Just add water...

Water scarcity in the Middle East is a huge problem

Chairman of the GRC Abdulaziz Sager.
Chairman of the GRC Abdulaziz Sager.
Yousrey Elsharkawi, Dubai Minstry of Water.
Yousrey Elsharkawi, Dubai Minstry of Water.
Dr Raouf, program manager at the GRC.
Dr Raouf, program manager at the GRC.

Water in the Middle East is a precious commodity. But with golf courses, fountains and water parks littered across the region, it’s easy to forget. Water scarcity is a scantly discussed subject, despite its importance, which leads to the question: are we burying our heads in the sand, or are we just badly informed?

Countries in the MENA region rely heavily on external water resources. Bahrain, Egypt and Kuwait all have a dependency ratio higher than 95%. The region’s climate means fresh water availability is low. Average rainfall ranges from 70-130mm and this, together with a high rate of evaporation, leaves very little water to waste.

Low rainfall and rapid evaporation have been present in this region almost literally from the start of time; but it is population growth and rapid urbanisation that has really put the pressure on water resources. The population growth rate in the UAE alone was 3.8% as of last year, a figure only beaten by the Maldives. Urbanisation is clear to see in cities such as Dubai, Riyadh and Doha, which have seen rapid growth in the recent past, and continue to grow.

Yousrey Elsharkawi, food security expert, Dubai Ministry of Environmental and Water, spoke about the need for education in light of these facts.

“We have a mix of cultures so we need a very high quality awareness of water scarcity,” he said. “We see this problem in water security; every day we have a conference, we have a meeting, we wear a nice tie, we have very nice presentations, there is very nice expertise but we are very far [from our goals].”

Educating children in the UAE about water scarcity is made all the harder when they see the world’s largest water fountain being unveiled outside the Burj Dubai. These types of contradictions do not help the cause. As the developments like the Burj Dubai become occupied, more water is going to be needed and at the same time, more is being wasted. It seems as the buildings have gone up, so has the ignorance of water scarcity.

Policy makers in the Middle East have come under fire for not making water scarcity a higher priority in the past.

Christian Koch, director of international studies at the Gulf Research Centre (GRC) put forward a case for an integrated approach.

“One of the philosophies that we try and follow at the GRC is that any of the policies should bring together a coalition that has the academic specialists, government policy officials, the private sector of business and the media,” he said.

“I think if we bring together these four groups it is the most effective in turning ideas and policy initiatives into something more practical.”

After establishing that more needs to be done to address the issue, the argument arises over who should be doing it; the policy makers or the educators? Non governmental organisations have long pushed for governments to act, while at the same time have attempted to educate individuals themselves.

“I think it is easier sometimes to start at the political part of the research because you can think outside the box,” said Abdulaziz Sager, chairman of the GRC. “When you move into implementation stage, and this is where the government enters into it, there is the budget allocation, finance involvement, all these sort of practical points. There has been a lot of good work done in the UAE here.”

To put things into a global perspective, water scarcity affects one in three people on every continent. Almost one fifth of the world’s population lives in an area where water is physically scarce. Many of these areas are lacking in water because they do not have the infrastructure to retrieve and store it properly. In one of the richest regions in the world, that excuse cannot be used.

“Renewable water supplies are currently well below the critical 1,000 m3/year/capita value used to indicate chronic water shortage,” said Dr Mohamed Raouf, program manager of environment research at the GRC.

He added that desalination and water reuse are among the most successful alternatives to using fresh water.

“Water scarcity issues are currently being addressed only through an increase in supply, rather than through demand management, sectoral allocation, pricing techniques or other appropriate institutional arrangements,” he said.

Water technology has improved over the last decade. Wide acceptance of reverse osmosis has led to more efficient waste water recycling and has also been used in desalination. Recycled waste water isn’t considered potable in the Middle East, so a heavier burden falls on desalination. This burden is increasing. In 1990 the desalination to demand ratio in Bahrain was 54%, in 2005 it was 92%. There is a similar pattern in the whole of the Middle East.

Awareness of water scarcity in the region must improve. Despite being acknowledged as a problem, the depth and seriousness of the issue is not being addressed. Technology may be improving, but across the Middle East populations are still rising. The way forward must be clear; the individual needs to act, and the policy maker needs to teach them how to do it.


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