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Gulf states try to tackle water woes

GCC countries plan to build a 2,000 kilometre pipeline costing $10.5bn to move water from Oman to Kuwait.

Last updated: 22 Jan 2014 12:05
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GCC countries met in Kuwait to discuss water security issues [GALLO/GETTY]

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Plans are afoot to build what could become one of the world's longest pipelines, costing $10.5bn and stretching about 2,000 kilometres from Oman to Kuwait.

But instead of transporting the fossil fuels produced in this oil-rich corner of the Middle East, the pipes would be pumping something even more precious: water. With little groundwater - and, in some cases, just a few days' worth of fresh water in reserve - countries in the Gulf region fear they could face dire consequences if their water supply were to be disrupted.

This is an important project to secure water sustainability, because we are in a [water] scarce region.

- Rashid Bin Fahad, UAE's environment and water minister

Last week, the undersecretaries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries' water authorities met in Kuwait to discuss the proposed "water grid", which would shuttle the liquid from states with excess supply to those in need of a drink. Meetings on the mega-project are expected to resume in March at the ministerial level.

The GCC is a bloc of six oil-exporting monarchies including Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Oman.

"Water has always been the biggest challenge - not just for the UAE, but for the world," Rashid Bin Fahad, the UAE's environment and water minister, told Al Jazeera. "This is an important project to secure water sustainability, because we are in a [water] scarce region."

Water worries

Threats to the GCC countries' water supply, say some analysts, are magnified by the fact that they rely heavily on desalinating water from a single source: the Gulf.

Walid Khalil Zubari, a water scientist from Bahrain who participated in last week's meeting, said he sees five types of threats to the region's water supply: pollution caused by oil spills, red tides, or other factors; nuclear contamination; power outages or hackers disabling desalination plants; natural disasters such as hurricanes or earthquakes; and acts of war.

"Most of the Gulf countries have relatively little water storage," said Tom Pankratz, the editor of Water Desalination Report. "If there are operational problems with multiple plants in one area, you could jeopardise the water production for a fairly large number of people and industries."

The transnational grid would be the first of its kind, according to Zubari. The plan calls for building two giant desalination plants on Oman's Indian Sea coast that would together be able to produce 500 million cubic metres of water per year.

Desalination plants extract the salt found in seawater - either by heating the water and condensing the steam, or pushing the water through a membrane that filters out the salt. The process is energy-intensive, but the Gulf countries have no shortage of fuel - and plants are becoming more efficient.

The biggest beneficiaries of the grid, Zubari said, would likely be Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait, because their limited amounts of groundwater give them few options in case of emergency.

Water sharing deal in the Middle East signed

Moving water not advisable

But others say the potential threats to the region's water production are overblown. Tom Rooney, the CEO of Energy Recovery, noted that BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 had little effect on desalination plants in the Gulf of Mexico. He added that many plants take in seawater from the ocean floor - minimising the risks that contaminated water would be used.

"[Water security] is a critical concern," Rooney told Al Jazeera. But, he said, "moving water over long distances is, generally speaking, not advisable. The value of water per litre is 1/1000th of the value of crude oil - and yet it costs roughly the same to move. …The benefit that you get, and the reason it's incredibly viable to do in the Gulf region, is you get diversity."

Nick Carter, the director general of the Abu Dhabi's Regulation and Supervision Bureau, is more sceptical, saying he doesn't believe a system-wide threat to the Gulf's water supply exists. "Therefore, I am not sure there is much merit in having a parallel pipe from the Indian Ocean over to Kuwait. Two thousand kilometres of so-called drinking water - which it will not be by the time it gets there."

The wrong incentives?

The Gulf's oil-and-gas lucre contrasts with its aquatic poverty: The countries are among the driest in the world. Ironically, the GCC states also have among the highest rates of water consumption, which they heavily subsidise for the public.

The debate over how to address the region's water worries cleaves along fault lines well known to policymakers: Should one try to find technological fixes to raise supply, or should you focus on encouraging people to moderate their consumption instead?

"Water is a resilient commodity," Dr Abdulrahman Mohammed al-Ibrahim, the head of the Saudi government's desalination system, told Al Jazeera. "The more you provide the citizen, the more he becomes thirsty and he will ask for more water."

His views were mirrored by Najib Saab, the secretary-general of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development. Saab said that while he supports measures to boost water security such as the grid system, he's concerned such projects could encourage countries to continue living beyond their means.

"People now are in the mood that whatever you need, you can generate supply," he said, warning: "You cannot continue for 200 more years to desalinate and throw the salt in the Gulf."

Wastefulness is commonplace, Saab said. "Saudi Arabia is the biggest producer of dairy in the region. Every litre of milk I consume from [Saudi dairy company] Almarai… it means 1,000 litres of groundwater consumed in Saudi Arabia [to grow feed for the cows]." The Arab Spring, he believes, made matters worse by making governments hesitant to slash subsidies.

Water security concerns

Today, more people in the region are paying attention to water security, according to Saab. "When we started using this term 'water security' two years ago, people were objecting. They didn't want to hear the words 'water security', they wanted to hear 'food security'," said Saab. "But you can't have food security if you don't have water security."

Saudi Arabia is now in the process of phasing out a long-running project to export its own wheat, while the emirate of Abu Dhabi, Saab said, has forbidden the use of its ground water to grow animal feed.

Meanwhile, as the six GCC countries mull over how to address their water concerns, they can take heart in the fact that they have the money and the energy to address their water concerns as they see fit.

Their problems pale in comparison to those faced by neighbouring Yemen, the only country on the Arabian Peninsula that isn't a member of the GCC. About half of the water used in the country goes to growing qat, a mild narcotic used by most Yemeni men, and Yemen's poverty prevents it from running desalination plants on the scale done by its wealthier neighbours. If current trends continue, in a decade its capital could be the first in modern history to run out of water.

Follow Sam Bollier on Twitter: @SamBollier

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Al Jazeera
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