Water use must be cut if desalination remains solution: experts

  • 27 March 2012

Water use must be reduced and the Arabian Gulf kept clean if desalination is to remain a solution to the Gulf's needs, experts say.

Speakers at the Water and Food Security in the Arabian Gulf conference in the capital yesterday agreed that an aggressive desalination strategy was the only option for ensuring water security in the UAE and wider Gulf.

"Desalination is the destiny of the Gulf," said Dr Hussein Amery, an associate professor at the Colorado School of Mines who was a guest speaker at the conference, run by the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research.

Dr Amery said importing water was tried in the 1980s when Kuwait supplied pipelines from Shatt al Arab in Iraq, and a pipeline from Turkey was in the works.

But such cross-border solutions proved to be political minefields.

"Having desalinated water resources provides complete autonomy and it makes the GCC akin to Egypt being the sole owner of the Nile," said Dr Amery.

Abdullah Al Shibli, the deputy secretary general of the GCC, said: "GCC leaders have already stated that desalination is going to be the way for the council members," referring to the Abu Dhabi Declaration of December 7, 2010. "A number of projects have been in place since then to tackle unified water legislations, water-crisis plans and water-consumption reduction plans."

Current annual consumption figures for the region are estimated at 300 cubic litres a person. This is expected to grow to 750 cubic liters in the next 10 years.

"The UAE and the region are at an extreme risk of water security because the high standard of living and the serious lack of water resources has resulted in consumption that far exceeds the supply," said Peter Rogers, a professor of environmental engineering at Harvard University.

To reduce water use, experts at the conference suggested steeper water tariffs. "Consumption in the GCC is high and governments should increase water tariffs to push consumers to reduce their consumption," said Waleed Al Zubairi, a professor of water resources management at the Arabian Gulf University in Bahrain. "The current tariffs are low and are not leading to positive use of resources."

Desalinated water comes at a high cost. The UAE has spent more than Dh11 billion a year on desalination, said Dr Mariam Al Shannas, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Environment and Water.

Dr Al Zubairi said that by 2035, the amount spent on desalination in Kuwait would be equal to its oil exports if costs remained the same.

Dr Amery warned that any sort of desalinating system failure would be catastrophic for the region.

"Systems can fail due to poor regulation, attempts to cut costs, natural hazards and increased production pressures," he said.

And pollution in the Gulf would lead to a reduction in water supply.

"The dependency of the GCC on Gulf water is unique and the threat of pollution from an Iranian nuclear reactor on the Gulf coast would directly impact the GCC," Dr Amery said.

Good governance is the key to water security, said Seetharam Easwaran, the director of the Institute of Water Policy at the National University in Singapore.

"This region has great potential to champion water leadership," Mr Easwaran said. "Problems in all countries are solvable through leadership and commitment."