Water war theories have enjoyed popular media support for too long. The idea that population growth plus poor water resources equals war is an equation attractive in its simplicity, but no slave to accuracy. There are water problems in the Gulf – but they are of political, psychological and economic origin - in other words, problems that do not need to persist or exist.
No Gulf countries have water shortages for domestic and industrial needs. Things have changed dramatically due to technological advances in desalination processes. Private companies are now willing to sign contracts to produce water at forty seven to forty eight cents a cubic meter, three times less than five years ago. Thankfully, all Gulf countries have access to the sea.
Domestic and industrial water needs are
being met in the Gulf, the problem is
Domestic and industrial demand is normally around one hundred to one hundred and fifty cubic meters per year per person. Professor Tony Allan at SOAS in London writes that depending on how you cost desalination, these numbers reflect between $50 and $300 per person per year. All Gulf countries can afford this.
Poorly conceived speculation
Professor Asit Biswas, President of the Third World Center for Water Management, will even bet ten thousand dollars with anyone that the situation will be better in 2010 than it is now! Water war theories may now confidently be archived in the deterministic annals of poorly conceived speculation.
The future, however, will not be plain sailing. While domestic and industrial water needs can and are being met, domestic food production is a serious problem that should not even exist. Food production requires nearly free water, and naturally there is little low cost water in the Gulf.
Desalination cannot cope with such a demand. The Gulf also has extremely high evaporation rates that make large investments in agricultural production even more unwise. “To produce one ton of wheat requires one thousand tons of water. Importing a ton of wheat therefore relieves a community from having to harness one thousand tons of its own water resources” Professor Allan writes.
Gulf countries are already importing their food needs. Water ministers and Prime Ministers, however, will never draw attention to the politically stressful water, food and trade relationship. This is a great pity - a burying of heads in the sand. Levels of international trade in grain commodities have been falling over the past few years, which indicate that many Gulf economies are increasing their production and productivity in farming such commodities.
This is a disastrous policy not based on practicalities of economy or careful use of resources. Food production is a political issue – it has psychological value but little else. Using any water on agriculture, save perhaps using waste and saline brackish water, is a tragic error of judgment made on no scientifically based analysis.
It is the economically invisible and politically silent quality of importing water in food products that enables politicians to enjoy such a comfortable ride on water reform issues. It is perhaps ironic that these water-imports-in-food (or virtual water) that solve problems effectively and silently are slowing the pace of significant reform.
Water policy reform prioritizing water-use efficiency and environmental consideration are urgently needed. But they can be de-emphasized because the fundamental nature of the water status of the region is hidden through the availability of virtual water.
Water scarcity could be avoided in Gulf countries that focus on their political and economic development and diversification - it is this that will enable them to finance food imports. Politicians may understandably feel vulnerable if they don’t support food production.
They deny the idea of virtual water, which incidentally would be upsetting to their vested interests, water users in the region as well as their patrons. It is sadly farcical that in the early nineties, Saudi could come to an agreement with Iraq to produce two million tones of Saudi grown wheat!
Gulf politicians don’t have a hang-up about importing cars and machinery that would be too costly to produce in the Gulf. Why not the same practical attitude to water? No country is self sufficient in everything. World trade is becoming increasingly integrated and easy.
It is not necessary to think of self sufficiency in terms of food or anything else for that matter. Currently high investments in fresh water for agriculture are quite simply a poor policy. Food issues must be divorced from politics and psychology, though Professor Biswas believes that this is impossible.
Professor Biswas plays down the importance of virtual water but still states that “if you can import rice from India or the Unites States more cheaply than it can be produced in the Gulf, then import the rice. Water is a minor component of food production costs, probably less than 5% in most cases. The real cost is economic.” The point is the same: economic interests must take precedence over prejudiced political views not based on economic or scientific analysis.
On a more hopeful note, however, structural reform in the water sector is coming from a variety of sources. Pricing and marketing can now be openly discussed at the most senior levels, which was not possible only a few years ago.
There have been significant reforms – perhaps more in the Gulf in the last 20 years than at any other time in the last two hundred. While this is to be welcomed, it is still too slow given the fact that the majority of Gulf countries demonstrate little ability at diversifying their economies sufficiently any time soon.
Populations are still relatively small in the Gulf countries, but action should be taken now as some of the highest population growth rates are found on the Arabian peninsular. This is significant, for as Professor Allan writes, “water resources such as water do not determine socio-economic development; on the contrary, socio-economic development determines water management options.”
One must hope that the pace of reform increases while there is still room for manoeuvre, rather than a forced pace that cannot afford mistakes at some future point in time.