The Blue Gold: Water Supply in the Middle East

More so than any other region, countries in the Middle East rely heavily on technology to guarantee their water supply. Elisabeth Fischer profiles some innovative large and small-scale projects designed to overcome the severe water problems in the region.

In the Middle East only water is more precious than oil. With its endless deserts, its hyper-arid climate and salty seas, natural water supply is as rare as rainfall. The countries, together with Northern African regions, are known to have the world's least secure supply of water or blue gold.

The Water Security Risk Index, released by the British risk consultants Maplecroft, at the World Water Day 2011 on 22 March, found that 18 countries around the world are at 'extreme risk' of danger to their water security. Of these countries 15 are in the Middle East.

Several key oil exporters such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Libya and Algeria are worst off, according to the study, and the insecurities surrounding the water supply contribute to heighten political risks in an already volatile region and may even lead to higher oil prices in the future.

"Awareness about water shortages in the Middle East is undoubtedly growing," says programme officer of the global team at the International Water and Sanitation Centre (IRC), in The Hague, the Netherlands, Cor Dietvorst. "Maplecroft's Water Risk Index identifies the Middle East as exposed to the most overall risk."

"Awareness about water shortages in the Middle East is undoubtedly growing."

Obviously, the need for innovative solutions to the problem of water supply is there. "Water plays a very important role in the Middle East," says Dietvorst and quotes International Development Research Centre (IDRC) senior program specialist, Naser I. Faruqui, who wrote in his 2001 book Water management in Islam that "it seems that in the Quran, the most precious creation after humankind is water."

The dangers of severe water shortage could affect the Arab world as early as 2015, according to a 2010 report released by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED). Some of the rapidly emerging nations along the Arabic peninsula, however, take the lead with innovative projects, trying to prevent the predicted shortfalls.

Masdar City

Abu Dhabi, the wealthiest of the UAE states, is far ahead in recognising that wasting water and energy must be curbed to avoid an ecological disaster. The environment agency has implemented numerous projects and improvements to reduce the use of water. Concrete replaces water-consuming green areas and new laws demand water-saving devices in all buildings. The government has also fitted 2,000 mosques with water-saving devices, which is saving millions of gallons of water a year when people wash before their prayer.

At the forefront of the trend, however, is Masdar City, a $20bn futuristic metropolis to be entirely run on renewable energy. Eight years from now, if all goes according to plan, the city will house 40,000 people - and it will be carbon neutral. Besides the use of solar power, thermal heat energy for cooling as well as clever waste management, the city planners also say that "80% of water will be recycled."

At the beginning, water will be sourced from the Abu Dhabi grid but testing and pilot programmes on commercial, sustainable and renewable energy-powered alternatives to conventional desalination are underway. For example, storm-water capture has been built into the landscaping to collect water from major rain falls.

"A desalination plant is a large factory sitting on the coast, something that you could easily blow up with a bomb or a missile."

Masdar City technology director, Jay Witherspoon, said in an interview with TreeHugger in 2009 that they would also try to harvest the hyper-saline groundwater, with has a salt content 3-4 times higher than the water of the ocean. "We're looking at different ways to treat and desalinate the water, instead of the high-pressure, high-temperature method, because of the energy demand. And we're also looking at aquifer recharge with effluents, using greywater and blackwater to dilute the salt so we can treat it in more traditional ways."

The master plan, however, will be to reuse water as many times as possible. One idea involves capturing the leftovers of watering crops, which is called irrigation recovery. After irrigation water goes through the top 2ft-3ft of soil and meets plants' needs, underground collection systems recover whatever is left over. That water then will be used to irrigate on another day or directed towards a different purpose.

The city planners also aim to cut the overall water consumption from 250l per person, per day Abu Dhabi BAU to 105l per person, per day. To achieve lower consumption figures, the city will install water use reduction technologies and systems, such as efficient fittings, fixtures and appliances, a water tariff that promotes water efficiency, smart water metres to inform consumers of their consumption and smart metres to eliminate leakage across the system. Despite that, water will also be priced, which is unusual for the Middle East.

Abu Dhabi's emergency water reservoir

Only a few hundred miles south-west, Abu Dhabi has started another huge project to find ways of coping with the imminent water shortage. In October last year, a pilot project for the world's largest underground reservoir was launched, in the desert of Liwa. Once completed, approximately 26 million cubic metres of desalinated water will be stored in the reservoir, only to be used in case of an emergency. 

Abu Dhabi gets most of its water from the Mirfa desalination plant, the region's major power and desalination station, situated on the coast some 160km west of Abu Dhabi city. The desalination capacity in the region has quadrupled in the last ten years, but there are still fears that if the plants were damaged the water supply in the UAE would only last about four days.

"A desalination plant is a large factory sitting on the coast, something that you could easily blow up with a bomb or a missile," commented the founding director of the Brookings Doha Centre in Qatar, Hady Amr, on the launch of the pilot project in October. "You could bring a country to its knees."

The $436m reservoir in Liwa, however, could store 90 days of rationed water for Abu Dhabi's citizens after its expected completion in mid-2013.

Funding problems in Yemen

Projects on a much smaller scale have been launched in Yemen over the past year. The state is both the poorest and the most water-scarce country in the Arab world, with access to water supply sanitation as low as in some sub-Saharan African countries.

A recent report by international consultants McKinsey predicted that Yemen's capital Sana could run out of water by 2025, blaming poor water management and the enormous consumption of water for the farming of the popular stimulant khat.

Agricultural water shortages could result in 750,000 job losses and a drop in incomes by a quarter within a decade, according to the report published in December 2010 and issued by the Yemeni government.

"Yemen's public sector is simply not able to confront the challenge of its dwindling water resources."

Until recently, desalination was not an option for the country because of the high costs of the process. In July 2010, however, the Havel Saeed Group of Companies has constructed the first unit in Al-Makha, to supply its companies as well as Taiz city, which has been suffering from severe water problems with a shortfall of 26,000m³ of water a day. Fifty large 50,000l trucks transmit water daily from the port to Taiz - a pipeline is under construction.

Besides projects funded by the private sector, Yemen has to rely on help from other nations. For instance, the Japanese government has funded several small-scale water projects in the country, including the construction of a water supply system in an arid area in Al-Mouza district serving 800 people including the pupils of a primary school in 2010.

Another project was the instalment of a water supply system in October last year, serving about 2,200 people in 15 villages in the Al Barasha area of Taiz. The system solely consists of a water tank, a protection room for a water pump and water pipelines. Altogether, Japan funded 18 Yemeni projects in its last fiscal year with a total amount of $1.5m.

In January 2011, the Yemeni government urged local and international private companies again to invest in desalination projects; the public sector is simply not able to confront the challenge of Yemen's dwindling water resources.

Whatever action the countries in the Middle East take to overcome the severe water shortcomings, they have to act fast. Water is one of the most valuable commodities in the world. In the Middle East it might be even more precious than oil.