Wading through the Gulf's water crisis

The GCC’s water shortage is life-threatening, according to a new report. With the reliance on current desalination techniques becoming increasingly unviable, solving the crisis could be worth millions for business
By Courtney Trenwith
Fri 04 Sep 2015 01:14 AM

It’s no secret the GCC is short of water. The region is a desert, after all. But there is a growing chorus of experts suggesting that changes need to be made as to how the ever-worsening issue is addressed — and that could be a potential boon for business.

The six GCC states were last month forecast to be among the top ten most water-stressed countries in 2040, highlighting not only the region’s drastically low rainfall but its extravagant usage that belies how serious the life-threatening problem is.

“If there was nobody living in the GCC then it wouldn’t be an issue, but there are a lot of people living there,” says Charles Ireland, who oversaw the World Resources Institute (WRI) water-stress report.

“In this kind of crisis we have to consider the possibility of relocating people to places where there is water.”

The dire warning already has played out in Syria, where the WRI says the country’s historic drought during the first decade of the century, and no back-up water sources in key farming areas, forced thousands of families to relocate to urban areas, placing additional strain on public services and demands on the government for jobs, contributing to the disaffection that led to the current civil war.

“We could see issues like that in the GCC,” Ireland warns. “Or you could see… economies reaching maximum growth that is not their full potential. We already see that in places like India; a lot of cities don’t have running water 24/7. Unless you have a dedicated well — which, actually, a lot of people in India do because of this problem — then how can you run your industry efficiently?”

The water shortage also is detrimental to health. According to the World Health Organisation, a child dies every 21 seconds from a water-related illness and 9,863 people die every day from thirst and water-related diseases.

While populations and temperatures are rising, groundwater supplies are rapidly evaporating across the GCC, increasing the reliance on desalination — the process of removing salt from sea water for use in households and businesses. Globally, reliance on desalination is expected to surge from 1 percent to 14 percent by 2025, according to the United Nations.

But the carbon-intensive technology is also expensive and is gradually becoming less viable.

The UAE spends about $800m per year building, operating and maintaining desalination plants, according to the organisation Global Water. The bill is predicted to more than treble to $3.22bn by 2016.

“Everyone knows desalination is a very, very expensive way to produce fresh water. Forty percent of the water that’s used [in the UAE] is from desalination, that’s quite a significant amount and because of the increase in population the country needs to increase its production and with the increased capacity you need to build more desalination plants…” says Marwan Abdulaziz, director general of EnPark, a Dubai free zone for energy and environment companies, highlighting the eternal dilemma.

Experts concur: alternatives will have to be found.

“There’s a big opportunity from a business point of view,” Abdulaziz says. “Companies can come in and change the way desalination is done, whether through nuclear technology or solar panels for example, instead of old ways, such as gas turbines that separate the salt from the water.”

But desalination is “really not the answer”, according to the CEO of Dubai-based MAZ Gulf, Miran Ellahee. The company has bought the rights to an atmospheric water generator created by WaterMicronWorld. The technology generates water from humidity, rather than treating existing water sources such as seawater and waste water.

Ellahee says previous atmospheric water generators have not been efficient because they require high humidity, which is not present year-round.

“Apart from rain, our system is the only system that can generate water in large quantities,” he says. “You can use it whether you’re in the South Pole, Europe, the GCC, anywhere, because it’s not based on the climate.”

Capital costs are between $500,000-$35m but Ellahee says lower ongoing production costs over the life of the system (15-25 years) make it far cheaper than desalination: 65 cents per cubic metre, compared to $2.60 in the case of Dubai’s utility DEWA.

He is in advanced talks with Jordan and is “hopeful” of soon signing a deal with a semi-government body in Pakistan, while initial conversations are being had in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Incremental changes also are being made in agriculture, the main culprit in the global water crisis. The industry accounts for 70-90 percent of almost every country’s water usage. According to the WRI, in Yemen, a shocking 40 percent of its water supply is used to cultivate khat, a legal stimulant that has been chewed in the country for centuries but is considered by the World Health Organisation to be a mild-to-moderately addictive drug.

“If they leave it [as is], they’ll have a crisis of people not having drinkable water and having to relocate,” Ireland says.

Saudi Arabia recently renounced its bid to become self-sufficient in the production of wheat, a decision that could stave off its water shortage for decades.

“Saudi Arabia has done the responsible thing and stopped its wheat self-sufficiency policy and they’re going to import more wheat. That brings along another problem of dependency on foreign trade, but in the scheme of things in Saudi Arabia that’s the better of the two,” Ireland says.

Qatar is tackling the issue by developing a water-less farming system to help it increase its self-sufficiency in vegetables to 50-70 percent by 2023.

State investment firm Hassad Food and Oasis Agrotechnology, a consortium led by Spain’s Primalor Group, have been piloting what they say is a new farming technique that does not require soil, while its dry air cooling system does not use water or create moisture.

Hassad Food chairman and managing director Nasser Mohamed Al Hajri said last month the pilot project had been “a great success”, exceeding yield and quality expectations. He predicted it would eventually be able to produce high-grade crops throughout the year, including during summer, with the greenhouse temperature controlled to avoid the outside humidity, heat and poor rainfall.

While the production process is more expensive than traditional farming, it would be less pricy than importing many varieties of vegetable, Al Hajri said.

The company is reportedly in talks to sell the technology to Saudi Arabia and Oman, as well as local investors, with the Qatar Ministry of Economy and Commerce expected to float tenders for the first 400 hectares of land to use the hydroponic system by the end of this year, Qatar Tribune reported.

However, the head of environmental engineering consultancy Projecx, Alistair Munro, says desalination will always be a necessity in the Middle East.

“Once that is accepted then we as the desalination engineering community need to focus on reducing the power consumption and environmental impact of large-scale desalination, and developments in the technologies applied have already significantly reduced the power consumed in producing desalinated water,” Munro says.

“Desalination is now being linked to solar power and other renewable sources of power to reduce carbon footprint. New technologies such as membrane distillation are [also] providing low-cost water for small communities, especially when linked to waste heat from localised community power plants.

“There are [also] many areas of business where new technologies, enhancements to existing technologies or monitoring and services are now being applied to increase efficiency and reduce costs.”

Multiple ideas have also been marketed to help reduce household water usage, from more efficient showerheads to non-dripping taps and automatic sprinklers. But experts argue the most direct impact on individual consumption would be increased awareness and education. The GCC consumes 26.5 billion cubic metres of water annually — three-and-a-half times groundwater supplies, according to analysts Frost & Sullivan.

“There is very little that has been done to reduce the amount of underground water that’s used,” Abdulaziz says. “I think people should be fined or [face] stricter measures because underground water is very scarce, we should keep it as a precious resource.

“So a lot needs to be done on behaviour.”

Governments have announced significant targets to reduce water consumption but many argue they will be difficult to meet without addressing the region’s generous subsidies.

“It’s like all things, if people don’t see the full price or the full value of a commodity then they’ll use more [and] as the price of the commodity goes up they’ll find ways to use less,” Ireland says. “Subsidies create a lot of the problem. Frankly, it would be better to take away the subsidies and then find a way to deliver the water to poor people in an indirect way.”

Abu Dhabi increased its water rates for expats in January, from AED2.20 per 1,000 litres to AED5.95 for a maximum 5,000 litres. Excessive use will attract a higher fee. Emiratis also now pay for water for the first time, at a reduced price of AED1.70 per 1,000 litres, up to 7,000 litres daily. 

Abdulaziz says the community’s lack of appreciation for the scarcity of water deters smaller innovators from researching new ideas because there is more money to be made in other environmental technologies.

“This is why I don’t see a lot of companies engaged in water activities; there’s a better penetration or move for generating energy, whether by solar or nuclear, but less activity when it comes to dealing with water,” he says. 

“People feel, whether they’re in the [industry] or society, that it’s a good thing to [save water] rather than ‘this is really important to do and if you don’t do it we’re going to run out of water’.”

Enpark and its neighbour Dubiotech have seen a 20 percent increase in the number of businesses, including start-ups, joining the free zones, to a total of 269. However, only three or four of them are related to solving the water crisis, while the rest are involved in renewable energy, waste management, green buildings and energy efficiency, Abdulaziz says.

But as governments, businesses and individuals wade through the years debating the best way to navigate the problem, the crisis is only going to deepen.

“Solutions to these problems are definitely there but they can take a long time to implement. It’s like turning a big tanker ship around, you don’t do it on the turn of a drum,” Ireland says, reinforcing the urgency.

Singapore has already proven it is possible to reverse a country’s fate. The tiny, densely populated city-state also is one of the most vulnerable to running out of water (it ranked equal first in WRI’s ‘most water-stressed countries’ based on its demand and groundwater supply). Until recently, it had sourced almost half of its water from neighbouring Malaysia for almost a century but several political disputes that threatened to cut off the supply forced Singapore to increase its self-sufficiency, with the government investing heavily in technologies, research and development.

“They have insulated themselves from this risk to the point that today, even though they’re high on [the WRI ranking], they don’t worry because they’ve addressed the risk,” Ireland says.

With several GCC states already driving innovation programmes, particularly around the UAE’s World Expo 2020, which includes sustainability as a key theme, the region also has the potential to address its own water liability.

“The GCC, with its years of oil revenues, is in a position to do something similar,” Ireland says. “There’s absolutely no reason they couldn’t do this.”

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