WebGIS | GeoAI | EO

Dubai’s Population Boom: Is Disaster Preparedness Keeping Pace?

Dubai, renowned for its rapid development and urbanization, has witnessed a remarkable surge in population over the years. This growth can be attributed to a myriad of factors, including abundant economic opportunities, extensive infrastructure development, and progressive government policies designed to allure skilled labor and investors. As one of the seven emirates comprising the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Dubai stands as a vibrant hub of diversity and innovation within the federation, alongside Abu Dhabi, Fujairah, Sharjah, Umm al-Qaiwain, Ras al-Khaimah, and Ajman. Among these, Dubai holds the distinction of being the second largest emirate in terms of area, spanning 3,885 km2, constituting approximately 5% of the UAE’s total landmass.

In 2024, Dubai encountered a significant challenge when unprecedented floods struck, serving as a poignant reminder of the imperative for proactive climate resilience strategies in swiftly evolving urban landscapes. The deluge, which stands as the most substantial rainfall event since 1949, exposed vulnerabilities in Dubai’s infrastructure, which was ill-prepared for such a catastrophic inundation. This event underscored the critical importance of fortifying cities against the escalating threats posed by climate change and extreme weather phenomena. The lessons gleaned from this experience are instrumental in steering the development of resilient urban centers capable of navigating the complexities of a changing climate and safeguarding the well-being of their inhabitants.

Ongoing transformation

Dubai, despite its status as the premier international metropolis in the region, boasts a relatively short history, with documented settlements dating back only to 1799. However, in the span of the last four decades, Dubai has undergone a remarkable transformation, evolving into the most populous city in the entire United Arab Emirates (UAE), with a burgeoning population of 3,687,279 inhabitants as of April 23, 2024.

The city is delineated into various communities, each reflecting its unique character and demographic composition. Detailed population counts and density distributions at the community level provide insights into the spatial dynamics of urban growth. Notably, the map illustrates a concentration of high population density within specific areas, such as the Ayal Nasir community, where the population density reaches a staggering 111,445 persons per square kilometre.

Dubai’s metropolitan area has witnessed a steady increase in population over recent years, reflecting a trajectory of sustained growth and urbanization. From 2022 to 2024, the metro area population has experienced incremental rises, with a 1.43% increase recorded in 2024 compared to the preceding year. Such demographic shifts underscore Dubai’s ongoing metamorphosis into a dynamic and cosmopolitan hub, fuelled by economic vitality, infrastructural development, and a magnetism for diverse talent and investment.

Flooding in Dubai

Satellite image of part of Dubai on April 3 (on left) and on April 19 (on right) taken by Landsat 9 (NASA Earth Observatory)

We employed Sentinel-2 satellite imagery to delineate the extent of flooding in Dubai, employing the Normalized Difference Water Index (NDWI) technique. By generating a flood mask based on this method, we identified areas affected by inundation. Our analysis indicates that an estimated 54 square kilometers of land in Dubai were subject to flooding.

Flooding extent calculated using NDWI from Sentinel-2 satellite imagery 

The results show flooding in numerous parts of the emirate. The floods causing widespread property damage, transportation disruptions, and economic losses. Emergency services were stretched thin as they worked tirelessly to rescue stranded individuals, provide relief aid, and mitigate further damage. The resilience of Dubai’s residents was tested as communities came together to support one another amidst the crisis.

Flooding in a part of Dubai (calculated using NDWI on Sentinel-2 satellite imagery)

How the rising population is increasing climate risk?

The increase in population and population density in Dubai has significant implications for the city’s vulnerability to natural disasters. Here’s how:

Urbanization and Infrastructure Expansion: As Dubai’s population grows, there is a corresponding increase in urbanization and infrastructure development. This expansion often leads to the conversion of natural landscapes into built-up areas, including residential, commercial, and industrial zones. Urbanization alters the natural environment, reducing green spaces, disrupting drainage patterns, and increasing the likelihood of flooding and other natural hazards.

Higher Concentration of People and Assets: With more people living and working in urban areas, there is a higher concentration of population and assets in vulnerable areas. High-density urban environments, such as densely populated neighborhoods and central business districts, are particularly susceptible to the impacts of natural disasters, including earthquakes, floods, and storms. The concentration of people and assets amplifies the potential for casualties, property damage, and economic losses during disaster events.

Pressure on Infrastructure and Services: The influx of residents places strain on existing infrastructure and essential services, including transportation networks, utilities, healthcare facilities, and emergency response systems. Inadequate infrastructure and services can exacerbate the impacts of natural disasters, hindering evacuation efforts, rescue operations, and post-disaster recovery. Additionally, overcrowded conditions in urban areas may impede access to emergency shelters and essential supplies during crisis situations.

Limited Open Spaces and Escape Routes: As urbanization intensifies and land becomes scarce, there may be limited open spaces and escape routes available for residents during emergencies. High-rise buildings, narrow streets, and congested roadways can impede evacuation efforts and exacerbate traffic congestion during evacuation orders. The lack of accessible open spaces also restricts opportunities for disaster risk reduction measures, such as the construction of flood retention basins or the establishment of evacuation zones.

Environmental Degradation and Climate Change: The rapid urbanization associated with population growth in Dubai can contribute to environmental degradation and exacerbate climate change impacts. Deforestation, soil erosion, and habitat loss may increase the susceptibility of urban areas to landslides, droughts, and heatwaves. Moreover, climate change-induced phenomena, such as rising sea levels and extreme weather events, pose additional risks to densely populated coastal areas, including the potential for coastal flooding and storm surge damage.

Need for Disaster Preparedness and also resilience!

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has become increasingly vulnerable to natural hazards over the past two decades, including earthquakes, landslides, floods, and tropical storms, highlighting a need for heightened awareness and preparedness. The 2024 floods in Dubai served as a sobering reminder of this reality, emphasizing the critical importance of proactive climate resilience strategies, particularly in rapidly developing urban centers like Dubai. The scale of the flood that engulfed Dubai surpassed the expectations of modern city infrastructure, underlining the urgent necessity for improved disaster preparedness measures.

Dubai’s rapid population growth and urbanization further exacerbate its susceptibility to natural disasters, underscoring the imperative for proactive measures to enhance resilience. This includes resilient urban planning initiatives, robust infrastructure development, and sustainable practices aimed at mitigating climate risks and ensuring the safety and well-being of residents. The lessons gleaned from the 2024 floods serve as invaluable guidance in shaping resilient cities capable of withstanding the escalating threats posed by climate change and extreme weather events.

Efforts to bolster disaster preparedness, enhance emergency response capabilities, and foster community resilience are paramount. By investing in infrastructure resilience, improving early warning systems, and promoting public awareness about disaster risk reduction, Dubai can better mitigate the adverse impacts of natural hazards and safeguard the future sustainability of the city.

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