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A profligate kingdom

The Gulf of Dubai is an island of green thanks to irrigation efforts. uae.gov

Despite providing water and energy free of charge, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) does little to encourage its citizens to conserve these precious resources.

This content was published on March 6, 2003 - 22:20

However, with the advent of privatisation, current practices look set to change.

"Use water wisely, please. It's a precious commodity in the Emirates," reads one advertisement in the arrivals hall at Dubai airport.

But flying over the country, one could be mistaken for thinking that the message is simply aimed at tourists.

Everywhere along the coast, there are forests, lawns, golf courses and race tracks - all maintained by constant irrigation.

Major consumers

After the United States, the UAE is the biggest consumer of fresh water at "between 450 and 550 litres per person per day", according to the UAE Review 2002.

The redistribution policy of the kingdom's royal rulers means that for the majority of people the costs of electricity and water are covered by the income generated from oil.

Foreigners must pay for these services on a sliding scale: non-local Arabs pay a small fee, while foreigners pay a little more. But electricity and water still come at a huge discount.

Future

The kingdom recognises that its reserves of fossil fuels are not inexhaustible and it is preparing for life after oil and natural gas.

Dubai already thrives on commerce (the city has become the world's second-biggest tax-free haven) and tourism, as well as its natural resources.

On the outskirts of the city, ultra-modern industrial zones are flourishing, producing aluminium, plastics, chemicals. But all this is largely subsidised.

How much longer this generosity will last is open to question, since the government is now seriously considering charging everyone for water and electricity.

But merely asking the population to be more frugal in their water consumption is likely to prove a rude awakening for them.

Hope

The hope is that some new technology might come along and provide an answer to their problems.

In January, an English-language newspaper in Dubai reported a promising discovery. A team of Scottish researchers have proposed a system for controlling weather in some of the driest parts of the planet.

The scientists have set up huge turbines on boats just off coast. Using solar energy, these turbines would vaporise sea water to form clouds.

All that is needed is for the winds push these artificial clouds in the right direction.

swissinfo, Marc-André Miserez, UAE (translation: Samantha Tonkin)

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