• Mahima Shanker

Possible Solutions to the Middle East’s Water Woes

Updated: Dec 2, 2021

Unsustainable water use is one of the reasons for water scarcity in some countries of the Middle-East. According to a World Bank report, water is extracted from rivers and aquifers at a rate faster than it is replenished by rain, thereby degrading the aquifer itself. The Report says that unsustainable use of groundwater occurs across the Arabian Peninsula, the Maghreb and in Iran. But some countries in the Middle East and North Africa have realised the merit of conserving and producing fresh water and have been doing that.

Measures being taken

Countries like Morocco are undertaking measures to manage groundwater resources across the country, Jordan is trying to harness private sector innovation and financing for wastewater treatment and desalination, Egypt is focusing on strengthening local accountability for water supply and sanitation services [1].

Economically developed countries like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar are trying to solve their water scarcity through heavy investments in water desalination and replenishment of groundwater. Some of these countries are 90% reliant on desalinated water for domestic use, making the Gulf region the greatest producer of desalinated water in the world. According to a Report on ‘MENA Desalination Market', Saudi Arabia alone is responsible for about 20% of global production and is the world leader in the volume of desalinated water produced accounting for 50% of its internal water consumption. The country is the largest desalination market in the world producing around four million cubic metres of desalinated water per day, and approximately $80 billion is expected to be invested in new projects over the next ten years [2].

Global Desalination Capacity by Region [3]

Such solutions, however, have been seen to have negative consequences as well. Desalination in the Middle East has a large carbon footprint as the region is reliant mostly on energy-intensive thermal desalination plants. The process requires large inputs of non-renewable fossil fuels, which not only makes it unsustainable but also causes air pollution. The waste-product of desalination i.e. concentrated salt/brine is discharged back into the seas and oceans, where the increased salinity affects the ocean's environment adversely and is detrimental to marine ecosystems. According to a UN-backed Paper, 55% of global brine is produced in just 4 countries i.e., Saudi Arabia (22%), UAE (20.2%), Kuwait (6.6%) and Qatar (5.8%) [4].

The use of non renewable energy in desalination adds to atmospheric pollution and global warming in the region, a major cause of water scarcity in the first place. So it becomes a vicious cycle.

Apart from this, desalination can be expensive to implement, making it less common in less affluent countries.

Alongside desalination, countries like the UAE, have been utilising ‘cloud seeding’ technique effectively as well. Very simply, cloud seeding is ‘sowing’ clouds with small particles or aerosols, to induce precipitation in the form of rain or snow. ‘Cloud seeding’ has added to annual rainfall, but this new source of water needs to be researched better and harnessed properly for best results. For one thing, its effectiveness needs to be evaluated vis-a-vis the cost involved, as it may give sub-optimal results if the atmospheric and cloud conditions are not appropriate. Even by the lowest estimates, it could cost between $27 - $53 per acre-foot to produce additional precipitation [5]. Moreover, its use has been seen to cause flooding, especially in arid areas, primarily because dry desert ground is not equipped to absorb sudden water availability.

Wastewater treatment technology is another feasible and less costly alternative. Jordan is a good example of wastewater reuse where an estimated 90% of wastewater is collected and treated, the majority of which is then used for irrigation. Wastewater from capital city Amman and other northern cities is channeled into a dam which collects the treated wastewater, mixing it with natural stream water. From there it’s transported to the Jordan valley, where it’s used for agriculture. Another success story is Oman; ranked 16 on the World Bank’s list of water-stressed countries, Oman treats 100% of its collected wastewater and reuses 78% of it [6].

One of the challenges of wastewater reuse, however, is that it’s not culturally accepted everywhere; it may not be considered clean enough for human consumption [7].

The need of the hour is ‘smart water conservation and generation techniques’. Innovations such as solar-powered desalination, raising crop productivity “per drop,” and wastewater treatment and reuse do hold great promise for this region.

What else can be done?

Going forward, these measures may not be enough. The answer to the water woes of the MENA region seems to be a need to move beyond conventional approaches to manage water, by encouraging sustainability, innovation and entrepreneurship in water management. First, whatever water is available needs to be conserved and managed better. Further investment in innovative policies and practices is vital as research, technology development and transfer can help improve water efficiency and crop productivity in the region.

Second, efforts should be made to augment the existing water supply through novel ways of ‘creating’ water. The latest game changing and very promising solution for the region is the ‘Atmospheric Water Generation’ (AWG) technique. The air around us contains more water than we think - Earth’s atmosphere contains almost 13 trillion tons of water [8] which can be harvested to produce freshwater. Research shows that this technology would be feasible even at a relative humidity of 20%, which is typical in arid areas [9].

The air-to-water technology has been perfected through research and development in many parts of the world including India and the US. According to Studies, key advantages of the AWG are its ability to produce water from relatively dry air and at low temperatures, and its decentralised ‘plug and play’ feature that enables its use in remote and inland locations without the necessity of elaborate water transport infrastructure [10].

Apart from this, the already extant method of wastewater reuse needs to be propagated and better accepted through awareness and education; successful examples of countries like Singapore can be emulated. Singapore was a water deficit country in the 1960s, importing its fresh water from Malaysia. Now, however, with simultaneous thrust on both water supply and demand management, Singapore has been successful in reducing its dependence on imported water dramatically. The country’s treated and recycled wastewater, called NEWater, is expected to meet 55% of the total water demand by 2050. [11]

Israel is a good example of an arid country that has successfully managed to be water secure through innovative reforms and measures, including a national water conveyance system to connect all water infrastructure, reuse of treated wastewater for irrigation, interception of surface water run-off, efficient irrigation technologies, demand management and public communication, and creating a supporting environment for innovation.

Collaboration and partnerships among countries are essential given the scale of the crisis and similarity of the issues as also the international nature of challenges like climate change and shared water resources [12].

No effort is less in order to increase water security in the region, especially since water is now being considered as the ‘blue gold’ and ‘new oil’ because of its increasing value!


[1] Source: https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/water/publication/beyond-scarcity-water-security-in-the-middle-east-and-north-africa

[2] Source: https://www.wam.ae/en/details/1395302826317

[3] Source: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/World-desalination-plants-per-geographical-area-Adapted-from-10_fig1_272756219

[4] Source: https://www.greencarcongress.com/2019/01/20190109-waterbrine.html

[5] Source: https://futureofworking.com/8-advantages-and-disadvantages-of-cloud-seeding/

[6] Source: https://www.wri.org/insights/17-countries-home-one-quarter-worlds-population-face-extremely-high-water-stress

[7] Source: https://www.un-ihe.org/stories/taking-water-crisis-middle-east

[8] Source: https://smartwatermagazine.com/news/king-abdullah-university-science-and-technology/drinking-water-obtained-desert-air

[9] Source: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2257229-water-could-be-extracted-from-desert-air-using-heat-from-sunlight/

[10] Source: https://www.mdpi.com

[11] Source: https://www.pub.gov.sg/watersupply/fournationaltaps/newater

[12] Source: https://www.fao.org/fao-stories/article/en/c/1150870/

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