Facing Water Woes, Abu Dhabi Greens the Desert

Across the Persian Gulf, oil-rich Arab cities are turning sand into skyscrapers, investing in and profiting from one of the world's greatest construction booms.

Dubai is building the tallest tower on Earth. The prestigious Louvre and Guggenheim museums are moving ahead with plans to open branches in Abu Dhabi.

Manama, the capital of Bahrain, has announced plans to build its own set of man-made islands.

But to grow takes water, and water is scarce in this desert-dominated region. Abu Dhabi, often called the richest city in the world, is 90 percent desert. With hot weather and high standards of living, the United Arab Emirates, home to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, has the highest water consumption per capita in the world, by some estimates.

Water doesn't come cheap in the UAE, a country where it costs more there to produce a gallon of water than a gallon of oil. Most water for domestic consumption comes from desalination, an expensive and energy-intensive process that purifies water drawn from the salty Persian Gulf. The fresh water is then piped into the homes, hotels and commercial buildings multiplying along the Gulf coast.

As construction expands so must key infrastructure, putting a strain on public services like water consumption and wastewater management.

"There is no economic growth without water," said Mohamad Dawoud, a water specialist with the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency.

"We have a rapid growth and a lot of infrastructure that needs water. You need recreation areas, parks, national parts and the green areas in the city, and this is a big challenge for the government," Dawoud told ABC News.

Water conservation efforts have begun to take shape in the Emirates, but construction megaprojects and an 8 percent annual population growth threaten to outstrip the scarce reserves of this desert country. Government figures show if the desalination plants shut down in an emergency, the UAE's public supply of water will last no longer than 24 hours.

Along with taking a human toll, any shortage could put a major dent in the gulf's skyrocketing economy.

Daoud and his colleagues at the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency are pursuing an ambitious solution: creating an oasis in the desert.

Water is desalinated at plants along the coast. The fresh water is then piped roughly 60 miles inland to Abu Dhabi's Liwa desert, where it flows underground using just the force of gravity.

The system is roughly equivalent to using the desert ground as a storage tank. The water stays fresh underground and can be pumped above ground if there is ever a shortage.

Abu Dhabi is already building its water reserves through artificial recharge. Authorities hope to store three months' worth of emergency water supply. Others in the region are taking notice -- Daoud says the model is being shared with other desert countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

The system has its drawbacks. Desalination takes energy and creates pollution, dumping salty brine into the gulf ecosystem. Even so, the process is this desert country's best hope for bridging a scant supply of water supply with a surging demand.