Future Water Scenarios in GCC

Water is an important vector in the socio-economic development and for supporting the ecosystem. In the arid to extremely arid Arabian Peninsula, home of the GCC countries, the importance and value of water is even more pronounced. The GCC countries of United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait, are facing the most severe water shortages in the world.  Rainfall scarcity and variability coupled with high evaporation rates have characterized this part of the world with a limited availability of renewable water.  However, the scarcity of renewable water resources is not the only distinctive characteristic of the region, inadequate levels of management and the continuous deterioration of its natural water resources have become during the past few decades equally distinguishing features as well.

Clamour for Water

In the last four decades, rapid population growth and accelerated socio-economic development in the GCC countries were associated with a substantial increase in water demands, which have escalated from about 6 Billion cubic meters (Bcm) in 1980 to about 30 Bcm in 2010.  These demands have been driven mainly by the agricultural sector consumption (currently (2012) consumes about 77% of total water used), and by rapid population and urban expansion (18%).  

To meet rising demands, water authorities have focused their efforts mainly on the development and supply augmentation aspects of water resources management.  Demands are being satisfied by the development of groundwater (83%), extensive installation of desalination plants (15%), expansion in wastewater treatment and reuse (2%), in addition to dams construction to collect, store, and utilize runoff.  Currently, groundwater resources are being over-exploited to meet mainly agricultural water demands, with continuous deterioration in quantity and quality. In most of the countries, unplanned groundwater mining continues without a clear “exit” strategy. To meet domestic water supply requirement, GCC countries have turned to desalination and have become collectively the world leaders in desalination, with more than 50% of the world capacity.  However, desalination remains an important technology, capital intensive and costly, and with negative environmental impacts.  In terms of wastewater recycling, available treated wastewaters are still not being reused to their potential; planning for full utilization of treated effluent are in the early stages.

In fact, the supply augmentation approach coupled with inadequate attention to improving and maximizing the efficiency of water allocation and water use have led to the emergence of a number of unsustainable water uses in these countries, such as low water use efficiency, growing of both water demands and per capita water use, increasing cost of water production and distribution, and deterioration of water quality as well as land productivity.  The situation was further aggravated by the lack of comprehensive long-term water policies and strategies that are based on supply-demand considerations, and was further compounded by the institutional weaknesses, multiplication and overlap of water agencies, and inadequate institutional capacity development and enabled participating society. 

The Way Forward

Fortunately, all the GCC countries have realized that efficient development and management of water resources requires water policy reforms, with emphasis on supply and demand management measures and improvement of the legal and institutional provisions. In essence, appropriate water sector policy reform need to address the key issues of reliable assessment of water supply and demand, water quality deterioration and protection, water use efficiency and allocation, role of the private sector, pricing policies and cost recovery, groundwater mining, stakeholder participation, improved institutional support, food security and the increasing problem of water scarcity. Water policy reform needs to address these key issues, taking into consideration the specific requirements and the prevailing social, economic, and cultural conditions of the GCC countries. 

Furthermore, addressing the immense challenges associated with water resources management in the GCC countries requires daring reforms to existing institutions and policies governing water resources. Far-reaching and multi-sectoral approaches will be critical if we are to overcome inefficient use of water resources and make their use sustainable.

However, the most important choices affecting water resources, as well as the environment, in the future are not necessarily water/environment sector choices; achieving water/environmental sustainability relies on a multitude of potential interventions and developments, such as changing governance approach, the education system, the implementation of technological innovations, changing the behavior of people, in addition to many other socio-economic policies. Moreover, water and environmental policies should not be compartmentalized, and they should be integrated and mainstreamed into the national socio-economic development plans. 

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About Waleed Khalil Zubari

Prof. Waleed Khalil Zubari currently holds the academic position of Professor of Water Resources Management at the College of Graduate Studies, Arabian Gulf University (AGU). He holds the administrative positions of Acting Director of the Water Resources Management Program, and the Coordinator of the UNU Water Learning Center for the Arab Region. In March 2008, he published his first book on Water Issues and Challenges in the GCC (in Arabic), which received Yousif Bin Ahmad Kanoo Best Authors Prize in early 2012.

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