Whilst some dream of a rosy future for the Middle East, the more pragmatic see a future devoid of roses or any naturally unsustainable vegetation for that matter, too costly a use for an evermore precious commodity, Water.
His Highness General Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, recently identified water as a key issue, announcing the first International Water Summit to be held in Abu Dhabi alongside the World Future Energy Summit in January 2013. A significant milestone in the process of re-engineering traditionally accepted social values and expectations related to water consumption, His Highness indicated that:
'Water is more important than Oil in the United Arab Emirates.'
Twenty years ago it was suggested at the 1992 Dublin International Conference that water be treated as an economic good, a scarce resource to be allocated to competing demands based on the maximum utility and benefit derived therefrom. Who would have known then that the inexorable growth in population, economic development and casual attitude to conservation would have rendered this suggestion a fundamental truth in the world we live in.
In the year 2002, the GCC desalinated 2,676 million cubic metres of freshwater, forming the bulk of the water consumed in the region, with the rest being made up by groundwater drawn from underground water tables and aquifers as well as recycled waste water. Some areas of the GCC possess significant underground reservoirs, however these are not immune to continual depletion and erosion that comes in the form of increased consumption and intrusion of sea water.
Analysts and scientists have pointed to significant flaws in a reliance on Desalination, environmentally the discharge of brine with highly concentrated salinity impacts the local marine life, as well as reducing the freshwater production capacity of desalination plants, whose intake of sea water must be expanded at great cost to cope with the increasing salinity of the Arabian Gulf.
Food security remains an issue intertwined with water policy, as nations in the GCC embarked on agricultural drives that seek to buffer domestic food prices and supplies from the volatility of the international markets, self-sufficiency in the production of several foodstuffs is viewed as a strategic national interest, manifesting in policies such as Saudi Arabia’s now defunct campaign to achieve Wheat self-sufficiency, abnormally allowing for agriculture to consume some 80-90% of the regions water, yet contribute less than 2.3% to the GCC’s GDP.
It is clear that the challenges thrown up by the increasing scarcity of water, as well as the issues incumbent with a reliance on desalination require a robust response of the type exhibited in the GCC. His Highness Sheikh Abdallah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s Minister of Foriegn Affairs, has already called on the GCC to take “serious and rapid steps towards a long term comprehensive Gulf Strategy for Water.” Education, technology and economic incentives will lie at the heart of any framework to respond to the challenges brought about by water scarcity. Metering and rewarding efficiency, particularly in the Agricultural sector, may help to combat its traditionally irreverent attitude towards water conservation, which may further be reinforced by education on the environmental and economic costs of freshwater production. Technological advances may also hold the key, some look to Nuclear Energy as the future of desalination whilst others point to advances made in renewable energy, such as the recent development of economically feasible wind powered desalination by students at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.
The current context of the looming water crisis in the GCC is based on a myriad of factors that influence decision makers’ policy on water throughout the region. The sweeping demographic shifts, analysts predict the GCC’s population will increase to 53m by the year 2020, inward net migration driven by economic diversification, growth and the GCC’s spot among the world’s highest per capita consumers of water all work to form significant challenges. At around 550 litres of water per person per day, the average resident of the GCC consumes around 4 times more water than his/her European counterpart, leading one to question, where does all this water come from and at what cost?