Implementation of Sound Policies to Secure the Future Supply of Water in the Arabian Gulf Region

01 Jun 07:42 AM

Sector : Environment Country : UAE

 By Dr Ahmed El Safty

 Achieving water security is one of the strategic priorities of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC); water resources are scarce, demand for water is increasing with rapid urbanization and ongoing economic and population growth, and there are rising environmental concerns regarding dwindling natural water sources and growing pollution.

GCC governments are exerting efforts to preserve and even replenish natural water resources, while increasing supplies of desalinated water and rationalizing water usage in households and industry. However, greater effort will be required in the areas of coordination and integration of national strategies in order to secure long term water security in a region where almost all the countries fall in the category of “acute [water] scarcity” according to the United Nations.

Water Resources and Usage in the GCC

The GCC countries are mostly reliant on desalination to satisfy domestic demand for potable water. Other resources are limited and/or declining, including groundwater – which faces the challenges of rapid depletion and pollution – and treated wastewater, which is used solely for irrigating parks and gardens. The GCC countries, on average, rely on desalinated water to cover 63.5 percent of domestic demand, with dependency varying from one country to another; it is highest in Qatar, where it satisfies 99.2 percent of demand, followed by Kuwait (96.6 percent), Bahrain (92.3 percent), and the UAE (85.4 percent), while dependence declines significantly for Saudi Arabia (43.3 percent) and Oman (39.9 percent), which has the largest reserves of natural water in the GCC.

It is also worth noting that the scarcity of natural water resources in the GCC is accompanied by very high per capita water consumption. According to Booz & Co., Saudi Arabia and the UAE consume 91 percent and 83 percent more water per capita than the global average, respectively, and about six times more water than the UK. Qatar and Oman are also above the global average in terms of water consumption. As a result, the GCC states account for more than half of global water desalination capacity (57 percent).

The consequences of this level of per capita consumption and dependence on desalinated water in the GCC are the high economic and environmental costs of desalination. It is a well-known fact that seawater desalination is a very energy-intensive industry and, in the case of the GCC, accounts for up to 25 percent of overall energy consumption. On the environmental front, the desalination process leads to large quantities of salt and chemical waste that jeopardize marine life when discharged into the waters of the Arabian Gulf. Accordingly, given the current level of technology and the projected rise in future demand, this overwhelming dependence on desalination should be a matter of some concern to the GCC, both as a group and as individual countries.

As for water usage by sector in the GCC, agriculture is the dominant consumer, representing roughly 80 percent of overall consumption, while domestic and industrial uses account for around 17 percent and 3 percent, respectively. However, as Gulf populations grow and GCC countries pursue economic diversification, these figures are expected to change. Projections of sectoral water usage in the GCC by the year 2025 indicate domestic and industrial usage will rise, while agricultural usage will decline. Nonetheless, the agricultural sector will continue to account for the majority of demand (63 percent), while domestic and industrial demand will grow to 30 percent and 7 percent, respectively.

Water Preservation and Production Efforts in the GCC

The GCC countries are devoting significant effort to formulating and implementing strategies and policies to achieve greater water security. Those strategies and policies are based both on economic and environmental priorities. Their coverage is comprehensive, and includes both supply- and demand-side measures. The GCC is working hard to conserve water and reduce waste; for example, the UAE has launched “Water Savers,” which aims to discourage excessive consumption of water through an extensive media and information campaign encouraging households to install water-saving devices that limit unnecessary waste in domestic consumption.

Also, some GCC countries are taking steps to preserve groundwater. Again, the UAE serves as an example, banning groundwater exports in 2012 due to declining reserves in the country. A number of other GCC countries are also working to replenish their groundwater resources by building strategic water storage reservoirs (such as the UAE and Oman), and constructing a network of dams that direct rainwater to locations where it can be stored naturally as groundwater.

Aware of the environmental aspects of water desalination, policy makers in the GCC countries are also working to implement new supply-side techniques that conserve energy and are less damaging to nature. 

The GCC countries have earmarked more than $100 billion for the water sector between 2011 and 2016, according to Booz & Co. This funding is focused on efforts to achieve more efficient and environmentfriendly desalination techniques, better usage of wastewater, and higher levels of water conservation in general. Some of these projects can be considered groundbreaking in terms of achieving water security. For example, in April 2013 the UAE opened its largest power and desalination plant. Costing $2.7 bn, and fuelled by natural gas, its desalination units are the largest of their kind in the world. According to the Managing Director of the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa), the new plant’s efficiency is 82 percent, compared to around 45 percent for its European counterparts.

Earlier this year, Abu Dhabi completed the construction of 22 small-scale solar desalination plants, and is planning to build eight more, each producing almost 11,000 cubic meters of water per year. Also, by the end of the year the capital will introduce a sophisticated, one-of-a-kind monitoring system that will prevent up to 40 percent of water leakage from pumping and park irrigation, with plans to extend the system to the entire emirate.

As for the other GCC countries, Saudi Arabia’s Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC) has launched a desalination project using solar energy that aims to produce 300,000 cubic meters of water per day, with initial production expected in April 2013. It also plans to build the world’s largest desalination plant in Rabigh, north-west of Jeddah, that will be capable of producing 600,000 cubic meters of desalinated water per day.

Looking Ahead

While individual GCC countries have implemented initiatives to achieve water security, taking into account the need for greater efficiency and environmental protection, more effort is required in the area of coordination. There is a need – as a study commissioned by the GCC recommends – for the construction of a common water network linking all the GCC states in order to prevent future water shortages.

Such a network should be constructed as part of a wider vision of a common GCC strategy for water resource management and the development of a unified GCC water security framework. Such a strategy would necessitate a full analysis of current water production capacities in the GCC states alongside projected future demand in order to identify potential shortfalls. Thereafter, a system could be implemented to achieve more efficient and environmentfriendly usage of common resources. Special attention should be given to analyzing the effects of GCC economic diversification strategies on future water needs, and to developing strategies by which countries might support each other in order to achieve water resource sustainability, with a view to creating a cleaner and more sustainable environment for future generations.

Dr Ahmed El Safty
Senior member of the Economic and Social Studies Department at the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and research (ECSSR)
Dr El Safty holds a Master’s degree in International Affairs from Columbia University, and Master’s and PhD. degrees in International Economics and Finance from Brandeis University.


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