Revisiting Approaches to Water Management in Water-Scarce Gulf

A laborer walks past piping at a desalination test facility on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

What does a city without water look like? The world could find out in 2019, when, according to officials, Cape Town will be forced to turn off taps to homes and businesses. Cape Town’s “Day Zero” is the first of its kind but unlikely to be the last, as water resources in other parts of the world are being depleted and climate change is causing drought and decreased precipitation around the globe.

A prime example is the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), which, due largely to an overwhelmingly arid climate and low levels of precipitation, has the lowest freshwater resources per capita ratio in the world. The average share of total renewable water resources (TARWR) per capita in 2014 was 447.6 cubic meters, well below the 500 cubic meters threshold of absolute water scarcity set by the United Nations.

In the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, water scarcity is particularly acute. The per capita TARWR in GCC countries in 2014 was just 86.6 cubic meters, compared to a global average of almost 17,575 cubic meters. Decreased rainfall, stronger heat waves, and prolonged drought have exacerbated the already arid climates of countries in the Arab Peninsula. Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Kuwait had respective per capita TARWRs of 84, 26, 16, and 5 cubic meters in 2014—effectively nothing—and similarly limited surface water resources. In the face of water scarcity, GCC countries have primarily focused on securing supply, increasingly through desalination.

The process of desalination has a history in the region: in the Arab Peninsula in the late 1800s the Ottomans relied on seawater distillation to provide clean water to pilgrims coming for the hajj and prevent cholera outbreaks. Now, according to the International Energy Agency, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE together make up over one third of the world’s total desalination capacity. Approximately 63 percent of the water supply in GCC countries comes from desalination: in the UAE 96 percent of the domestic water consumption is supplied by desalination plants.

Though desalination has addressed much of the scarcity issues in GCC countries, it is extremely energy intensive, affecting both the environment and economies of Gulf countries. For example, in 2015, Saudi Arabia used 10 percent of its daily production of oil—an estimated 1.5 million barrels of oil—to desalinate seawater. Coupled with the high subsidies for water production and supply, the cost to governments is considerable. Moreover, desalination plants themselves are extremely expensive to build—the Ras al-Khair Desalination Plant in Saudi Arabia cost approximately $7.2 billion—and have a limited operational life span of just 15-25 years.

In terms of environmental impact, the energy-intensive thermal process often used in desalination produces an estimated 76 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. This is a not insignificant contribution to global warming and in turn to the natural water shortage desalination seeks to remedy. Further, when seawater to be processed is collected, the tiny marine life that makes up the base of the aquatic food chain is also taken. In many places the salt that is leftover from the desalination process is returned to the sea, thereby increasing salinity on the coastline, putting in danger native marine life, and threatening to make the Persian Gulf one of the least hospitable bodies of water on the planet.

Thus, in both economic and environmental terms, desalination in GCC countries cannot be a long-term solution to water scarcity. Rather than primarily focusing on securing supply, GCC governments should also emphasize sustainability of consumption.

However, sustainable water consumption in GCC countries faces obstacles. Water consumption in general in GCC countries is primarily for agriculture, industry, and domestic usage. Although less than five percent of the GDP of any Gulf country comes from agriculture, and less than two percent of the landmass in the GCC is arable, between 70 and 80 percent of annual water consumption is for agriculture. Economic diversification efforts in Gulf countries are also rapidly increasing industrial water demand. In the period from the mid-1990s to 2010, industrial water consumption as a percentage of the total annual consumption in the GCC grew from 1.3 to 5.3 percent, and is currently growing at an annual rate of 24.2 percent in the UAE.

The rates of domestic water consumption in GCC countries are some of the highest in the world, with an average per capita usage of 140 to 520 liters daily. In 2016, the UAE had the highest rate of per capita domestic consumption globally at 550 liters per day, almost 50 percent higher than the US at 378 liters. The high consumption is primarily a product of the cheap, heavily subsidized water available to citizens. While access to clean, affordable water is a basic human right, the provision of water for comparatively low prices creates excess demand in the market and is a key factor in the high consumption patterns, not only for domestic usage, but also in industry and agriculture.

A compounding factor for sustainable consumption is the amount of lost water. Though the challenge of waste and leakage in water systems is not unique to GCC countries, the 22 percent of all domestic water that was lost either through leakage or non-metered systems in 2014 is significant. Low water prices also preclude incentives to make production and distribution more efficient.

To develop a long-term, sustainable approach to water management, GCC countries need to slowly close the gap between the price of water and the production cost, which could incentivize people and companies to consume less. Abu Dhabi began implementing a stepped water tariff in 2017, which charges consumers a higher price when they consume past a certain rate and adds an additional surcharge for residences without water meters. Such a mechanism avoids harming poorer segments of society, and maintains basic water provisions while disincentivizing excess consumption. GCC countries can also draw on Cape Town’s Think Water and Southern California’s H2Love campaigns on approaches to educating consumers on water scarcity and everyday water saving techniques.

Gradually introducing efficiency requirements in the agricultural and industrial sectors, and encouraging the expansion of innovative farming practices and other sustainable water measures, such as grey-water recycling and wastewater usage, will also further reduce consumption. Overall, as GCC states continue to drive for economic diversification, water resources must be considered, especially in relation to water-intensive sectors such as manufacturing.

Current approaches to water management in GCC countries have led to consumption patterns where water is used as if it were an abundant resource. Although reduced water consumption will not in and of itself solve the problem of water scarcity, it would buy GCC governments more time to develop comprehensive, sustainable water policies, and in the meantime help influence a broader shift away from excess consumption of water and energy.

Audrey Everist is an intern at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia in Beirut and a student at Sciences Po Paris Campus de Menton.