For a desert city, Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, looks like a water paradise.
Visitors can snorkel in the world's deepest pool or ski inside a huge shopping mall where penguins play on fresh snow.
A fountain – touted as the largest in the world – sprays more than 83000,<> litres of water into the air, to the rhythm of music emanating from the speakers around it.
But to maintain this opulence, the city relies on a water supply it doesn't have.
So it turns to the sea, and uses energy-intensive desalination technologies to help hydrate a rapidly growing metropolis.
All of this comes at a price.
Experts say Dubai's reliance on desalination affects the Persian Gulf, as it produces brackish waste known as brine which, along with the chemical compounds used during the desalination process, increases the salinity of the gulf.
It also raises the temperature of coastal waters and harms biodiversity, the fishing industry and coastal communities.
The gulf is also under pressure from climate change and Dubai's initiative to build multibillion-dollar islands through land reclamation. Among the real estate that is for sale on the beachfront is a $34 million private seahorse-shaped island located in the man-made archipelago.
People gather at the edge of the man-made Burj Lake to watch a synchronized show of water jets and music, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, July 18, 2023. To maintain its growth, opulence and water waste, Dubai employs energy-intensive desalination technologies, a dependency that is damaging biodiversity, fisheries and coastal communities in the Persian Gulf. (Katarina Premfors/The New York Times)
If immediate action is not taken to counteract the damage, desalination, coupled with climate change, will increase water temperatures in more than 2 percent of the gulf area by at least 78.50 degrees Celsius by 2050, according to a 2021 study published in the scientific journal The Marine Pollution Bulletin on ScienceDirect, a website for peer-reviewed articles.
Dubai, one of the UAE's most populous cities, has taken steps to address the damage through environmental initiatives and new technologies, but pressure is mounting to do more.
Later this month, the city will host the United Nations global climate summit, known as COP28, which has already exacerbated tensions related to fossil fuel investments by the UAE and other participating countries.
Beyond facilitating Dubai's glitzy recreation, water is essential to sustaining life, and desalination generates clean drinking water for a thirsty city.
According to a 2022 sustainability report, the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) supplies water to more than 3.6 million residents, as well as the population of more than 4.7 million visitors, who are active in the city during the day.
By 2040, the authority expects these numbers to increase, increasing the demand for clean water.
A waterfall at Dubai Mall, the world's largest shopping mall by total area. Photo: Katarina Premfors for The New York Times
Last year, the city desalinated about 617.022 million liters of water, according to the same sustainability report.
For every 3.5 liters of desalinated water produced in the gulf, an average of 5 liters of brine is released into the ocean.
In Dubai, the Jebel Ali desalination and power plant — the largest complex of its kind in the world — pipes seawater, undergoes a series of treatment phases, and then sends it to the city as drinking water.
But all 43 desalination plants in Jebel Ali run on fossil fuels.
The UAE produced more than 200 million tonnes of carbon in 2022, one of the highest per capita emissions globally.
Sewage trucks on their way to a treatment plant. Treated wastewater fills the 30-acre Burj Lake and its five springs. Photo: Katarina Premfors for The New York Times
Seawater desalination has been a lifeline for the UAE for nearly 50 years, but now other coastal regions, such as Carlsbad, California, are embracing the technology to deal with severe droughts.
The state of Florida is the national leader in desalination, and further inland, Arizona is considering channeling desalinated water from Mexico.
Deep Dive Dubai is the deepest pool in the world, with about 3.7 million gallons of fresh water. Photo: Katarina Premfors for The New York Times
Other Gulf countries have also long turned to desalination operations, including Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Unlike its oil-rich neighbors, Dubai's economy is primarily based on tourism, real estate development, and aviation, though its brief oil bonanza in the 1960s and 1970s laid the financial foundation for the city's architecturally stunning infrastructure.
"It's a brand," said Khaled Alawadi, an associate professor of sustainable urbanism at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi.
"Any tourist destination, especially if it has potential competition in the region, seeks to dominate."
Dubai has already announced environmental initiatives to curb its massive resource consumption, including working to reduce energy and water demand by 30 percent by 2030 and get 100 percent of its energy production from renewable energy sources by 2050.
The country has even turned to the skies as an alternative source of water, hiring scientists to chemically stimulate clouds to generate precipitation (though there is little consensus that this process actually works) and motivating hotels in Dubai to generate their own water resources by harvesting atmospheric water.
Faisal Almarzooqi, an associate professor at Khalifa University who studies water desalination in the United Arab Emirates, said he had pressured government officials to prevent certain establishments, such as metal factories and water parks, from using drinking water for purposes unrelated to drinking it.
"At a time when water is so precious, maybe there are better ways to do things like recreation," he said.
Aerial view of Bluewaters, an artificial island in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, July 15, 2023. To maintain its growth, opulence and water waste, Dubai employs energy-intensive desalination technologies, a dependency that is damaging biodiversity, fisheries and coastal communities in the Persian Gulf. (Katarina Premfors/The New York Times)
Almarzooqi added that the rising salinity levels in the gulf were dangerous because the water itself is hypersaline, so adding more salt threatens the gulf's biodiversity.
Dubai is on the right track.
In 2021, the city mandated that all new desalination projects be built with what is widely considered to be the most efficient and environmentally friendly technology available on the market: reverse osmosis.
However, most desalination plants in the country still use an older technology called multi-stage instant distillation.
Unlike reverse osmosis, which removes salt and other contaminants by propelling water through a semi-permeable membrane, multi-stage instantaneous distillation relies on heat.
Decades ago, when the UAE began exploring distillation, the technology was better able to handle the gulf's high salinity, while reverse osmosis can do the same now.
And while both technologies produce brine, the residues from multi-stage flash distillation are much hotter, so they damage the ecosystem much more.
Dubai Fountain Show, on the Burj artificial lake. Photo: Katarina Premfors for The New York Times
DEWA's new Hassyan power complex in Dubai will use reverse osmosis distillation and has been operating on natural gas instead of coal for more than a year.
The $3400.530 billion project is expected to generate more than <> million liters of water a day.
DEWA has already begun researching sustainable options for managing and recycling brine through a water treatment process known as zero liquid discharge (ZLD) and membrane distillation, technologies that experts hope will work to treat saline water and wastewater.
However, techniques to solve the problem on a large scale have not yet been deployed, although solutions are being researched around the world.
Despite these efforts, Dubai is facing criticism.
"I don't see a lot of initiatives, to be honest," Almarzooqi said.
"I feel like they're more focused on getting the systems to run on renewable energy, but almost no one talks about the brine."
c.2023 The New York Times Company