Air Quality in Abu Dhabi: Perspectives

Sandstorm_MiddleEastThe air quality topic has taken relevance in the media lately, perhaps because 95% of the world’s population is breathing unhealthy air, or because in a year it can contribute to the deaths of more than 6 million people [1]. We are starting to realize that those beautiful sunsets which we enjoy across the Middle East are the result of pollutants and dust; and most likely each one of us know of someone with asthma or any other respiratory disease whose condition worsens under poor air quality.

Poor air quality is more common in the big and developed cities instead of impoverished rural areas far away, which is the case of other environmental pressing issues like limited access to water and energy. It is in these cities where you, the reader, is most likely to live in. The unique characteristics of each region influences its ability to disperse or aggravate the situation.

In the Middle East, the harsh natural conditions combined with increasing emission of pollutants are threats to maintain a clean air. Herein, a brief air quality outlook for Abu Dhabi is provided, presenting perspectives on the sources of emissions, current state, as well as some of the responses from the administration in terms of policies and measures.

Impact of poor air quality

Poor air refers to air entering your body not only carrying oxygen to energize your cells, but also pollutants. These pollutants can be miniscule particles of dust or harmful chemicals, the most common being sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and hydrogen sulfide.

The effects on human health range from nauseating odors to heart and lung diseases, and even cancer, depending the vulnerability and exposure of the receiver [2]. This same poor air is metabolized by plants and animals, and some of the pollutants even end up being deposited in oceans, water bodies and soils through the rain.

Influencing factors

The accumulation of pollutants in the air is influenced by the capacity of the environment to disperse those pollutants, and the rate at which new pollutants are received by the atmosphere. Three factors have been determined to be the most influential for the air quality of an area: The terrain, the meteorology, and the emissions.

The first two are responsible for the wind, the rain, heating effects amongst other phenomena that creates atmospheric conditions of stability, influencing the mixing and dispersion of pollutants. However, as you may have inferred, there is very little that we can do to modify these.

The third factor, emissions, are divided into natural and anthropogenic origin. Natural emissions are the product of natural occurring events and are virtually inevitable, such as the dust from the desert. Anthropogenic emissions on the other hand result from man-linked activities such as combustion of fuel or industrial processes. As we are in control of these processes and can modify them, it is the focus of the air quality management efforts.

Situation in Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi’s conditions are defined as arid, indicating very little precipitation and large barren areas. The combination of winds over desert raises dust and sand particles capable of travelling long distances. Therefore, the background levels of particulate material (PM) are significantly high in Abu Dhabi, especially after a dust event has occurred. These dust events are more common during the summer months due to stronger winds.

In addition, anthropogenic emissions have increased exponentially since the 60’s because of the rapid economic growth experienced by the emirate. The oil exports initiated a new age for Abu Dhabi; soon new industries had to be run, millions of expatriate workers arrived, magnificent development projects were envisioned, and with these, an increased demand for water, electricity, transportation and land use. Emissions from industrial activities, energy generation and transportation are the main pressure on the quality of the air in the emirate [3].

Air quality in Abu Dhabi

The air quality of a site is evaluated against standards defined by the national authority based on international guidelines or local studies. Standards are given in terms of maximum ambient concentration of a given pollutant at which not harmful effects on human’s health are expected. This is usually micrograms of a pollutant per cubic meter of air.

Abu Dhabi hosts a network of 20 monitoring stations constantly feeding real time information [4]. The results from such monitoring was summarized in the latest State of the Environment Report covering the period 2007 to 2015 [3].

Compliance with the UAE Standards and Trend analysis per pollutant in the Abu Dhabi Emirate [3]

Particulate matter [5] and ozone seem to be the pollutants of concern for the emirate; although the increasing trend of the other pollutants may indicate the need for additional measures of control before it reaches undesirable levels.

The PM results don’t come as a surprise, as it is not difficult for an Abu Dhabi inhabitant to perceive the dust, even in their homes with doors and windows closed. This dust originates mostly from sand from the desert surroundings, infrastructure development and construction activities, but also from combustion of fuels and transformation of other pollutants. I personally notice less dust on the environment during the weekends when the construction works are paused.

Ozone is not emitted directly by a source, but it is the result of the interactions between other pollutants, UV radiation, oxygen, etc. This complex process of formation difficult the task of identifying and managing precursor agents. Some suspected sources include oil and gas activities, petrol stations, fuel combustion during transportation and even vegetation.

It is also important to note that air quality conditions are perceived in a localized manner, rather than the same conditions across the whole emirate. As such, areas in proximity to industries, power plants, refineries, highways, construction sites, etc. are more likely to present poor air quality.

Arab region is among the worst performers in air quality

Also, the impacts on one’s health are consequent to other factors such as pre-existent health conditions or age. As an effort for managing the impacts, the Environment Agency has released an app with live air quality indicators geographically represented available to the public [6].

What is being done?

With a demand for resources increasing rapidly, the threat on clean air is unceasing. The authorities have recognized air pollution as the primary environmental threat to public health in the UAE [3,4]. The efforts from the administration include:

  • Strengthening the regulatory framework for air quality and monitoring compliance,
  • Maintenance and extension of the monitoring network,
  • Integrated efforts from all influential institutions and departments in Abu Dhabi and in the UAE for knowledge exchange and implementation of measurements for resource efficiency and public awareness,
  • Continuous reporting and warnings accessible to the public,
  • Active research for sources and pollutants identification,
  • Motivating for transitioning to cleaner and more efficient sources of energy,
  • Improving the quality of fuels used for transportation and promote lower emissions vehicles, among other measures.

The longer the wait for effective actions to be implemented, the more resources will be required to mitigate or contain the negative effects of pollution. The administration has embarked in the complex task of maintaining economic growth without compromising the environmental resources and is starting to turn into green growth strategies for such end.

Role of the Public

As citizens we also have a responsibility to play as those harmful pollutants result from creating resources to supply our needs. Citizens can help by reducing electricity and water consumption at home, use lower emissions vehicles, prefer local products or ensure appropriate waste disposal, to name a few.

If you or someone of your family is sensitive to air pollution, maintain informed about outdoor conditions and limit the exposure if required, limit the access of dust into your household and replace frequently the air filters in your ventilation system.

It is important to remember that air quality and climate change are strongly linked. Most of the activities that release pollutants also release greenhouse gases or aggravate the heating effect on the atmosphere. On the other hand, expected climate change effects in the Middle East include increased temperatures and reduced precipitation. Having less rain diminishes the natural cleaning of pollutants in the atmosphere, and higher temperatures increase the need of energy for cooling, which if supplied from fossil fuels, causes more emissions.

Conclusion

The harsh natural conditions of the region and a rapid increasing demand for resources are an unceasing threat for clean air. It can be said that the air in the emirate of Abu Dhabi is of good to moderate quality, with localized areas of attention, and being particulate matter and ozone the pollutants of concern. Attention is also required to other pollutants that although at safe levels, have shown an increasing trend in concentration during the past 10 years.

The goal of a clean air requires the combined efforts and commitment of the administrative institutions, the industrial sector, the research bodies and the citizens. It is necessary to turn the traditional development model into a green growth strategy capable of maintaining economic objectives without compromising the environmental resources and the welfare of the citizens of the region.

 References

[1] Health Effects Institute. 2018. State of Global Air 2018. Special Report. Boston, MA: Health Effects Institute.

[2] DEFRA. 2018. Air quality: explaining air pollution – at a glance. Available online at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/air-quality-explaining-air-pollution/air-quality-explaining-air-pollution-at-a-glance

[3] Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi. 2017. Abu Dhabi State of the Environment Report.

[4] Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi. 2016. Available at https://www.ead.ae/Pages/Green%20Business/air-quality.aspx

[5] Here reference is made to PM10, or particulates with a diameter smaller to 10 µm.

[6] Gulf News – Environment. 2018. Abu Dhabi launches live air-quality app. Available at https://gulfnews.com/news/uae/environment/abu-dhabi-launches-live-air-quality-app-1.2262492

About Angie Sánchez

Angie Sánchez is an (MEng) Environmental Engineer with more than 7 years’ experience as a consultant in the fields of Air Quality and Climate Change. She has been involved with the small and large-scale emissions quantification and reporting from various sources in South Africa, and has participated in multiple projects involving renewables, energy efficiency, carbon assessment and climate change vulnerability in South America and Africa. Angie has recently moved to the UAE where she wishes to collaborate with the sustainability agenda of the region.
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