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ABU DHABI (Reuters) - The United Arab Emirates should conserve water by using less of it for agriculture, a senior safety official said on Tuesday, highlighting concerns about the future of the Gulf state's scarce water resources.
The UAE, which has seven percent of the world's known oil reserves, is among the top per capita consumers of water in the world.
Abu Dhabi consumes 550 litres (145 gallons) of water per person per day, an official from the emirate's Environment Agency said last year, compared to a world average of 180-200 litres.
At the same time, the small country suffers from a chronic shortage of water due its year-long hot and dry climate.
The UAE depends on groundwater and desalination plants, but its fresh water reserves are expected to deplete in the next five decades, according to Abu Dhabi's Environment Agency.
"Wars can erupt because of water," said Mohammed Khalfan al-Rumaithi, director general of the UAE's National Emergency and Crisis Management Authority.
"Using groundwater for agriculture is risky. If it doesn't harm us it will harm other generations," Rumaithi told the Federal National Council, an advisory body with limited parliamentary powers, which was discussing plans for securing food and water reserves.
Neighboring Saudi Arabia said in 2008 it would cut domestic wheat output by 12.5 percent a year to save the desert kingdom's scarce water supplies and rely entirely on imports by 2016 after trying to be self-sufficient for three decades.
The UAE is investing heavily in farms across the globe. This secures food supplies, but also is viewed by some as a way to reduce the consumption of fresh water locally.
Last month, Abu Dhabi, the largest and wealthiest of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, distributed 90.5 million dirhams ($24.64 million) in subsidies to farmers who stopped growing a water-intensive fodder for camels.
"We suffer from a shortage of water and we should think about solutions to preserve it rather than using it for agriculture," Rumaithi said.
Setting up strategic water reserves would safeguard against a possible disruption of the 70 desalination stations that supply 24 percent of the UAE's water demand, he said.
Red tides, or harmful algae bloom, and oil spills create risks for the plants' operations.
Abu Dhabi is leading the UAE's plans to secure its water reserves. It launched in October a pilot for the world's largest underground reservoir, with 26 million cubic meters (918.2 million cu ft) of desalinated water. The $436 million reservoir will store 90 days of rationed water when completed.
Rumaithi did not say how long current water reserves would last if supplies from desalination plants were disrupted. But he said food reserves would last six months.
Reporting by Mahmoud Habboush