Water security has become an increasingly hot topic in the GCC as regional governments struggle to meet the water needs of a rapidly increasing population. If population and development levels maintain their fast-paced upward trajectory, so too will the demand for water, food, and energy increase at the same rate. The Gulf region as a whole remains geographically handicapped in the sense no major rivers flow through it, and it possesses few renewable aquifer endowments. Therefore, there is an urgent need for these states to manage their scarce water resources efficiently.
Currently, the states rely heavily on groundwater sources, followed by desalination, as the primary means of obtaining potable water. However, as groundwater depletion continues and technological advancements in desalination maintain a relatively slow pace, these countries will have to take drastic steps to improve their water security.
Areas for Improvement
Unplanned rapid urbanization is a huge water usage culprit, as it requires large amounts of water, placing undue stress on resources. For many Gulf nations, unprecedented development and urbanization has occurred during the past few decades, leaving no time for aquifers to replenish themselves. This poses challenges to satisfying water needs for domestic, agriculture and industrial sectors. Given that much of the region is made up of desert, a plausible solution is to increase the number of drought-resistant crops grown that require only minimal amounts of water to produce. As such, investing in GMO technology to design crops better adapted to the desert climate should be a top regional priority.
In addition, the states can improve upon existing agriculture policies so as to more effectively allocate water supplies and promote laws expanding the use of modernized irrigation systems while reducing the area of crops high in water consumption. Strides have also been made in the direction of promoting the farming of crops tolerant of brackish water as a form of irrigation.
Another related area of untapped potential is that of increasing the use of recycled water, which currently only makes up around 2% of the region’s water consumption. This reused water is taken from either agricultural or industrial sources, and treated to a different degree depending upon its intended usage. To reach potable levels, it must be treated to a high degree, but lesser levels of treatment are needed for other purposes, such as landscape irrigation or toilet flushing.
Unfortunately, there remains a low demand for recycled wastewater in the region, as potential consumers perceive a high difference in quality between conventional and recycled water. Proposed attempts to counter this include the implementation of a targeted reuse plan, through which wastewater effluents would be combined with conventional water, and a differentiated water-delivery policy will be adopted.
Agricultural sector is responsible for around 70% of water consumption in the GCC, following a trend to increase food security, as GCC nations realize they would economically benefit from cultivating their own crops, as opposed to importing. However, this is not necessarily the case, as states could benefit greatly from ‘virtual water’ trade.
Virtual water refers to the hidden embedded cost, in terms of water volume, used to produce a product. By importing water-intensive products while exporting products that are not as water-intensive, GCC countries can then ‘save’ this water for other uses. For Oman in 1998, the country’s virtual water imports accounted for triple the total annual replenishment of the country’s water resources. The case of Oman proves the potential of virtual water trade in helping the Gulf countries protect their water resources.
Several GCC states have taken steps to implement new and innovative educational campaigns educating their populations on water conservation, in attempts to limit consumption. The UAE in particular, being the most water distressed country in the region, has designed and implemented several campaigns. One of these is ‘Peak Load,’ which attempts to limit the amount of unnecessary water and energy appliances during ‘peak-load’ hours, 12-6pm over the summer.
Qatar has also made achieving sustainable development goals a national priority as part of the Qatar National Vision 2030. Such initiatives as these are important since states will likely need to use both bottom-up and top-down approaches to adequately deal with water scarcity issues, and cooperation from the public is vital.
Traditionally, water security in the GCC has been directly tied to fossil fuel exports. A sizable portion of revenue collected through these exports goes towards improving water sustainability measures and investing in technologies to help them do so. However, as oil resources continue to be depleted, the states grow increasingly vulnerable in terms of energy, water, and food security. By focusing on disentangling water security from fossil fuel exports, the region will be better equipped to address water scarcity as a stand-alone issue.