From Scarcity to Sustainability: The GCC’s Journey Towards Water Security

Via the World Bank, commentary on the GCC’s journey towards water security:

World Water Day casts a spotlight on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries’ journey towards sustainable water security — a remarkable feat given their extreme water scarcity. The GCC countries face a stark reality: the absence of surface water and their unsustainable use of groundwater resources which ranks them among the most water-scarce countries globally. The benchmark for absolute water scarcity is 500 cubic meters of renewable freshwater per person annually, a figure that remains a distant aspiration for many of these countries, some of whose renewable freshwater reserves are below 100 cubic meters per capita.

Despite this scarcity, GCC countries have seen a surge in water consumption, driven by economic growth, population increase, and urbanization. Consumption rates often exceed 500 liters per person per day, dwarfing the figures of countries with comparable income levels, such as Germany, where consumption is around 120 liters per person per day. This overconsumption is rapidly depleting the GCC’s already limited water reserves.

In response, the GCC countries have embarked on ambitious and innovative measures to ensure their water future. Leveraging their substantial financial and human resources, these oil-rich countries have prioritized the development of desalination technology. Thanks to innovation driven by the GCC countries, notably advancements in membrane technologies and energy efficiency, the price of desalinated water has plummeted from US$5.00 per cubic meter in the 1980s to as low as US$0.40-0.50 in recent projects. This is making desalination increasingly affordable for countries worldwide.

Beyond desalination, the GCC countries are implementing diversified water management strategies to manage water demand. One of the most important areas is the reduction of “non-revenue water” (NRW) — physical and commercial losses of water. The extraordinary experience of the Dubai Electricity & Water Authority (DEWA) deserves mention. The authority reduced NRW from 42% in 1988 to 4.6% by 2023. The NRW levels in other MENA countries can be as high as 70%; and even in North America, NRW levels average around 15%. Circular economy approaches are also increasing the collection, treatment, and reuse of wastewater, which is proving to be a strategic addition to supplement diminishing water resources and to increase the value derived from desalinated water. While some countries have been reluctant to reuse treated wastewater, its acceptability is growing, in part thanks to successful public outreach campaigns. 

The pioneering role of the GCC countries in desalination began in the 1970s, and today they lead the world in desalination capacity. Desalination plants operate in 186 countries, producing 140 million cubic meters of clean water daily, with the GCC responsible for nearly half of this output, despite making up less than 1% of the world’s population. The Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC) of Saudi Arabia, the largest desalination company globally, produces about 20% of the world’s desalinated water. SWCC capitalizes on its vast experience by providing training through its Water Academy, which has trained thousands of water specialists worldwide, and by conducting research to improve the desalination process, aiming to increase efficiency, reduce costs, and minimize waste. Other countries in MENA have started to develop desalination more recently, benefiting from the technological and cost-reducing innovations driven by the experience of the GCC countries.

However, in the complex realm of water management, many challenges remain, and the desalination industry is still seeking a long-term solution for managing saline brine, the by-product of desalination. The dramatic increase in desalination has the potential to exacerbate the already naturally high salinity levels in the Gulf and Red Sea. This can degrade marine biodiversity, species persistence, fisheries productivity, and affect coastal communities. As the development of desalination plants increases, there is an increasing need for cooperation among GCC countries in planning and management to identify potential cumulative impacts and optimize investment decisions for ensuring environmentally sustainable regional water security.

In partnership with the World Bank, the GCC countries are working on the remaining challenges for achieving sustainable water security. Building on over 50 years of partnerships, the World Bank’s global knowledge is combined with local experience to explore new approaches to valuing water, along with opportunities to strengthen sustainable practices in desalination and to promote knowledge-sharing and capacity-building in other countries. This is based on the expertise and innovation by companies such as SWCC in Saudi Arabia and DEWA in the UAE, along with taking the World Bank’s development experience from ideas into action. 

The decades of investment in innovation in desalination technology and in good utility management have given the GCC countries a competitive edge in technology and human expertise to address the looming global challenge of water scarcity. The research and development efforts spearheaded by the GCC countries have yielded what economists call a “global public good”, a benefit for literally the entire planet.  Saudi Arabia’s upcoming role as host of the World Water Forum in 2027 underscores the GCC’s leadership in water management and provides a platform to showcase their achievements and share their knowledge in water security with the world. 

This entry was posted on Monday, April 8th, 2024 at 1:43 am and is filed under Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE.  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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