Desalination and water scarcity in Dubai

Ian writes*

A few years ago, I was shocked to learn that bottled water is more expensive than bottled cola when transferring at Dubai International Airport. This exemplifies that physical water scarcity challenge Dubai is currently facing. Climate, geography, and population impact Dubai’s water management. Dubai has a “BWh climate” according to the Köppen Classification, characterized by extremely hot and arid summers where the yearly precipitation is less than 100mm. With little precipitation but intense evaporation, natural surface water (beside the Dubai Creek) is nonexistent in Dubai. Average residential water consumption per capita per day is around 270 liters, this figure is much lower than the US average but much higher than the global average (FAO). The aquifers beneath Dubai cannot meet the demand of 3.4 million residents and the commercial/ industrial sectors (Dubai Statistics Center 2021). Situated along the Persian Gulf, desalinated water meets 99.5% of demand (DEWA Annual Statistics 2019).

Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) vertically integrates water governance in Dubai, from extraction and desalination to distribution and wastewater treatment. Dubai’s desalination plants use two technologies: multi-stage flash distillation (MSF) and reverse osmosis (RO) (DEWA Annual Statistics 2019). Six plants use MSF (DEWA Annual Statistics 2019). MSF involves multiple stages of flash distillation in which seawater is heated by steam that is cooled and collected from remaining saltwater, and the process repeats until only pure water and brine are left (Atherton 2017). RO uses membranes and pressure to filter saltwater (Atherton 2017). Dubai’s one RO-desalination plant accounts for 5.3% of desalination capacity (DEWA Annual Statistics 2019), but DEWA plans to increase that figure to 41% by 2030 because RO requires less energy than MSF (Khaleej Times 2021).

Cost, energy, and pollution are the three main drawbacks of desalination. Firstly, water desalination is the only viable option for large scale water consumption in Dubai because of the natural limitation of the surrounding watershed so higher costs are inevitable. Secondly, desalination is extremely energy intensive. Natural gas peers Dubai’s plants (Power Technology), so DEWA imposes a fuel surcharge of $0.0002395 per liter to partially reflect those costs (DEWA 2021). Third and arguably most important, desalination produces 50 percent more brine than clean water after (Jones et al. 2019). Since brine has a higher salt concentration than sea water, it can disrupt marine ecosystems. In addition, toxic elements such as copper and chlorine are often found in brine (Jones et al. 2019). The authorities have not conducted a holistic impact assessment of the impacts of brine discharges.

DEWA plans to build a solar-powered desalination plant that can desalinate water with clean energy and waste heat by 2030 (Gordon 2019 and Khaleej Times 2021), but it will take some time before all water sources are climate friendly.

Bottom Line: Dubai’s climate, geography, and population reflects its dependence on desalinated water even though it is more expensive, energy intensive, and polluting. Dubai is working to “green” its technology and reduce water consumption, but results have yet to reveal their effectiveness.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

4 thoughts on “Desalination and water scarcity in Dubai”

  1. Hello, Ian, interesting case!
    What is still a bit unclear to me, is the surcharge for the extremely high energy use caused by desalination. Could you maybe provide a number relative to the liter price?
    Also, I was wondering how wastewater treatment in this region works. If 99.5 per cent of urban water is supplied by desalination, then what happens to (hopefully) treated wastewater? Does it just get diverted into rivers, or is it used in any other way? Since treatment is significantly cheaper than desalination, this seems to me like an area of potential improvement. What do you think about it?

    1. Yes the surcharge is due to the energy intensive nature of deslaniation especially for MSF. The liter price for fuel surcharge is $0.0002395 ( I need to do more research on DEWA’s management of wastewater but as far as I know, treated wastewater is used for irrigation (one source: As discussed in class, I believe that DEWA should place more emphasis on treated wastewater instead of desalination which is their main focus.

  2. Hi, Ian what an interesting piece and case study! It sounds like there is no alternative to desalination so making it environmentally friendly is the most viable solution for sustainable management. My question is where is the brine deposited? Were you able to find information about the ecosystem damage this has already been created? I am really interested in this aspect of the desalination process as I question whether solutions exist that can resolve this problem. I look forward to reading your final case. It sounds like you’re on the right track towards a really pertinent paper.

    1. The brine is deposited back into Persian Gulf. I still need to do more research one brine’s ecosystem damage. However, through a contact from David, I managed to get in touch with someone who used to work for the WWF in UAE, so hopefully I’ll get some useful info.

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