate follows an independent development strategy. The federal government is the driving force behind the economy through large public spending.

Climate and Water Resources


The climate is arid with very high summer temperatures. The coastal area, where the bulk of the population lives, has a hot and humid climate in the summer (May-October) with temperatures and relative humidity reaching 46 degrees Celsius (°C) and 100% respectively. Winters are generally mild with temperatures between 14 and 23°C. The interior desert region has hot summers with temperatures rising to about 50°C and cool winters during which the lowest temperature may fall to 4°C.

Mean annual rainfall is about 100 millimeters (mm), ranging from less than 40 mm around Liwa in the southern desert to 160 mm in the northeastern mountains. Almost 90% of rainfall occurs during the winter (October-March) and the wettest month is February. Spring and summer witness only occasional concentrated heavy rainfall. The rainfall distribution is highly variable over space and time. Rainfall tends to be more reliable in the north-eastern mountain region.

Water Resources

The total annual surface runoff produced from rain is about 150 million cubic meters (m3), but there are no perennial streams. The average annual groundwater recharge is about 120 million m3, most of which comes from infiltration from the river beds. The total groundwater abstraction during the year 1995 is estimated at l,615 million m3. This means that groundwater depletion probably amounts to almost 1,500 million m3/year. However, this figure does not consider the possible annual recharge of groundwater entering from neighboring countries (for example from the Eastern Arabia Aquifer), as no figures are available. In any case, the over-extraction of groundwater resources has led to a lowering of the water table by more than one meter on average during the last two decades, while seawater intrusion is increasing in the coastal areas.


To increase the groundwater recharge a number of dams have been built at various locations across the country. There are about 35 dams and embankments of various dimension having a total storage capacity of 80 million m3. While most of these dams are basically built for recharge purposes, they also provide protection against damage caused by flash floods.

Desalinated Water and Treated Wastewater

The first desalination plant was installed in Abu Dhabi in 1976 with a total capacity of 250 m3/day. Because of a rapid increase in domestic and industrial water demand more plants were installed, particularly in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. At present there are 35 desalination plants in the UAE, with a total installed capacity of l,922 m3/day or 700 million m3/year, while total actual production is 385 million m3/year.

It is estimated that about 500 million m3 of wastewater were produced in the urban areas during 1995, of which 108 million m3 were treated and reused.

Water Withdrawal

Total water withdrawal was estimated at 2,108 million m3 in 1995. Over 76% of the total water withdrawal was groundwater. Agricultural water withdrawal for crops was estimated at about l,300 million m3/year (all from groundwater), while landscape irrigation used 108 million m3 (all treated wastewater). Total water withdrawal for domestic and industrial purposes was estimated at 700 million m3 (23.7% and 9.5% of total water withdrawal, respectively), of which 385 million m3, or 55%, consisted of desalinated water and the remaining part of groundwater.

Irrigation and Drainage Development

The UAE has very limited potential for agricultural development since over 90% of the land is desert, there are no perennial surface water resources and rainfall is meager and erratic. However, in spite of the harsh weather conditions and soil and water constraints, remarkable progress has been made in the agricultural sector, particularly during the last two decades. The cultivable area increased from 15,050 ha in 1977 to 66,682 ha in 1994. The land is usually developed by transporting suitable soil to areas where water is available and for this reason the term 'cultivable land' is somewhat relative and may change over time. For the same reason the irrigation potential can be estimated at 66,682 ha but may change over time. The main agricultural areas are located in the north-east (Ras Al Khaimah), in the east along the coast from Kalba to Dibba (Fujairah), in the south-east (Al Ain/Abu Dhabi), and in the central region (Dhaid/Abu Dhabi).

In 1994, the total water-managed area was 66,682 ha (equal to the cultivable area), of which 41,300 ha were equipped with modern irrigation systems (sprinkler irrigation and micro-irrigation), while on 25,382 ha surface irrigation (basin and furrow) was practiced. All irrigation water is groundwater.

Prior to the introduction of modern irrigation systems, all the agricultural land was irrigated by traditional flood and furrow methods. Extensive research was carried out during the period 1976-1981 to select suitable irrigation systems and a pilot farm was established in 1983 to introduce sprinkler irrigation and micro-irrigation systems and a subsidy was given to the farmers. These irrigation systems are believed to have saved about 60% of the irrigation water.

Apart from the government's experimental farms, nurseries, afforestation schemes, and public gardens, all the agricultural land is owned and developed by private owners. There are 21,194 farm holdings. The government provides subsidies, extension services and other incentives to the farmers. All crops are irrigated and the main crops grown are dates, fruits, vegetables, and fodder crops. In 1994, the actually irrigated area was 54,512 ha, or 82% of the equipped area. Every year a part of the total equipped area is left fallow, a kind of shifting cultivation being practiced.

The cost of irrigation development has decreased considerably during recent years, mainly due to the local production of pipes and irrigation equipment. The average cost of irrigation development is about $US3,250/ha and the annual operation and maintenance cost is about $US400/ha. There are no irrigation water charges levied by the government, but the farmers pay for the drilling of boreholes on their farms and the pumping of the groundwater.

Over-abstraction of groundwater leads to a rapid fall in the water table, especially near the coast, resulting in increased salinity of the soil and water. Encroachment of seawater had already been reported in 1982, when it apparently penetrated as far as 20 km inland in the northern emirates. As a result, several farms are going out of production.

Institutional Environment

There are five main institutions involved in water resources management:

  • The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries is responsible for the development and management of the agricultural water supply. The water and soil department of the Ministry is in charge of promoting irrigated agriculture and for the planning, investigation, and management of groundwater resources, the investigation of quality and salinization of soil due to irrigation, the construction of dams for flood control and groundwater recharge, the operation, and maintenance of the hydro-meteorological network, the operation of laboratories, designing of the irrigation networks, etc.
  • The Ministry of Electricity and Water is responsible for the drinking water supply, which includes well drilling, the installation and operation of desalination plants, the operation and maintenance of well fields, water supply, and planning.
  • The General Water Resources Authority is the federal authority responsible for water management and coordination between the other agencies. It is also responsible for formulating the rules and regulations for matters relating to water in the country, including the registration of the water well drilling companies and licenses for drilling.
  • Local government water departments and authorities especially in the emirates of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah are independently responsible for the supply of drinking water and all water affairs in their respective emirates.
  • The Federal Environmental Agency has the power to control and regulate water pollution.

Trends in Water Resources Management

Groundwater has been affected adversely, both qualitatively and quantitatively, due to overabstraction. At present, all water used to irrigate agricultural products is groundwater, while treated wastewater is used for landscaping purposes. Future irrigation development using groundwater is very limited and attempts are being made to alleviate the problem of water scarcity by constructing desalination plants and dams, the latter mainly for the recharge of groundwater.

Local food production currently satisfies about one-fourth of UAE's food demand. The emirates are now self-sufficient in some winter vegetables and, in fact, a surplus is produced at certain times of the year. Overall, the government will continue to encourage agriculture, but is also aware that complete self-sufficiency in food is impossible.

Within the national strategy for water management, priority is given to sustainable and economically viable agricultural products and to research on the growth of salt-tolerant crops. Utilizing all the possible options, the ultimate aim is to maintain the present level of growth if further development is obstructed due to water scarcity.

Further Reading

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the Food and Agriculture Organization. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the Food and Agriculture Organization should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.



(2008). Water profile of United Arab Emirates. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/51cbef337896bb431f69d0df


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