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Flooding puts spotlight on Dubai’s population growth

Dubai residents receive help from volunteers as they evacuate their flooded homes Reuters/Amr Alfiky
Dubai residents receive help from volunteers as they evacuate their flooded homes
  • Planners must account for future floods
  • Water management vital for expansion
  • Singapore viewed as possible model

Extensive flooding caused by the historic April 16 storm highlights the challenges the Dubai authorities face as they work on increasing the population by 2.5 million people by 2040.

With an increasingly erratic climate, the key for local authorities will be managing that growth closely, industry professionals told AGBI

“The growth in itself is not bad, but obviously the wrong kind of growth is bad,” said Steven Velegrinis, design director in the Cities and Urban Design practice at Gensler. 

“That’s where the city planning strategy has to match the ambition of population growth with infrastructure that meets the needs of that future population.” 

The 2040 Urban Master Plan, which Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum released in March 2021, provides for residents to increase from 3.3 million to 5.8 million in 20 years. It also comprises several ambitious economic, social and environmental targets to sustain that trajectory.

Dubai welcomed approximately 100,000 new residents from July 2022 to July 2023. That put upward pressure on everything from real estate prices, which climbed to record highs, to traffic. 

Population growth, and the ‘cementification’ that usually goes with it, are also traditionally taxing on the water management systems of any city, particularly one like Dubai that has seen rapid urbanisation.

“There may have been times where it was envisaged that ‘we can plan here because there’s plenty of space around us’ and, as the city has consolidated around developments, that’s caused a cumulative problem,” said Velegrinis. 

“Dubai Municipality has to look at this as something that has happened not by core design but by the accumulation of circumstances.”

Last week’s storm hamstrung operations at Dubai’s international airport for several days. Around 2,100 plus flights were cancelled and 115 flights had to be diverted during the disruption.

Elsewhere in Dubai, stretches of Sheikh Zayed Road, the city’s main traffic artery, were completely underwater. Parts of the metro remain closed more than a week later. 

Velegrinis says Dubai needs the kind of sustainable urban drainage pioneered in Singapore in the 2000s. Not unlike the concept of China’s sponge cities, it relies on wetlands, public spaces and natural waterways to slow down flow during high accumulation, rather than accelerating it as concrete infrastructure typically does.

The Dubai 2040 Urban Master Plan pledges to double the land available for parks, gardens and other outdoor leisure spaces. It also seeks to establish urban farming areas and dedicate 60 percent of the emirate’s territory to nature reserves and natural areas.

“I believe the goal of increasing the population to nearly six million by 2040 is doable but needs to be strategically and very carefully planned in advance,” said Simona Azzali, an associate professor in the Department of Architecture of the Canadian University of Dubai. 

“Water management and climate adaptation should be factored and enforced into every single urban plan and every project, small or large.”

Azzali noted via email that long-term city planning around the environment should go hand-in-hand with “tactical urbanism”, or short-term and temporary solutions ready to be deployed in emergencies.

To get there, government employees at all levels that work on development should receive more training on water management issues, according to Hazem Gouda, an associate Engineering professor at the University of Wollongong in Dubai.

“When there’s an application coming in for a new building or new development to assess the suitability of the location and the suitability of the design for the surface water management system, they have to have the [necessary] capacity,” he told AGBI.

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