Physical Geography of Water
The countries of the Arabian Gulf are some of the most water-insecure in the world. Their geographical situation, which combines very little rainfall (70-140 mm a year on average) with high evaporation rates (2,500-4,000 mm per year on average) produces adverse conditions.[i] The problem is increasingly urgent with the high level of recent socio-economic development in the region, which drastically increased the demand for water to the point that all Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are well below the United Nations’ threshold for water scarcity in terms of renewable water resources.[ii]
Sources of Water
Sources of water in the GCC countries can be divided into three categories. First, surface water, which is only a significant and utilisable source in mountainous areas in the southern parts of Saudi Arabia, northern Oman and southern UAE. Second, there is groundwater, consisting of shallow aquifers which can recharge thanks to rainfall, and the much more important deep, fossil aquifers with a much lower rate of recharge. It is these latter sources that provide the majority of the water used in the GCC.[iii] Another key water source is desalinated water, which is either sea water or brackish water that has had its salt removed and has been treated to make it fit for consumption. This water makes up 19% of GCC consumption, but in Qatar, for example, the figure in 2014 was 59%.[iv] And finally, there is wastewater, which constitutes only 3% of the GCC’s water sources and is mainly used for agriculture.[v]
An average of 70% of water use in the GCC goes towards agriculture[vi] (some sources put this number at 85%),[vii] which accounts for only 1-4% of GCC countries’ Gross Domestic Product (GDP).[viii] Despite an arid landscape and little arable land, the high dependency on foreign food imports and a related vulnerability to price shocks encouraged some GCC states, notably Saudi Arabia, to expand their agricultural production. In fact, Saudi Arabia managed to achieve self-sufficiency in wheat — no small feat for a country where only 1.6% of land is arable[ix] — but at the cost of severely draining its non-rechargeable water sources.[x]
However, the top-down pressure to expand agricultural production is only one part of why so much water is used for it. Another aspect is the way governments in the GCC subsidise water use. Until recently, water had been free in Qatar and the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, and negligibly cheap in other GCC members.[xi] This naturally disincentivizes efficient water use. The end result is that water withdrawal in the GCC, ‘is 634.2 m3/per capita/year and is almost three times that of Great Britain, despite the water scarcity situation in the GCC.’[xii]
Given the geographical conditions of the Arabian Peninsula, the GCC countries have had to turn to technology to provide for their ever increasing demand for water. They have limited options and the rate at which they have been extracting groundwater far outpaces its ability to regenerate. Desalination is a natural fit for them. It is an expensive and energy-intensive process, but that is less of an issue for GCC countries than elsewhere in the world. As a result, this technology has seen widespread use in the region.
Tied into the future plans for ever heavier reliance on desalination plants to provide water for the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula is a potential security risk. There is currently almost no storage capacity for water beyond the scale of days, and with some GCC countries aiming for 100% of their water demands to be met by desalination in the future, attacks on these facilities could be devastating. The same goes for an oil spill or other marine disaster which could endanger the continued operation of these plants.
Another issue with desalination, particularly in the Arabian Gulf, is brine, the byproduct of the desalination process. It is essentially water with a high concentration of salt, and it also contains byproducts of the particular treatment process a plant employs. While various measures can be taken to reduce the harmful effects of brine discharge on the marine environment, the Arabian Gulf is particularly susceptible to damage: the concentration of desalination plants discharging brine into it is high, the sea is shallow and already has a relatively high salinity. While research indicates that this is not currently a problem, if the GCC countries increase the volume of desalination in accordance with their plans, it could increase salinity further and potentially pose a threat to marine life.[xiii]
The future of water use in the GCC is outlined in the GCC Unified Water Strategy, approved by the GCC Supreme Council in 2016. It specifies the countries’ priorities and goals as they attempt to build more sustainable water systems. The strategy has five main themes: Development and Sustainability of Water Resources; Efficient and equitable water resources utilisation; Enhanced municipal water supply security; Effective water governance and awareness; and Economic efficiency and financial sustainability.[xiv] Together, these seek to overhaul the GCC’s water production, utilisation and management to address the issues laid out above. Of particular interest among these is the tentative plan to form a GCC water grid[xv], as well as the plans for cost recovery of water supply utilities, meaning bringing the tariffs more in line with the costs.
In this spirit, the GCC countries have been taking steps to ameliorate their situation. For instance, Saudi Arabia launched the Qatrah programme, a broad set of policies designed to reduce water usage in the Kingdom. Qatrah aims to reduce water usage from 263 litres per capita in 2019 to 150 litres in 2030, through raising awareness, encouraging foreign investment and implementing water technology.[xvi]
In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), modern forms of agriculture are being experimented with. Vertical farming, the method of growing crops in stacked layers in closely controlled conditions, has a number of advantages over traditional farming. It promises higher yields, year-round production on a fraction of the area, and crucially, a fraction of the water needed for conventional farming. The Emirates Flight Catering vertical farm in Dubai, for instance, uses 99% less water than outdoor fields.[xvii] With the drawbacks of this technology, namely high upfront costs and higher energy-intensity, the region is well-positioned to become a leader in modern agricultural methods.
The example of vertical farming also ties into cooperation with Israel. The Abraham Accords, establishing relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, have opened doors to investment and technology sharing that could greatly benefit the GCC countries in their struggles with water scarcity. Israel leads the world in a number of metrics regarding water usage: 87% of its wastewater is reused, mainly for irrigation,[xviii] it is home to the world’s largest reverse osmosis desalination plant,[xix] and it leads the world in irrigation efficiency, having pioneered drip irrigation.[xx] Israel has vast expertise in the kinds of technology the GCC states will need to adopt if they are to reach the goals of the Unified Water Strategy, and hopefully, the Abraham Accords will lead to thriving cooperation in this area.
17 February 2021
[i] See Muhammad F. Al-Rashed and Mohsen M. Sherif, “Water Resources in the GCC Countries: An Overview,” Water Resources Management, no. 14 (2000): 61-62.
[ii] Laura Parmigiani, “Water and Energy in the GCC: Securing Scarce Water in Oil-Rich Countries,” French Institute of International Relations (2015): 8.
[iii] Waleed K. Al-Zubari, “An Overview of the GCC Unified Water Strategy, 2016-2035”, Water Sciences and Technology Association, 12th Gulf Water Conference (2017): 4, http://wstagcc.org/WSTA-12th-Gulf-Water-Conference/waleed_zubari.pdf.
[iv] Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics of the State of Qatar, “Water Statistics in the State of Qatar 2015,” (January 2017): 23, https://www.psa.gov.qa/en/statistics/Statistical%20Releases/Environmental/Water/2015/Water-Statistics-2015-En.pdf.
[v] Al-Zubari, “GCC Unified Water Strategy,” 4.
[vi] Parmigiani, “Water and Energy in the GCC,” 9.
[vii] United Nations Development Programme, “Water Governance in the Arab Region: Managing Scarcity and Securing the Future,” (2013): 41.
[viii] Jarmo T. Kotilaine, “GCC Agriculture”, NCB Capital (March 2010): 2, https://www.gulfbase.com/ScheduleReports/GCC_Agriculture_Sector_March2010.pdf.
[ix] World Bank, “Arable Land, Saudi Arabia,” n.d., https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/AG.LND.ARBL.ZS?locations=SA.
[x] UN Development Programme, Water Governance in the Arab Region,” 41.
[xi] Glada Lahn, “Fuel, Food and Utilities Price Reforms in the GCC: A Wake-up Call for Business,” Chatham House, (June 2016): 4, https://www.chathamhouse.org/2016/06/fuel-food-and-utilities-price-reforms-gcc-wake-call-business.
[xii] Esra Aleisa and Waleed K. Al-Zubari, “Wastewater reuse in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): the lost opportunity,” Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 189 (2017): 2.
[xiii] Hamed D. Ibrahim, Pengfei Xue, and Elfatih A. Eltahir, “Multiple Salinity Equilibria and Resilience of Persian/Arabian Gulf Basin Salinity to Brine Discharge,” Frontiers in Marine Science 7 (July 2020), https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2020.00573.
[xiv] Al-Zubari, “GCC Unified Water Strategy,” 11.
[xv] Fareed Rahman, “Gulf Countries Mull Regional Water Grid to Boost Ties,” Gulf News, 11 March 2019, https://gulfnews.com/business/energy/gulf-countries-mull-regional-water-grid-to-boost-ties-1.62570065.
[xvi] Habib Toumi, “Saudi in Fresh Move to Reduce Water Consumption,” Gulf News, 21 March 2019, https://gulfnews.com/world/gulf/saudi/saudi-in-fresh-move-to-reduce-water-consumption-1.62813813.
[xvii] Jay Hilotin, “Skyscraper Farming in the UAE: Less Water, More Food,” Gulf News, 17 August 2020, https://gulfnews.com/business/skyscraper-farming-in-the-uae-less-water-more-food-1.1597592762548?slide=1.
[xviii] Phillipe Marin et al., “Water Management in Israel: Key Innovations and Lessons Learned for Water-Scarce Countries,” World Bank (August 2017): 18, http://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/657531504204943236/pdf/Water-management-in-Israel-key-innovations-and-lessons-learned-for-water-scarce-countries.pdf.
[xix] Rowan Jacobsen, “Israel Proves the Desalination Era Is Here,” Scientific American, 29 July 2016, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/israel-proves-the-desalination-era-is-here/.
[xx] Ministry of Economy and Industry of the State of Israel, “Water Technologies,” n.d., http://economy.gov.il/English/InternationalAffairs/InvestInIsrael/BusinessSectors/Pages/WaterTechnologies.aspx#:~:text=Israel%20is%20home%20to%20the,of%20its%20municipal%20consumed%20water (accessed 13 February 2021).