Are Gulf Nations Burying Their Heads In The Sand Over Water?

Via The Financial Times, an interesting look at how energy and water-intensive lifestyles have pushed the Gulf states into a freshwater crisis.  As the article notes:

“…Standing in one of the many farms that line Bahrain’s northern coast, it is easy to forget that this is technically a desert island. Between the ranks of date palms and pomegranate trees stretch fields of spinach, herbs and potatoes – a view more appropriate to a Caribbean island than the arid Gulf.

Yet this bounty has come at a high price. Poor management, population growth and the promotion of energy and water-intensive lifestyles have pushed the Gulf states into a crisis, says a new report by NCB Capital, a regional investment bank. Ground-water reserves have been severely depleted and many cities, such as Jeddah, routinely suffer water shortages in the summer months.

“You are beginning to see in the Gulf the emergence of political constraints to long-term growth and a number of patterns that are unsustainable, from intensive energy use to the waste of water resources and the promotion of agriculture,” says Jarmo Kotilaine, chief economist and author of the report. “Governments are beginning to wake up to these problems, but the concern is that too little is being done and too late.”

The emergence of a large middle class attuned to western lifestyles during the past decade has compounded the problem. The amount of renewable water resources available per person in the Gulf is at best 550 cubic metres a year, says NCB – compared with 89,000 cu m for every Canadian citizen. But consumption levels are among the highest in the world.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates use nearly 1,000 cu m of water per person a year, and are fast approaching US levels of 1,648 cu m, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, a United Nations body.

The rapid growth of urban populations is partly to blame. Municipal water use in Bahrain and Qatar outstrips that of the US, and is exceeded only by Canada. But the chief culprit is agriculture. Since the 1970s, a drive for self-sufficiency in basic foodstuffs such as wheat has proved a drain on ground-water reserves, particularly in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf’s pre-eminent food producer. Agriculture consumes about 80 per cent of the region’s water resources, but contributes less than 2 per cent of regional gross domestic product.

Governments are beginning to grasp the nettle. Oman has curtailed the drilling of wells and legislated against expansion of irrigated land. More radically, Saudi Arabia vowed in 2008 to phase out all wheat production in eight years. An improvement in ground-water levels in the Eastern Province, home to the country’s main aquifers, has since been recorded.

Yet this U-turn would have been unnecessary if authorities had curbed the inefficient use of water, says John Lawton, a British farming consultant based in Riyadh. “You could have a smaller but more sustainable agriculture industry if you applied the right technologies, such as hydroponics and drip-fed irrigation,” he says. “But they don’t seem to want to know.”

The region’s ageing water networks also leave a lot to be desired. About 35 per cent of water produced in Saudi Arabia is lost in transit, says the World Bank. Public infrastructure has fallen well behind the growth of many cities. NCB Capital estimates the Saudi government needs to spend some $33bn just to ensure all its citizens have water and sewerage services.

Waste has been encouraged by heavy subsidies. Gulf water tariffs are among the world’s lowest. “Revising the tariffs would be the easiest way to cut consumption, but that requires a political will,” says Abdulmajeed Ali Alawadhu, chief executive of Bahrain’s Electricity and Water Authority. “It is not a decision even we can take.”

Tariffs, like other subsidies, are tied into the political culture of most Gulf states, whereby ruling families maintain legitimacy through systems of patronage. “The biggest political constraint is the sense of entitlement most citizens have to share in the oil wealth,” says Mr Kotilaine. “In Bahrain, even the suggestion of raising prices can provoke demonstrations.”

Reluctant to tackle the issue of water demand, most governments have instead concentrated on trying to boost supplies, which primarily means desalination plants. GCC states account for about 46 per cent of global desalination capacity, and Saudi Arabia alone is building some SR12bn ($3.2bn) of plants to meet projected demand by 2015.

But this will store up other problems. Desalination plants are highly energy-intensive, yet the natural gas that feeds them is in short supply in most Gulf states, strained by export commitments, rising demand for electricity and the growth of industries. “This model of growth is not sustainable any more, and something has to give,” says Mr Kotilaine. “Many of these resources are going to run out within a lifetime.”

This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 20th, 2010 at 7:27 pm and is filed under Saudi Arabia.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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