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02 October 2023

GCC warned over water shortage

By Nadim Kawach

Gulf oil producers which control over 40 per cent of the world’s oil do not have enough water to quench the thirst of their people in the long run and this should prompt them to take measures before it is too late.

The warning was included in a report issued this week by the US Booz & Company, a global management consulting firm with offices worldwide.

While they have enough supply from costly desalination plans dotting their shorelines, the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries can not remain heavily reliant on such facilities given their harmful environment effects, high energy consumption, and the massive investments needed for their operation and maintenance, the report said.

As the populations in the six members are growing as fast as more than two per cent annually, this will put heavy pressure on their existing ground water resources in the long term especially as regional nations are the world’s largest water consumers in terms of individual use.

On the per capita basis, Saudi Arabia and the UAE consume respectively 91 per cent and 83 per cent more water than the global average, and about six times more water than the United Kingdom, the report showed.

“Excess water consumption has become a serious issue in the region. GCC residents and businesses have disregarded the consequences of their water usage to enjoy benefits more common in countries with ample rain and overflowing aquifers. But with the population of the GCC increasing in excess of two cent a year, it is a real challenge,” said Walid Fayad, a Beirut-based partner in Booz & Company’s energy, chemicals and utilities experts.

“Water scarcity is a reality in just about every Arab country…If they don’t make changes, these countries will find themselves in serious trouble.”

The report said it believes GCC governments recognise the issue and have begun initiating measures to address it-- For instance, Saudi Arabia will phase out purchases of locally produced wheat by 2016 in order to discourage its growth and reduce the burden that farming imposes on the Kingdom’s water resources. “But there is more to be done.”

The report showed agriculture accounts for nearly 80 per cent of all the water used in rural parts of the GCC, yet contributes only a few percentage points of GDP to these countries’ economies.

“This is completely out of proportion, and it is one of the first things that countries need to change,” Fayad said.

He said that in addition to fulfilling more of their fresh produce requirements through imports, Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries will likely limit agriculture to areas that have renewable water sources and will encourage local farmers to concentrate on crops that need less water.

“Many GCC residents have no reason to suspect that water is in short supply. For instance, in the UAE, there are vast expanses of green, on the golf course and in gated communities, giving the impression that water is plentiful…..there is a general lack of awareness in the region, largely because of government subsidies that disguise the actual costs and that obscure the severity of the situation,” Fayad said.

“The only way this will change is if people in the region understand that there is a problem and become part of the solution. Stricter regulations about the efficiency of everyday fixtures, including faucets, showerheads and toilets, would underscore the importance of water conservation and have a secondary educational benefit at the same time that they are curtailing some of the built-in excesses of today.”

Fayad said better education would set the stage for the next essential change, involving tariff structure reforms. He said subsidies have become counter-productive as they are encouraging people to use more water.

“GCC governments should restructure their water tariff structures so that pricing follows usage, with heavy users of water paying the most,” he said.

“Besides increasing economic efficiency, this sort of price signalling would reduce waste. To the extent that subsidies remain part of the tariff system, they can be directed at guaranteeing potable water for poorer residents, at supporting economic growth and other national priorities.”

According to the report, desalination provides two-thirds or more of the potable water used in the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, and will continue to play a huge role in the GCC’s water development efforts.

But it warned that desalination carries enormous economic and environmental costs. Despite a more than fivefold improvement in efficiency since 1979, the $one it costs to desalinate a cubic meter of seawater is still a relatively expensive way of producing potable water, it said.

“Moreover, seawater desalination is an energy-intensive process, consuming eight times more energy than groundwater projects, and accounting for between 10 per cent and 25 per cent of energy consumption in the GCC. This adds to the problems of energy intensity already plaguing the region,” it said.

“The desalination process also discharges salt back into the Arabian Gulf and other oceanic sources, jeopardizing their marine life and introducing new environmental risks in the region.”

The report estimated that GCC countries would invest more than $100 billion in their water sectors between 2011 and 2016. It said some of these investments will be in improved desalination technologies, which could involve solar energy or new ways of filtering out salt or making it evaporate.

Among the most promising of these, from the standpoint of environmental friendliness, is reverse osmosis, which uses membranes to physically or chemically filter out salt, the report noted.

“However, reverse osmosis processes need to be adapted for the GCC’s high temperatures and the salinity of its water sources,” it said.

“GCC governments would also be wise to earmark a portion of their investments in the water sector to seed the development of local desalination industries, a move that would take advantage of knowledge that already exists nationally and spur innovation.”

A recent official study showed people in the UAE are the world’s largest water consumers, with the average per capita consumption standing at 364 litres per day, more than 82 per cent above the global average individual demand.

Demand for water in the UAE totalled around 4.5 billion cubic metres (bcm) in 2010 and is projected to nearly double to nine bcm in 2030 because of high consumption and population growth, said Mariam Hassan Al-Shanasi, undersecretary of the ministry of environment and water.

She estimated per capita water demand in the country at 364 litres per day compared with a global average of nearly 200 litres per day.

Shanasi gave no reason for the high demand in the UAE but experts attribute it to the hot weather, rapid population growth, a steady expansion in most non-oil sectors and lack of public awareness about water conservation.

Her figures showed the farming sector consumer of water in the UAE, sapping nearly 34 per cent of the total demand. The housing and industrial sector accounts for about 32 per cent and forestry for nearly 15 per cent.

Shanasi said ground water resources provide nearly 51 per cent of the UAE’s total water demand while 37 per cent comes from desalination and 12 per cent from water treatment facilities.

She said the UAE has around 70 water desalination plants, accounting for 14 per cent of the world’s total production of desalinated water.