UAE Groundwater Reserves: Abu Dhabi’s Arab Water Resources and Groundwater Recharge Levels

Eslam Mobarak
Published 2 weeks ago on 10 May, 2024-189 views
UAE Groundwater Reserves and Groundwater Recharge Levels in Abu Dhabi

UAE Groundwater Reserves has new research from the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, which reveals reliable assessments of the UAE’s groundwater reserves and depletion rate, providing the government with critical information for efficient freshwater management. Maria del Rocio Gonzalez Sanchez, an Asdar Institute graduate student, created the first ‘water budget’ – a term that describes the relationship between all water inputs and outputs in a given area – and discovered that the UAE’s groundwater is pumped out for irrigation at a rate of approximately 860 billion litres per year and is depleting at a rate of 0.5 centimetres per year. This is crucial since the UAE relies on groundwater reserves to deliver more than half its fresh water.

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UAE Groundwater Reserves

In a water budget, the ‘income’ is the amount of usable water that flows into the country through precipitation or is produced through desalination and wastewater treatment; the savings are the amount of groundwater stored in underground aquifers; and the expenses are the amount of water that leaves the groundwater due to evapotranspiration and human activity.

While groundwater meets more than half of the country’s freshwater demands, the agriculture sector uses most of it for irrigation. Desalination meets around 37% of the UAE’s water demand, primarily for industrial and domestic purposes. The remaining water, around 12%, is retrieved and used for landscaping irrigation. Because groundwater accounts for most of the UAE’s water supply, it is critical to understand how much groundwater constitutes the country’s future.

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UAE Groundwater Reserves in the Quaternary Aquifer

Groundwater Reserves Quaternary Aquifer
Groundwater Reserves Quaternary Aquifer

A water budget model with a one-kilometre cell size was created to investigate the temporal and geographical fluctuations in groundwater quantity and quality in response to heavy groundwater exploitation from the Quaternary aquifer in the UAE. The UAE’s water table and salinity maps for 1969, 2005, 2010, and 2015 were created using accessible historical groundwater level and salinity data.

The available water resources and soil information systems improved the groundwater analysis’s validity, cogency, and consistency. The geographical analysis module of GIS was used to establish the aquifer setting, saturated thickness, aquifer base elevation, effective porosity, and groundwater salinity for each grid cell.

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Natural Sustainable Water Resources

UAE Natural Sustainable Water Resources
UAE Natural Sustainable Water Resources

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) natural renewable water resources are limited. Geographically, the UAE is located in the Arabian Peninsula’s arid climate zone and shares transboundary water resources with Saudi Arabia and the Sultanate of Oman along 350 and 280 km of common borders, respectively. Fresh water in the UAE is obtained from four primary sources:

Groundwater Aquifers

The UAE’s groundwater system includes five significant aquifers: the quaternary aquifer, the dune aquifer, the Juweiza aquifer, the carbonate aquifer, and the fractured ophiolite. The quaternary aquifer system is the principal aquifer in the UAE and the subject of this study. The annual groundwater withdrawal for various uses is 2.854 billion cubic meters (BCM), besides groundwater and harvested rainwater, which will be investigated further.

Surface Water

The UAE is known for its dry environment. The entire region is usually dry all year, but surface water runoff may occur during wet seasons/days. Precipitation varies by geography, time, and season. Precipitation varies spatially, and data from various representative gauges are used to estimate the area’s average rainfall and assess its reliability and resources with groundwater reserves depleted.

Recycled Water

It was introduced recently and is acquired from wastewater and sewage treatment plants that only provide water for agricultural purposes. The UAE has also begun recycling wastewater from sewage, industrial, and farming systems.

Desalinated Seawater

Contemporary, high-tech desalination facilities supply it. The UAE relies significantly on non-conventional water resources such as desalination to address rising water demand. The UAE is now a world leader in applying desalination technology, thanks to a swift and comprehensive program of new plant construction and a meticulous research and development campaign.

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UAE Groundwater Systems

UAE Groundwater Systems
UAE Groundwater Systems

The UAE’s groundwater systems comprise five aquifers listed from north to south based on their physical setting, superficial or deep, and geographical position.

Quaternary aquifer

The Quaternary and Juweiza aquifers are hydraulically coupled and form the UAE’s primary groundwater system. The aquifer comprises alluvial gravel and sand on both sides of the Northern Oman Mountains. In the Abu Dhabi Emirate, it is an unconfined aquifer composed of sandstone and subordinate conglomerates. This aquifer contains the most critical fresh groundwater reservoir in the UAE.

Local topography, aquifer boundaries and extent, groundwater abstraction, and recharge rates determine the flow system in the surficial aquifer. This aquifer system’s hydraulic conductivity ranges from 10 to 150 m/day, whereas TDS levels range from 500 to more than 150,000 mg/L in the sabkha zones.

Sand Dune Aquifer

The dunes constitute an excellent shallow aquifer system, particularly in the Liwa area near Mzeerah hamlet. It covers around 74% of the UAE’s area. This aquifer level steadily rises relative to sea level along the western shore, reaching 250 meters near Mzeerah.

Juweiza Aquifer

The Juwiza aquifer covers a large chunk of Bajada and a small piece of the structural plain in Dhayd, northwestern UAE. The aquifer is made up of a thick clay layer that contains sand lenses with medium groundwater potential. Slow permeable sediments were produced during nappe folding and faulting in the structural ridge. In some regions, fertile gravels are interbedded with poor permeability sediments.

Carbonate Aquifers

The UAE has two critical carbonate aquifer systems: the northern limestone aquifer in Ras Al Khaimah Emirate and the Jabal Hafit carbonate aquifer south of Al Ain City in Abu Dhabi Emirate. The northern limestone aquifer, also known as the Bih or Hajar aquifer, has an average saturation thickness of 150 meters and stores fresh to brackish groundwater. It covers 640 kilometres in the northern region of the UAE. The northern limestone aquifer is generally unconfined and consists primarily of fractured limestone and dolomite.

Fractured Ophiolite Aquifer

The Ophiolite aquifer is primarily composed of joints and fractures. The straight fault system extends northwest to southeast. Groundwater flow in this system occurs only through interconnected fractures and fissures; hence, this aquifer has a restricted potential.

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UAE World’s Groundwater Reserve in Liwa Desert

UAE Worlds Groundwater Reserve Liwa Desert
UAE Worlds Groundwater Reserve Liwa Desert

In 1960, the United Arab Emirates had a population of approximately 90,000. Today, there are 100 times as many. That would not have happened just because someone discovered oil in the desert. The country’s population requires enough water. Oil has certainly been beneficial. It has enabled the government to establish big, expensive, energy-intensive desalination plants. The UAE has one of the highest water consumption rates in the world, with approximately 600 litres per person per day.

At the 2018 International Water Summit in Abu Dhabi, the government made a big step toward ensuring water security for its citizens. The Abu Dhabi Water & Electricity Authority presented the world’s largest artificially desalinated water reservoir. The reserve is located in an aquifer beneath the Liwa desert in the country’s south, approximately 160 kilometres from the coast’s desalination plants. It holds around 26 billion litres of water and takes 26 months to fill. In an emergency, the reserve can deliver around 100 million litres of water daily to the country’s residents.

The reserve’s daily water supply is barely a fraction of the country’s total daily demand of 6 billion litres. This is because overall consumption includes uses other than the absolute necessities, such as watering the country’s numerous golf courses, running indoor shark pools, and operating massive entertainment complexes.

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Water Reserve and Sanitation in Abu Dhabi

Water Reserve and Sanitation Abu Dhabi
Water Reserve and Sanitation Abu Dhabi

The three cities of Abu Dhabi Emirate in the United Arab Emirates—Abu Dhabi, with over one million people; Al Ain, with two million people; and Liwa, with 0.1 million people—rely solely on desalinated seawater for drinking water. The UAE has two sources of water: desalinated saltwater and groundwater. Groundwater is used for agriculture in Al Ain and Liwa, and desalinated seawater fully supplies drinking water across the Emirates. In 2008, groundwater accounted for 71% of total water consumption for all purposes, followed by desalinated water (24%) and treated wastewater (5%).

Groundwater Reserves in UAE

90% of the groundwater in Abu Dhabi Emirate is saline, which can be up to eight times more than seawater. There are just two freshwater aquifers. Natural groundwater recharge is estimated at 300 million cubic meters per year. Brackish groundwater is mainly used to rinse date palms, which are reasonably salt-resistant. Recharge dams have been erected on wadis to divert floodwater away from the sea and into aquifers. Unplanned and uncontrolled groundwater withdrawals, particularly for agriculture and forestry, exceed 2,000 million cubic meters yearly, diminishing groundwater levels and quality.

The Sanitation

Abu Dhabi generates around 550,000 cubic meters of wastewater daily, which is handled in 20 wastewater treatment plants. Almost the majority of the effluent is repurposed to irrigate green areas. While most wastewater treatment plants are publicly owned and operated, four large new plants were developed by joint ventures under build-own-operate transfer (BOOT) agreements. In 2008, a contract was won for two plants, one in Abu Dhabi with a capacity of 300,000 cubic meters per day and another in Al Ain with 130,000 cubic meters per day.

Biwater received contracts for two other facilities using a similar structure. Between 2008 and 2014, a Strategic Tunnel Enhancement Programme (STEP) will be conducted to construct a 40-kilometre deep sewerage tunnel and two new massive pumping stations to alleviate Abu Dhabi Island.

Artificial Groundwater Recharge

Artificial groundwater recharge with desalinated water was piloted near the Liwa Oasis in 2003, and large-scale recharge facilities were built in 2008. The goal is to develop a 90-day reserve for drinking water supply, rather than the current 48-hour reserve, to defend the emirate against terrorist attacks or oil spills, which would shut down the entire water supply. Recharge will occur throughout the summer when desalination facilities produce excess freshwater. Abu Dhabi’s desalination plants use multi-stage flash distillation technology, which uses steam from thermal power plants for energy.

As a result, their water output is proportionate to electricity generation and peaks during the summer, when electricity production is highest, to power air conditioning. The recharging scheme is currently under construction and will be completed in 2013.

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Groundwater Extraction in Abu Dhabi by 2030

Abu Dhabi has issued a comprehensive policy for managing and safeguarding the emirate’s groundwater, one of its primary natural resources. Once implemented, the strategy will reduce groundwater extraction in the Emirate by up to 650 million cubic meters by 2030. It is also expected to improve the groundwater quality index at the local and federal levels and reduce water extraction rates from 24-fold to 16-fold when compared to feeding averages. The increased use of recycled water is expected to benefit feeding aquifers in irrigation areas in terms of quality and quantity.

The Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD) developed the policy, which examines the existing groundwater situation in Abu Dhabi and the difficulties and repercussions of depletion. According to the EAD, the policy is based on Law No. 5 of 2016, which regulates groundwater in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. Its goals are to guarantee that groundwater is used efficiently while avoiding waste, to develop a thorough understanding of groundwater resources, and to promote appropriate irrigation techniques, methods, and practices.

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Which is the largest consumer of groundwater in the UAE?

Agriculture uses the majority of water in the UAE and around the world. Demand for desalinated, treated, and groundwater will increase by 30% by 2030.

Is UAE a water-scarce country?

Over the past thirty years, the UAE’s water table has plummeted by around one meter yearly. If current trends continue, the UAE’s natural freshwater supplies will be depleted in 50 years. Many Middle Eastern countries use desalination plants to meet their water demands.

Does the UAE have fresh water?

Only some countries have freshwater supplies that are as limited and fragile as the UAE’s. We do not have any permanent rivers or natural lakes. Instead, we rely significantly on rainwater coming from the Hajar Mountains, which provides year-round water in the wadis and submerged canyons.

Does the UAE have groundwater?

The UAE has two sources of water: desalination, salt water, and groundwater.


UAE Groundwater Reserves are a cornerstone in the United Arab Emirates’ strategy to secure Abu Dhabi’s water supply. These reserves, along with desalinated water and non-conventional water resources, contribute significantly to the total water resources of the UAE. The commitment to replenishing groundwater reserves underscores the nation’s dedication to ensuring a sustainable water supply for future generations.

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