January 23, 2012

Fresh Water in the GCC: Addressing the Scarcity Problem

Overconsumption of water in the GCC is a problem that can no longer be ignored, as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates respectively consume 91% and 83% more water per capita than the global average. Governments need to take a variety of steps to reduce the demand for, and increase the supply of, potable water. Some steps, such as tariff reforms, will involve educating consumers. Others will involve limiting agricultural usage and adopting new technologies.

With their countries consuming water at alarming rates, governments in the Gulf Cooperation Council are looking for ways to increase the supply of fresh water and get households and businesses to use it more conservatively.

Excess consumption has become a serious issue in the region. On a per capita basis, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates consume 91% and 83% more water than the global average, and about six times more water than the U.K., according to an analysis by Booz & Company. Qatar and Oman are also above the global average for water consumption, despite their desert climates.

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 2% a year, and with rapid expansion in the region's economies, there is a growing recognition within many GCC governments that current water consumption patterns are unsustainable. "Water scarcity is a reality in just about every Arab country," says Dr. Walid Fayad, a Beirut-based partner in Booz & Company's energy, chemicals and utilities practice. "If they don't make changes, these countries will find themselves in serious trouble."

GCC governments recognize the issue and have begun taking 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 Road to Sustainability

GCC governments have a number of tools at their disposal to ensure the sustainability of their water supplies.

Agriculture Reform. Agriculture accounts for 80% 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," says Fayad. 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, he says. They should also pay more attention to maintaining the pipes that serve agricultural regions, regulating water pressure, and adopting “smart” irrigation techniques.

Education of Consumers. Many GCC residents have no reason to suspect that water is in short supply. For instance, in the United Arab Emirates, 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 subsidies that disguise actual costs and that obscure the severity of the situation," Fayad says. The only way this will change is if people understand there is a problem and become part of the solution, he adds. Stricter regulations about the efficiency of everyday fixtures—including faucets, showerheads and toilets—would underscore the importance of conservation and have a secondary educational benefit at the same time that they are curtailing some of the built-in excesses of today.

Tariff Structure Reforms. Better education would set the stage for the next essential change, involving tariff structure reforms. It is not a given that GCC governments should cover all the costs of delivering and consuming water in their countries; on the contrary, the region's excessive use of water shows the unintended consequences of such generosity. GCC governments should restructure their water tariff structures so that pricing follows usage, with heavy users of water paying the most. Besides increasing economic efficiency, this sort of price signaling 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.

Investments in Desalination and Other Technologies. 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 desalination carries enormous economic and environmental costs. Despite a more than fivefold improvement in efficiency since 1979, the US$1 it costs to desalinate a cubic meter of seawater is still a relatively expensive way of producing potable water. Moreover, seawater desalination is an energy-intensive process, consuming eight times more energy than groundwater projects, and accounting for between 10% and 25% of energy consumption in the GCC. This adds to the problems of energy intensity already plaguing the region. The desalination process also discharges salt back into the Arabian Gulf and other oceanic sources, jeopardizing their marine life and introducing new environmental risks.

GCC countries will likely invest more than $100 billion in their water sectors between 2011 and 2016. 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. However, reverse osmosis processes need to be adapted for the GCC’s high temperatures and the salinity of its water sources.

GCC governments would also be wise to earmark a portion of their water-sector investments to seed the development of local desalination industries, a move that would take advantage of knowledge that already exists nationally and spur innovation. An ecosystem of local desalination industries might also create high-skilled jobs for nationals—addressing a separate goal that the region has struggled to meet.

Wastewater Reuse. Finally, GCC countries need to increase their use of treated wastewater. Reuse water, as it is also called, isn't used for drinking, but at one-third the cost of desalinated water it is a good alternative for activities such as maintaining the landscaping near public roads, irrigating non-food crops, district cooling, and cooling power-generation equipment at industrial facilities.

Realizing a Huge Payoff

The GCC, and the wider MENA region, aren't alone in not having enough rain and groundwater to satisfy their current and future needs. Fresh water is a problem in many other countries—including Venezuela, Cuba and Ethiopia—making water scarcity a global problem. As a result, scientists and governments all over the world are working on solutions. In the best case, the advances in GCC countries will both lead to, and incorporate, advances made elsewhere. If GCC countries do not become actively involved in research, enforce water policies and promote sustainability, the consequences will be significant. On the other hand, if they do these things, Fayad says, "the payoff will be enormous."