water, water, everywhere…

Abu Dhabi, the city, is a bit like Manhattan, in that technically it’s an island, but it’s easy to forget that fact when you’re wandering in the maze of skyscrapers and multi-lane roads. Where Manhattan has New York Harbor, Abu Dhabi has the Arabian Gulf along one edge, and then a series of creeks and canals that separate the city from the mainland.

And then, of course, once you wander away from the Gulf and over the creeks, it’s just desert. Sand blurring out to the horizon, a view that’s vaguely oceanic in size and scope except that it’s, you know, dry.  In fact, in photos of old Abu Dhabi (and keep in mind that “old” here means 1956, 1963, 1971) the desert reaches right up to the ocean’s edge, with roads cut through the sand.

image source

When you’re in the city now, it’s easy to forget, at least briefly, that you’re in the middle of the desert – at least until you realize that the slightest breeze blows fine sandy grit onto every surface.

In attempts to create the illusion of an oasis, the city has built grassy parks with shady walks; there are palm trees and flowerbeds around most of the public buildings; and everywhere there are fountains.

Big public “art” fountains:

And little fountains that spurt out of the bike path with no warning:

And fountains half-hidden from public view:


None of the water (that I tasted, anyway) seemed like salt water. I don’t know if the fountains run with the same desalinated water that comes through the pipes and that is in the process of wrecking my hair (see here for why, but suffice it to say that if we stay here for a long time, I’ll be wearing full hijab because I’ll be bald).

The fountains are beautiful, and they, along with all the green plantings do create the illusion that I’m living in an oasis city, not a desert outpost.

But all the irrigating, the endless miles of hoses and water-lines that criss-cross the city to feed the fountains and gardens…It comes at a price: desalinating is hideously expensive and ultimately damaging to the environment, not only because of the drain on the original water source but also because of what’s done with the chemicals used to treat the water and render it drinkable.  The UAE leads the world in water consumption, despite having so little of it.

The water everywhere makes me wonder if what’s really on display is wealth: you can’t really beautify public space with a crude-oil fountain but the oil pays, in a sense, for all these displays of water-fed beauty.

If the water dries up (or the oil), the sand comes back; it will cover the fountains and the flowerbeds. It’s like the ending of “Ozymandias,” Shelley’s warning about imperial over-reaching and the dangers of believing too deeply in the permanence of your own creations: Round the decay/ Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/ The lone and level sands stretch far away.’