The greatest challenge facing the Gulf region is not related to regional politics and security. Rather, it is in the realm of environment and geography. More specifically, the Gulf is the most water-stressed region of the world. All Gulf countries are among the top 20 water-stressed countries, with six of them among the top 10 (Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman) and four of them ranking first in the list (Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE). Traditional sources of water supply such as rainfalls, surface, and underground water reserves fall way short in meeting the growing demand of Gulf economies and its rapidly rising population. There are four times more people living in the Gulf region now than in the 1970s (183 million in 2020 vs. 46 million in 1970). In the past 20 years alone, the population of this region has increased by 55 percent, from 118.5 million in 2000 to 183 million in 2020. In other words, while the demand for freshwater has been rising rapidly in the Gulf region, its supply has been dwindling.
Traditional Solutions are Ruining the Gulf’s Environment
The rapidly increasing gap between freshwater supply and demand in the Gulf has traditionally forced the economies of this region to turn towards environmentally catastrophic measures: tapping more and more into their existing and limited underground aquifers and erecting massive desalination plants around the Gulf. Underground water depletion beyond replenishment rates will lead to land subsidence as well as long-term droughts. Therefore, water aquifers must be used with caution as they are the last line of defense against protracted and long-term droughts.
In terms of desalination, too, there are two serious environmental issues. First, desalination is an energy-intensive procedure leading to the emission of greenhouse gases and global warming, further exacerbating drought and water scarcity conditions facing the region. Second and more pressing is that the byproduct of any desalination process is a hypersaline concentrate, referred to as “brine.” Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, and Qatar are responsible for 55% of total global brine production, which is dumped back into the Gulf. Among the Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia and UAE are by far the world’s largest brine producers, accounting for more than 22% and 20% of the global brine, respectively. This practice has led to increasing salinity of the Gulf and harming its ecosystem, fisheries, and organisms while at the same time increasing the energy requirements for desalination. Hence, meeting the freshwater demands of the Gulf countries through desalination comes with large negative repercussions, the cost of which is not factored into the price of freshwater in the region.
Environmental costs of desalination have not stopped the Gulf economies, especially Saudi Arabia and UAE, from expanding their desalination capacity in the past decade and there are plans for further expansions in the future. At present, Gulf countries are producing around 40% of the total desalination water worldwide and this is only expected to grow. The reason is simple: as the population continues to grow in the region, the need for freshwater for the household, industrial, and agricultural purposes will only continue to increase. Albeit, an expensive and environmentally catastrophic technology, desalination is the only obvious technology that can effectively address this rapidly rising demand.
While some forms of desalination, namely reverse osmosis (RO) is more environmentally friendly (it is less energy intensive and creates around 20%-30% less brine compared to thermal desalination technology), the Gulf desalination plants are based on the older and less environmentally friendly thermal technology because of the region’s abundant fossil energy resources. Moreover, these plants are very expensive to build and have an operational life of more than 60 years, which means they will be around for a few more decades.
Back to the Basics: Supply and Demand Strategies
The only way to reduce the environmental impacts of desalination plants is to reduce their production as much as possible. This means reducing the demand for desalinated water while at the same time providing alternative freshwater supplies.
Reducing demand can mainly be accomplished through more water-efficient agricultural/industrial practices and by reducing household demand. These, in turn, depend heavily on reducing or removing altogether the subsidies on water tariffs. The price of drinking water in all Gulf economies is lower than 60% of all countries, including those countries that are not facing any form of water scarcity. Moreover, Gulf states must establish large scale wastewater treatment facilities, the output of which could be used for industry, agriculture, and all purposes other than household needs. This will reduce the demand on desalinated water and underground water to only that of household usage, which is small in comparison to other usages (around 10% globally). These measures will significantly decrease the demand for underground water reservoirs and desalinated water in the Gulf, which will in turn reduce their catastrophic environmental impacts.
On the supply side, Gulf economies must invest more in R&D for new technologies that can produce freshwater. One such technology is Atmospheric Water Generators (AWGs), which harness water from humid and hot ambient air, a condition existing around the year in the Gulf region. The current technology for AWGs is at its infancy and certainly cannot compete with the massive scale of water production at desalination plants. However, if one considers the huge environmental costs of desalination, harnessing water from air could certainly become an economically viable alternative to desalination, albeit at small household scales. What is attractive with this technology is its decentralized nature where the equipment and the water reservoirs can be deployed on the roof of any building and are not centralized in one locality. Furthermore, solar panels can provide the energy needed for smaller AWGs, making them totally independent from municipality connections. In addition to being environmentally more friendly, the decentralized and municipality-independent features of this technology make it an attractive contingency plan if water desalination plants go down for any reason, with sabotage being the most obvious and probable reason.
If continued at the current pace, it is only a matter of time that Gulf salinity will increase so much so that desalination will become ineffective in addressing the freshwater needs of the region. The region as a whole must scale back desalination from its current levels and start to implement effective demand management strategies such as removing water subsidies, collecting every drop of rain water, implementing more efficient agricultural/industrial practices, recycling every cubic meter of wastewater, and looking into creative and more environmentally friendly technologies to produce freshwater. Investments in new massive and expensive desalination plants must instead be directed towards expanding wastewater treatment facilities and increasing R&D efforts for new and environmentally friendly technologies to produce freshwater. The time is running out and one must not forget that uninterrupted access to freshwater is literally a matter of life and death, and if not ensured, can push nations, cities, and individuals towards dangerous conflicts.
Amin Mohseni-Cheraghlou is an assistant professor in the Department of Economics at American University in Washington, D.C. He has also taught at the University of Tehran in the faculties of Economics and World Studies. His areas of expertise are Development Macroeconomics, International Political Economy, Economies of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and Islamic Economics and Finance. A research consultant for the World Bank Group since 2007, Amin writes frequently on topics related to development economics and economies of the Gulf and the MENA region. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics, an M.A. in International Development, and a B.S. in Electrical Engineering.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.