Sustainability fears drive water pipeline in the Gulf

Sustainability fears drive water pipeline in the Gulf

Representatives from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states met recently in Kuwait to discuss the construction of a new pipeline in the region. At a projected cost of $10.5 billion for 2000km it would be one of the world’s longest and most expensive pipelines. However, rather than oil it will carry something of even more value.

The Gulf States face significant problems in keeping up with the demand for water from their citizens and businesses. Pessimism about water scarcity in the GCC states can be traced back to both supply and demand factors. On the supply side, natural water resources are limited to runoff from flash floods, groundwater and non-renewable reserves trapped in deep sedimentary formations. Demand for water has skyrocketed due to subsidized water prices and the promotion of inefficient domestic agriculture in the name of “food security.”

Daily demand for water in the UAE alone is 364 litres per capita and significantly above the global average of 200 litres per capita. According to a GCC-commissioned study in 2012, the demand for potable water in the GCC states is expected to reach 11.9 million cubic metres a day by 2025. By contrast, the total groundwater reserves of all the GCC states total no more than 50 billion cubic metres.

While modern desalination technology provides a complement to limited natural freshwater, the cost of even the most efficient desalination process is $1 per cubic metre of water. Even for the fossil-fuel rich GCC states, the energy costs of powering the desalination process are also significant. In Kuwait for example, desalination processes consume almost 300,000 barrels of oil a day, and by 2017 this could rise to 20% of the country’s total oil output.

The pipeline project agreed by the GCC therefore comprises a radical solution to an essential need. The project will be completed in three stages; first, the GCC states will be linked by a regional pipe network costing $2.7 billion. Second, at the cost of $4.0 billion a massive desalination plant is to be built in Sohar on the coast of Oman, with the ability to receive seawater from both the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman. Finally, a second and identical desalination plant will be built in Ashkhara (also in Oman). Together, the project would be capable of producing 500 million cubic metres of desalinated water a year and transporting it to areas in need.

While this mega-project is perhaps the most prominent example of the GCC’s drive to increase water sustainability, it is by no means the only measure. Between 2010 and 2012 the growth rate of water industries in the GCC (including desalination, wastewater treatment and R&D into using renewable energy to power desalination processes) grew 14-20 % annually, with similar growth expected in the future.

All in all, a total of $300 billion is expected to be invested in water projects over the entire GCC in the period of 2012-22. These projects are also increasingly tapping into private sector expertise and investment. Across the entire region there have been over 100 private-public partnership (PPP) projects with a total investment of more than $50 billion. Many European, Asian and American countries see the GCC states as a “laboratory” for bringing together global expertise and testing new innovations in technology, construction and operation of water projects.

Beyond this, private and public utility companies in the GCC are developing outreach programs to teach consumers about water conservation and management. If successful, this would help reduce the total consumption of water per capita and drive down the costs of providing water to consumers. Incentives to regulate demand are also frequently inserted into water management contracts to ensure that a certain amount of water is always available for emergency use.

It has been almost 30 years since Boutros-Boutros Ghali declared, “The next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics”. In the intervening period there have been intermittent diplomatic crises in regards to water rights, such as the dispute between Turkey, Syria and Iraq over access to the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and the common use of the Disi aquifer by Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

However, events in the GCC states appear to prove that in the correct circumstances water shortages also can lead to extraordinary acts of political and economic co-operation. If the GCC governments can successfully increase their water supply while reducing their unsustainable water demand through cooperative multinational efforts then they will have significantly improved both their political and economic security. Continued investment has the potential to diversify the economies of the GCC states by establishing them as pioneers in the research and development of future water technology. Despite the grim predictions of the implications of water scarcity, there are still reasons to be optimistic.

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