Delegates at WaterTech 2008 in Dubai heard calls for new measures to boost water supply as well as plans for testing, training and conservation.
The Middle East is facing one of the most serious water problems in the world, with the level of available renewable water in the region just one fifth of what the rest of the world enjoys on a per capita basis.
Demographics are a major concern, given that the population of the region is growing 55% more quickly than the global average, and it is estimated that by 2011, water needs will be double current levels. Despite this, Saudi Arabia is expected to require investment of more than US $600 billion over the next 15 years to service the 45% increase in population that is expected to happen by 2020.
We need to look at conservation as the main issue. We cannot to continue to think of water as an unlimited resource. We have to give it its right value.
It is this threat of water scarcity that ensures that investment in developing freshwater supply and the recycling and reuse of waste and sea water is growing. Similarly, there is increased interest in developing regional expertise in water management and a growing focus on identifying and solving water problems on a regional rather than just a national basis.
Water industry professionals attending the recent WaterTech 2008 conference in Dubai were keen to address these issues. Dr Ahmed Murad, head of the geology department at UAE University highlighted the size of the problems confronting the region, noting that the UAE used more than 90 billion litres from freshwater sources in 2006 in order to provide water for a fast-growing population and to fuel the current economic boom in the country.
"The rate of loss is much greater than the rate of recharge. The problem is we don't know exactly how much we have left because no extensive research has been carried out yet," he says.
"Over production and low rainfall is reducing the quality of groundwater resources as well," he adds.
In other regions, rainfall levels are usually sufficient to recharge groundwater but in the UAE much groundwater is quickly evaporated, with the effect that subsurface water levels are being pushed deeper underground, making extraction complicated.
A recent study by researchers at the UAE University estimates that while around 160 millimeters of rain fall in the Emirates every year, the evaporation rate averages around 2,000 millimeters.
Murad says that the UAE needed a clearly defined water policy. "Global warming brings an extra dimension to the threat of water shortage in the region and the governments in the region should be proactive to meet the water requirements. This means building sustainable buildings, setting up new reservoirs and putting renewable water managements systems in place," he says.
The good news is that underground artificial recharge stations and dams are being planned to retain and expand existing water supplies across the country. The downside is that projects can take several years to come to fruition while growing demand for water continues to outstrip supply.
There is plenty of seawater available in the UAE, but desalination - separating out the salt - is expensive and upsets the natural chemical balance of oceans.
Despite the potential environmental dangers involved in this process, the use of desalinated water production is increasing at a rapid pace, rising by around two billion gallons per year in the UAE alone.
Dr Mohamed Al Mulla, the assistant deputy UAE minister of water and environment believes that policymakers and developers need to prioritise the protection and sustainable development of the region's natural water resources. "As a matter of urgency., we really need to look at conservation as the main issue here. We cannot to continue thinking of water as an unlimited resource. We have to give it its right value," stresses Al Mulla.
Al Mulla says much more needs to be done to alleviate the pressure on resources. "Up to 80% of water can be saved by using modern irrigation techniques instead of the ‘open channel' method. Similarly, industries, businesses and households should implement their own conservation techniques," he says.
Al Mulla says that a new water conservation law is currently being drafted and that it should be in place in 2009. The legislation will include articles aimed at the construction industry and will place greater emphasis on water conservation at a national level. The UAE does not currently have a single national water conservation law; regulations are instead in place on a regional level.
But introducing fresh legislation to protect fresh water assets is only part of the solution. Ensuring the region's water will also require a cadre of trained professionals who have a high level of expertise and experience in dealing with water management issues and providing transferrable solutions.
With this in mind, the opening of the Arab Water Academy (AWA) in Abu Dhabi this July is clearly a step in the right direction.
The AWA is partly funded by the Abu Dhabi government and the World Bank and is specifically mandated to focus on water-related issues in the region.
The academy has been set up by the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi in coordination with the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai and will act as a training centre for the Cairo-based Arab Water Council."The aim of the AWA is to create professionals to deal with the water-related issues in the Arab world. Water shortage is a major issue in the Arab world as it will increase due to climate change," says Dr Rachael McDonnell, senior scientist at the academy.
McDonnell says the AWA's goal is to tackle the water issues in the region and also to offer courses on water management to develop expertise at a regional level.
But she cautions that making accurate predictions on the effects of climate change in the region was difficult due to lack of data. "Global warming could cause severe water issues in the Middle East. The biggest problem when tackling this issue is the lack of technical data relating to the troubles global warming could create to water resources. Currently only Yemen and Oman are getting more rainfall as a result of changes in the Monsoon system," says McDonnell.
The AWA says it will give education on an executive level to decision makers and professionals, and will act as a platform to conduct research on water-related issues. The academy will compile a database of research on water in the MENA region.
AWA will provide free postgraduate degrees in water-related fields through affiliations in local universities, and it plans to offer graduate field research and organise training programmes for scientists, environmentalists, technologists and policymakers.
The ultimate aim is to develop a scientific workforce to effectively manage the region's water assets. "There are already plenty of people in the region with MBA's. Our plan is to provide short executive education courses to train people in the industry and this will allow us to develop a community of people who know about water problem solving," says McDonnell.
On current trends, with high population growth and increasing levels of development, the gap between supply and demand for water resources will continue to grow, particularly in Saudi Arabia and in the UAE, with issues such as water depletion and deterioration of quality, especially in shallow groundwater aquifers, a growing concern both for consumers and policymakers.
Consequently, the role of desalination in alleviating water shortages was a hot topic at WaterTech.
Desalination technology has developed to a level where it can serve as a reliable source of water at a price comparable to water from conventional sources, as constantly improving technologies are bringing about lower costs, making desalination technology increasingly attractive relative to other alternatives.
But Murad believes that the region needs to set up alternative sources for water rather than just relying on desalination as a slam-dunk solution to all the region's water supply problems. This view was echoed by Mark Sutcliffe, programme assistant at UNESCO, who believes that Middle Eastern countries should put in place emergency water management systems rather than relying on desalination alone.
Sutcliffe says it would be a mistake for the region to put all its eggs in the same basket. He says: "The Masder initiative is a massive undertaking but other projects in the Emirates are not sustainable. The question is how will the authorities manage to meet the water demand if something goes wrong with the desalination?"
"The region does not have conventional water resources to meet the growing demand," he adds.
WaterTech 2008 highlighted the problems facing the region but the delegates present were generally optimistic that solutions will be found, particularly since there is a growing realisation that technologies need to be introduced over the short-term - before the taps in the region really do start to run dry.