Home Economics & Policy A long-term fix to the GCC’s water problems

A long-term fix to the GCC’s water problems

With usage outstripping renewable supply, what can be done to redress the balance?

by Walid Fayad

If you live in one of the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the chances are that last time you ran the kitchen tap you were using water that was in the sea not too long ago. Desalinated seawater accounts for more than 4 billion cubic meters of GCC water annually, an astounding 75 percent of what’s used for domestic purposes. 

Desalination plants operating in Jebel Ali, Shoaiba and other ports represent a technological feat that shields most GCC residents from the fact that they live in climates that don’t provide sufficient naturally occurring water to sustain many basic activities. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar consume more than 10 times the amount of annual renewable water.

GCC governments know how finely balanced their water positions are. They know that, under present conditions, they will not be able to desalinate ever-more seawater — a process that uses vast amounts of fuel and has an environmental cost. Officials know they are depleting  aquifers far faster than they are replenished. So they must intensify efforts to address the issue of water scarcity now if they are to avoid more serious problems in the future.

The good news is that the path to a sustainable water sector is clear. It comes down to three imperatives: managing demand, supply and the overall sector.

Managing demand

Despite living with what the World Bank characterizes as acute water scarcity, per-capita GCC inhabitants consume about 65 percent more water than the global average. 

There are many ways to discourage excessive usage. For instance, water tariffs set at a reasonable level would make consumers more aware of their water use. At the moment, most countries do not recover enough of the cost of producing water.

For households, tariffs could be structured so that pricing follows usage, with heavy users paying the most. Better metering and regulations addressing issues between owners and tenants can help achieve the full potential of tariff restructuring in the region.

Other regulatory enforcements, such as green building specifications and standards for water-dispensing devices, could also help reduce demand. For example, most GCC countries do not discourage companies from using drinkable water (desalinated at great economic and environmental cost) in sprinkler systems and decorative fountains. New regulations could end this and would make a difference.

 Above all, there is the opportunity represented by agriculture. The agricultural sector consumes over 80 percent of the GCC’s water, yet generates less than 2 percent of the region’s economic output. Some of this consumption is due to poor irrigation practices — leading to leaks, runoff, high levels of evaporation and more — while some is a consequence of growing water-intensive crops in a dry climate. 

GCC governments are already seeking to change how agriculture operates. In the past, they encouraged the sector to secure food supplies, diversify economies away from hydrocarbons and promote rural economic development. Now, however, they should promote better practices, including the use of timers and sensors to avoid waste. There should also be a recalibration of what to grow at home and what to import. Saudi Arabia has already told domestic wheat farmers it will stop buying from them in 2016. Some GCC countries have purchased farmland overseas, growing the crops needed for domestic consumption in places where water is less scarce.

It’s also vital over the long term to promote behavior change through education and information that leads to the adoption of best practices and the acceptance of new tariffs. Utilities can play a lead role in this, by providing consumers with more details about their consumption trends and levels compared to peers.

Managing supply

Good water policy begins with making the most of what each country has. In terms of supply-side management this means being more judicious about desalinated water usage. Instead of using desalinated seawater for landscaping and industry, countries can substitute treated sewage effluent, which has far lower environmental costs. GCC governments must also fix excessive leakage in distribution networks.

Finally, improved supply management includes collecting more of the region’s rainfall, using channels and drains in cities, and dams in less-populous areas. Oman does a good job of this, using dams to replenish its aquifers and supply its capital during periods of drought.

Managing the overall sector

This last imperative has three elements to it. The first has to do with countries’ institutional frameworks. GCC countries’ water sectors should be administered and governed centrally. They need strong regulators to oversee utilities, enforce rules, allocate costs and set tariffs. In addition, water-sector planning should be integrated so that policymaking is coordinated across the water, energy, food, and environmental sectors. In many countries, the planning in these sectors can be uncoordinated, resulting in less than ideal policies for both water conservation and the ultimate good of society.

The second aspect relates to research and development. Desalinated water will be necessary in the GCC for the foreseeable future, but there are less energy-intensive ways to produce it, including solar thermal and deep geothermal technologies. These energy sources are already in use, but are yet to be tested for large-scale applications.

The third element is laying the seeds, via government investments and incentives, for an ecosystem of local water-sector suppliers. This could possibly include companies that produce the membrane technology needed by desalination plants, that provide other services to such plants, and that supply chemicals to wastewater treatment facilities.

Finally, GCC countries can learn from each other’s experiences and similar initiatives around the world. Such knowledge sharing will allow them to improve their national and regional water position, thereby promoting sustainability. So while these three imperatives represent big changes, they are also within reach for GCC governments given the advances in their water sectors in recent decades.

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Walid Fayad


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