As one of the world’s driest places, Dubai may not seem like an obvious choice for water-generated electricity. 

But the United Arab Emirates state sits in the middle of a region that has become one of the world’s worst emitters of carbon. So this state, with four inches of rain a year and no rivers, is green lighting a $400 million hydropower project as part of an effort to clean its air and cut its rising carbon emissions.

The UAE awarded the contract for the 250-megawatt Hatta Dam project Aug. 17 to a German-Austrian-Omani consortium led by Strabag AG and advised by France’s EDF. Water will generate electricity as it flows downhill from the Hatta Dam, in the Hajar Mountains near the Oman border, and is then returned to the upper reservoir using solar-powered pumps.

Dubai is building the plant “to transform the Emirate into a global hub for clean energy and green economy,” Mohammed Al Tayer, CEO of the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority, which initiated the project, said in a statement. The authority hopes to produce 75% of its energy from clean sources by 2050, he said.

Earlier this year, Dubai began producing electricity from the 1,177-megawatt Noor Abu Dhabi installation, the world’s largest single-site solar project. A 2-gigawatt field is planned for Al Dhafra in neighboring emirate Abu Dhabi. 

While hydroelectric power is common in other parts of the world, this will be its first deployment in the Gulf, where fresh water is so limited that countries increasingly depend on desalination to provide most of their fresh water supplies. Clouds are seeded to stimulate rain.

“Due to the climate of the region, rainfall is quite low and a very limited number of surface water reservoirs are available,” Noman F. Qadir, an environmental and sustainability expert who has worked in Dubai, told Karma.

Looking to Improve

As the Emirates prepare to host the World Green Economy Summit in October, it’s trying to shed its reputation of having some of the world’s most polluted air. The UAE’s total greenhouse gas emissions nearly tripled between 1993 and 2015 to 203.7 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. 

Due in part to fast population growth, carbon dioxide emissions per capita fell to 23.6 tons in 2016 from 31.07 tons in 1997; but that still left Emirates the world’s fourth biggest emitter of carbon dioxide on a per person basis in the world.

A 2013 study found that outdoor air pollution was the leading environmental cause of death and disease in the UAE. “Reducing pollutant emissions to outdoor air should be a high priority for the UAE’s environmental agencies,” the researchers said.

Abu Dhabi’s own statistics show its greenhouse gas emissions rose by 36.6% from 2010 to 2016, roughly in line with the increase in population and economic activity as measured by GDP. A 2018 survey ranked Dubai among the world’s 50 most-polluted cities.

A comprehensive plan to address climate change and a targeted carbon abatement strategy appears to be having some effect. In June, the Dubai Supreme Council of Energy reported that carbon emissions were running 19% below a “business-as-usual” scenario despite continued population and economic growth. The assessment came via a growing network of 41 air quality monitoring stations positioned across the country.

The federal and emirati governments have embraced green solutions, piloting electric cars, trains, buses and transport pods, building some of the world’s largest photovoltaic installations, and encouraging the construction and retrofitting of green buildings to conserve energy. 

Since 2013, new-generation desalination, waste-to-energy and nuclear energy plants have been built at a dizzying pace, while homeowners and businesses have been given incentives to generate their own clean power by installing solar panels on their roofs.

The Emirates Energy Strategy 2050, launched in 2017, aims to increase the share of clean power in the national energy mix to 50% by 2050 while Dubai aims for 75%.

“Dubai has been a pioneer in the implementation of programmes and initiatives that contribute to reducing the carbon footprint and its pursuit of a greener future is proving its validity,” Al Tayer says.

Environmental Impact?

Annual per capita electricity use in Dubai fell from 13,626 kwh in 2015 to 11,731 kwh in 2018, and water consumption slowed from 38,554 gallons per head to 33,565 gallons in the same period. The planting of 44,000 trees during 2018 added 1.47 million square meters of greenery to a city with little of the vegetation vital to capture carbon that would otherwise stay in the atmosphere.

Whether Hatta will be “clean” remains to be seen, Qadir says.

“The environmental impact assessment needs to provide a clear comprehensive and result-oriented mitigation plan for those impacts,” he says. “With limited information on the design, terrestrial and freshwater biodiversity species survey, ground water information, rainfall pattern throughout the year and water infiltration modelling results it would be difficult to identify and quantify the environmental and biodiversity impact” of the scheme.

These environmental concerns “need to be addressed before its final design is approved,” he warns.