GCC must adopt sustainable water conservation practices
In the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, water scarcity is particularly acute.
What does a city without water look like? The world could find out in 2019, when, according to officials, Cape Town will be forced to turn off taps to homes and businesses. Cape Town's "Day Zero" is the first of its kind but unlikely to be the last, as water resources in other parts of the world deplete and climate change causes drought and decreases precipitation around the globe.
A prime example is the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), which, due largely to an overwhelmingly arid climate and low levels of precipitation, has the lowest freshwater resources per capita ratio in the world. The average share of total renewable water resources (TARWR) per capita in 2014 was 447.6 cubic metres, well below the 500 cubic metres threshold of absolute water scarcity set by the United Nations.
In the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, water scarcity is particularly acute. The per capita TARWR in GCC countries in 2014 was just 86.6 cubic metres, compared to a global average of almost 17,575 cubic metres. Decreased rainfall, stronger heat waves, and prolonged drought have exacerbated the already arid climates of countries in the Arab Peninsula. Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait had respective per capita TARWRs of 84, 26, 16, and 5 cubic metres in 2014 - effectively nothing - and limited surface water resources. In the face of water scarcity, GCC countries have primarily focused on securing supply, increasingly through desalination.
According to the International Energy Agency, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE together make up over one third of the world's total desalination capacity. Approximately 63 per cent of the water supply in GCC countries comes from desalination. In the UAE, 96 per cent of the domestic water consumption is supplied by desalination plants.
Though desalination has addressed much of the scarcity issues in the GCC, it is extremely energy intensive, affecting both the environment and economies. For example, in 2015, Saudi Arabia used 10 per cent of its daily production of oil (an estimated 1.5 million barrels) to desalinate seawater. Coupled with the high subsidies for water production and supply, the cost to governments is considerable. Moreover, desalination plants themselves are extremely expensive to build and have a limited operational life span of just 15 to 25 years.
In terms of environmental impact, the energy-intensive thermal process often used in desalination produces an estimated 76 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. This is a not insignificant contribution to global warming and to the natural water shortage desalination seeks to remedy.
Thus, in both economic and environmental terms, desalination in GCC countries cannot be a long-term solution to water scarcity. Rather than primarily focusing on securing supply, GCC governments should also emphasise sustainability of consumption.
However, sustainable water consumption in the GCC faces obstacles. Water consumption, in general, in this region is primarily for agriculture, industry, and domestic usage. Although less than five per cent of the GDP of any Gulf country comes from agriculture, and less than two per cent of the landmass in the GCC is arable, between 70 and 80 per cent of annual water consumption is for agriculture. Economic diversification efforts are also increasing industrial water demand. From mid-1990s to 2010, industrial water consumption as a percentage of the total annual consumption in the GCC grew from 1.3 to 5.3 per cent, and is currently growing at an annual rate of 24.2 per cent in the UAE.
The rates of domestic water consumption in the GCC are some of the highest in the world, with an average per capita usage of 140 to 520 litres daily. In 2016, the UAE had the highest rate of per capita domestic consumption globally at 550 litres per day, almost 50 per cent higher than the US at 378 litres. The high consumption is primarily a product of the cheap, heavily subsidised water available to citizens. While access to clean, affordable water is a basic human right, the provision of water for comparatively low prices creates excess demand in the market and is a key factor in the high consumption patterns, not only for domestic usage, but also in industry and agriculture.
To develop a long-term, sustainable approach to water management, GCC countries need to slowly close the gap between the price of water and the production cost, which could incentivise people and companies to consume less. Abu Dhabi began implementing a stepped water tariff in 2017, which charges consumers a higher price when they consume past a certain rate and adds an additional surcharge for residences without water metres. Such a mechanism avoids harming poorer segments of society, and maintains basic water provisions while disincentivising excess consumption.
Gradually introducing efficiency requirements in the agricultural and industrial sectors, and encouraging the expansion of innovative farming practices and other sustainable water measures, such as grey-water recycling and wastewater usage, will also further reduce consumption. Overall, as GCC states continue to drive for economic diversification, water resources must be considered, especially in relation to water-intensive sectors such as manufacturing.
Current approaches to water management in GCC countries have led to consumption patterns where water is used as if it were an abundant resource. Although reduced water consumption will not solve the problem of water scarcity, it would buy GCC governments more time to develop comprehensive, sustainable water policies, and in the meantime help influence a broader shift away from excess consumption of water and energy.
- IPI Global Observatory