The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is home to 14 of the 33 most water scarce countries globally, with six times less water availability than the worldwide average and less than 2 percent of the world’s renewable water supply. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states – Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Oman – all rank in the top 10 most water scarce countries. The water crisis in the region is exacerbated by exploding demographics, particularly in the GCC states, which have some of the highest per capita water consumption rates in the world. Moreover, the World Bank projects that water availability per capita will be halved by 2050, indicating that most MENA countries cannot sustainably meet current water demand.
85 percent of water is consumed by the agricultural sector in the GCC, supported by extensive irrigation. Despite the shortage and depletion of water resources, typically irrigation water is priced below cost. In addition, energy subsidiaries in many MENA countries result in no groundwater use charges for surface water transfer and pumping of groundwater.
In addition to the above, rapidly changing demographics and continued industrialisation is straining the GCC’s already scarce water supply and fuelling climate change, which in turn is further depleting the region’s freshwater resources. The unprecedented development of the GCC countries has led to dynamic changes in emissions, land surface and resource consumption. Consequently, the region is experiencing rising temperatures and higher rates of evaporation, coupled with a 20 percent decline in precipitation and higher atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. Such climate changes are further threatening MENA water security.
With water security at risk, the GCC has turned to desalination to meet escalating demand. While innovative means to tackle declining rainfall through cloud seeding operations has been underway in the United Arab Emirates for the past few years, the GCC remains heavily reliant on desalinated water. 75 percent of worldwide desalinated water is in the MENA region, concentrated in the GCC countries that make up 70 percent of that total.
Innovating water supply solutions
Faced with ever-rising consumption, the GCC will need to encourage alternative forms of water and energy supply, whilst conserving scarce resources, to sustainably meet future demand. Moreover, water security is prompting more effective monitoring and management of water resources.
Alternatives include large-scale and short distance onshore transfer of water to meet a supply deficit. While being able to leverage existing infrastructure, this process is often regarded as expensive and faces permitting, licensing and geographic barriers. In addition, the transfer of water can be damaging to ecology, water quality and flow regimes.
The long distance underwater transportation of freshwater, or treated grey water, to areas of scarcity has also emerged as a viable alternative. Low energy consumption and no discharge of brines, combined with potential recharge of reservoirs, the “submarine river” solution provides an environmental advantage. Moreover, it is able to meet urban and agricultural needs equivalent to several desalination plants without compromising execution duration and with limited operating and maintenance expenses.
Securing future supply
Depletion of MENA water resources will continue as climate change, population pressure and agricultural production put increasing strain on supply. While desalination has bridged the gap between supply and demand, alternatives will need to be explored to ensure future demand is met sustainably. The “submarine river” is one potential option.
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