Water guzzling GCC nations warned over future shortages

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kuwait water towers
A view of Water Towers in Kuwait. Photo – Trekearth.com

The instability in the availability of natural resources like safe drinking water across the globe is being observed at a higher rate. While some parts of the globe have improved basic facilities others completely lack them.

The Gulf countries produce around 40% of world’s oil but lack water resources to quench the thirst of their population. According to a report released by the US Booz & Company, a global management consulting firm, pressure on ground water resources is going to increase manifold in the long run thanks to soaring population growth rate. On per capita basis, Saudi Arabia and the UAE use 91% and 83% more water respectively compared to the global average, the report said.

Walid Fayad, a Beirut based partner of the firm, said: “Excess water consumption has become a serious issue in the region. 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 two per cent a year, it is a real challenge. Water scarcity is a reality in just about every Arab country…If they don’t make changes; these countries will find themselves in serious trouble.”

GCC governments are taking the issue of high water consumption seriously and have initiated measures to rectify the issues. For instance, Saudi Arabia has made plans to phase out the purchases of locally produced wheat by 2016 to reduce the burden of farming imposed on Kingdom’s water resources. Recent reports state that 80% of water is used for agricultural purposes in the rural areas of GCC countries and also holds very less percentage of GDP to the economies.

“This is completely out of proportion, and it is one of the first things that countries need to change and in addition to fulfil more of their imports, the GCC countries will be seen limiting their agricultural establishments to only areas where there is availability of renewable water resources and as a result will also soon be encouraging step for the local farmers which helps them to focus on crops which need less water,” Fayad added.

“Many GCC residents have no reason to suspect that water is in short supply. For instance, in the UAE, there are vast green expanses including golf courses, giving the impression that water is plentiful…..there is a general lack of awareness in the region, largely because of government subsidies that disguise the actual costs and that obscure the severity of the situation”.

He insisted that the only way to change the situation is to make people in the region understand that there is a problem and invite them to become part of the solution. “Stricter regulations about the efficiency of everyday fixtures, including faucets, showers and toilets, would underscore the importance of water conservation and have a secondary educational benefit at the same time that they are curtailing some of the built-in excesses of today,” Fayad said.

He also said that educating people about the tariff structural reforms and subsidies would provide essential change and that GCC governments need to restructure  pricing as per water usage.

“Besides increasing economic efficiency, this sort of price signalling 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,” he said.

Desalination provides potable water used in the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, and continues to play a huge role in the GCC’s water development efforts. However, it carries large economic and environmental costs despite more than fivefold improvements in efficiency since 1979.

“Moreover, seawater desalination is an energy-intensive process, consuming eight times more energy than groundwater projects, and accounting for 10 to 25 per cent of energy consumption in the GCC. This adds to the problems of energy intensity already plaguing the region,” the report said.

“The desalination process also discharges salt back into the sea and other oceanic sources, jeopardising their marine life and introducing new environmental risks in the region,” the report noted.

Recent reports suggest GCC countries are investing more than $100 billion in their water sectors in the next five years and also have investments lined up for improved desalination technologies involving solar energy to filter salt through evaporation like reverse osmosis.

“GCC governments would also be wise to earmark a portion of their investments in the water sector to fasten the development of local desalination industries, a move that would take advantage of knowledge that already exists nationally and spur innovation,” the report recommended.

Recent studies have declared the UAE as the world’s largest water consuming country with per capita consumption rate of 364 litres a day which is 82% above the average individual consumption.

Mariam Hassan Al-Shanasi, undersecretary of the ministry of environment and water, said: “Demand for water in the UAE totalled around 4.5 billion cubic metres (bcm) in 2010 and is projected to nearly double to nine bcm in 2030 because of high consumption and population growth.”

“Ground water resources provide nearly 51 per cent of the UAE’s total water demand while 37 per cent comes from desalination and 12 per cent from water treatment facilities. UAE has around 70 water desalination plants, accounting for 14 per cent of the world’s total production of desalinated water,” she added.

High water consumption is attributed to farming sector which saps around 34% of total demand. Housing sector is the second in line for high water consumption along with industrial sector at 32% each. Forestry consumes nearly 15%.

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