DUBAI: In a Middle Eastern atmosphere that has just buried the controversy related to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and ripe with the United States and Europe pressuring Iran to come clean on its nuclear programme , the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is showcasing how nuclear technology can be used for peaceful and productive purposes.

The UAE signed the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as early as 1996, and is now pursuing the use of nuclear technology in the fields of water desalination and medicine.

The Emirates are the world's third largest per capita consumer of water after the US and Canada. According to recent statistics, water consumption is expected to increase by 44 per cent to 3.2 billion cubic meters by 2025.

An extensive desalination programme meets the spiralling demand for water in the country, and it has made the country now the second largest producer of desalinated water after Saudi Arabia.

In a press statement, Saeed Mohammad Al Raqabani, minister of agriculture and fisheries, said: "Our meagre water resources are under tremendous pressure and this will continue as long as there are expansion programmes, since the demand is increasing."

"If a country has less than 200 millimeters of rain per year then it is classified as one of the arid countries. The UAE has a lot less rain than that," he added. According to an official report, the average amount of renewable fresh water available in the UAE is already less than 250 cubic meters per person per year, which is well below the average international per capita water consumption.

Plans are now afoot to use nuclear energy to desalinate water. This is a cost-effective process that will help reduce the stress on the country's depleting water resources, and has received the blessing of the Federal National Council (FNC).

Warning that rapid population growth was putting more pressure on fresh water supplies, the FNC approved recommendations that called for the use of nuclear energy technology for desalination to help meet the challenges facing underground water resources.

"The council also called for intensive strategic research on the subject and the construction of more dams to help secure the country's water resources. It has also called for spreading awareness about the need for rationalizing water consumption," said a Dubai Municipality official.

Middle Eastern and North African countries suffer from a shortage of fresh water resources. Statistical analysis shows that fresh water resources in these countries constitute less than 13 per cent of the average world resources per capita. In the Arab world, the rapid increase in population and an increase in living standards have led to a greater demand for fresh water and electricity.

"Arabian Gulf countries are located in an arid area with limited water resources. Hydrological investigations point to large resources of underground water, but they are saline and need to be desalted," said Mohammed Khan, the technical manager of a water factory in Sharjah, one of the seven emirates.

"The best choice for providing fresh water in the Gulf countries is through seawater desalination with groundwater as a back-up," he added. "About 65 per cent of desalination plants that are in operation world wide are located in the Arabian Gulf countries."

The UAE is the third among 10 major countries using desalination for the treatment of water. "The government feels that the use of nuclear technology would be cost-effective and would spare the country the millions of dirhams it spends on water desalination projects every year," said the Dubai Municipality official.

As early as the 1960s, the International Atomic Energy Agency started surveying the feasibility of using nuclear reactors for seawater desalination. Nuclear desalination has been implemented in certain locations in Kazakhstan and in Japan.

The UAE is also looking at nuclear technology to save lives. Set up in 1983, the nuclear medicine department at Al Mafraq Hospital in Abu Dhabi, the capital, is one of the first nuclear medicine centres that helps in the early diagnosis and cure of cancer patients.

The department's key role is to process scans of organs and treat various types of cancer. Diagnostic techniques in nuclear medicine use radioactive tracers that emit gamma rays from within the body. They can be given by injection, inhalation or orally.

For most diagnosis, the diseased organ of the patient is injected with a tiny dose of radioactive pharmaceuticals, which has agents that will not harm the patient. -Dawn/The Inter Press News Service.

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