For much of 2016, the GCC has been pre-occupied by the economic impact of a liquid that comes out of the ground. Oil has long been the bedrock of regional economies. The revenues generated have built impressive cities, driven investment and modernization, and supported development across the region. However, if the GCC is to continue to grow and progress, there is another liquid to worry about – one far more important to the future of the region: water.
Water is fundamental to life, but it remains a considerable challenge for the Middle East. World Bank data shows more than half of people in the MENA region live under conditions of ‘water stress’ – when water demand outstrips supply. Compounding this issue is the expectation that water availability per capita will halve by 2050, due to rising populations, a trend likely to be exacerbated by climate change. This has a direct economic impact: the same World Bank report found water scarcity “could cost some regions up to 6 percent of their GDP” over the next 30 years.
Producing enough water to support the Middle East’s growing population needs huge investment in production facilities and infrastructure, as well as the energy these processes demand. For more than 50 years, many regional markets have relied on desalination. Saudi Arabia has earmarked US$ 24.3 billion of investment by 2020 to expand its desalination capacity, and 70 percent of the world’s desalination capacity is in the Middle East.
Nonetheless, the current desalination approach to water generation is simply not sustainable. It is energy intensive, relies on abundant oil, and comes at enormous environmental cost. Desalination plants worldwide emit an estimated 76 million tonnesof carbon dioxide per annum - the equivalent of a country the size of Romania - and without substantial changes, this is expected to treble by 2040.
Finding a more sustainable approach to clean water production is therefore essential. This is not only a considerable challenge, but also a huge opportunity. Research from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), suggests that only 1 per cent of the world’s desalinated water is currently based on energy from renewable sources – an indication of the massive commercial potential for the GCC to become a world leader in this innovative technology.
The UAE has already recognized this. Last year, during Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, an agency of the Abu Dhabi government was instrumental in launching an initiative to explore ways to reduce the carbon footprint of desalination. It was also a key player in the launch of the Global Clean Water Desalination Alliance (GCWDA).
Even with desalination based on renewable energy as a clear route forward, this transformation cannot be done in isolation. There remains a need to continuously develop new and innovative approaches to confront the world’s water challenge, with governments, industry, science and society all playing their part.
Efficiency must be one pillar in this strategy. The heavily-subsidized water rates across the GCC have created a culture where water is recklessly wasted. As a result, the Middle East has some of the highest rates of water consumption anywhere in the world. In 2014, research from King Saud University put Saudi Arabia’s daily average per capita consumption at 265 liters.
Fostering partnerships between industry and academia, is crucial to help translate pioneering research into practical solutions for communities around the world.
Governments, too, must be active in confronting a shared and pressing problem. The Middle East is already making good progress in this area. At a regional level, the GCC is exploring the possibility of a cross-border water grid to enable water to be moved from areas of relative oversupply to those facing shortages. Sustainable ‘smart’ cities, at the heart of development strategies across the region, will also help communities understand and manage water consumption like never before.
It is imperative that further rapid progress is made. By meeting the water challenge head on, and encouraging investment, innovation and partnerships across society, the GCC can put itself at the forefront of a fast-growing, innovative industry that will become increasingly vital to global development in the coming years.
— Roberto De Diego Arozamena is chief executive officer of Abdul Latif Jameel Energy