Assessing the state of Water Security in early 2021

While the spread of COVID-19 dominated the headlines and policy-making priorities of 2020, the looming global water crisis hasn’t gone away. If anything, it has worsened in the face of swelling demand for fresh water supplies and COVID-related delays to projects intent on relieving this mounting pressure. This month we assess the state of water security in the Middle East and the wider world.

By 2050, over 50% of the world’s population will be living in areas with ‘water stressed’ systems. This defines a system where demand exceeds supply, or the poor quality of water restricts usage. This leads to the depletion of natural water sources (aquifers, ground water, etc) and brings with it a host of social issues, from dehydration to the spread of water-borne diseases and illnesses. Due to its climate, the Middle East is by far the world’s most water-stressed region, with most of its countries already categorised as having ‘extremely high (>80%) water stress.

Not only is it a present and growing threat to human life and the cohesion of a rapidly urbanising global society, poor water security also carries a huge price tag. The latest Oliver Wyman report states that the lack of adequate water management could cost the Middle East up to 6% of its GDP by 2050.

While troubling in its implications, the scale and nature of this threat is thoroughly understood by respective ME governments. This can be seen by their creation of formal, long-term national strategies for improving water security and their billions of dollars’ worth of investments in new technological innovations and advanced water infrastructure. But are current efforts going to be enough to stay ahead of the water demand curve? The same report from Oliver Wyman highlights that while $35 billion is being invested annually in attaining UN Sustainable Development Goal number 6 (ensuring the availability of clean water and sanitation for all) the actual amount needed to hit the 2030 deadline for this goal is between $75-165 billion. This imbalance needs to be addressed, either by greater investment, innovation, or both.

Middle East Response: Pumping up desalination and wastewater treatment

As the world’s most water stressed region, the Middle East has the most to lose from failing to achieve sustainable water security. In response, we have already witnessed the developing trend of leading ME nations ambitiously expanding their capacity for desalination and wastewater treatment, and can expect 2021 to bring more of the same.

Already in the opening two months of this year, Saudi Arabia has shown its dedication to building up national desalination capacity levels. The country accounts for more than 15% of global capacity, enabling daily fresh water output of 4 million cubic metres. Now, with strong government backing and the introduction of a privatised and digitalised water transmission entity, WTTCO (The Water Transmission and Technologies Company) the national aim is to double this output to 8 million cubic metres per day by 2030.

More immediate expansions and technological improvements can be seen in Saudi Arabia too. At the end of last month, the Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC) managed to achieve a reduced total power consumption of less than 2.2 kilowatt hours (kWh) at its desalination plants – an unprecedented global record. SWCC has several construction and implementation works currently progressing well, despite the obstacles presented by COVID-19. Also last month, Saudi Arabia’s National Water Company (NWC) signed a $5.36 million contract with a French utilities company to reduce losses of ‘non-revenue water’ i.e., water lost during the potable water production process. Improvements in RO (Reverse Osmosis) and other leading innovations will be applied to NWC’s operational processes.

Looking towards the UAE – which is already a powerhouse of wastewater treatment capacity as well as a growing desalination player – innovation is also tied to investment when it comes to water security. The UAE currently has a 51% national wastewater reuse rate (ranking it third globally behind Singapore and Israel) but aims to increase this significantly over the course of the decade. This month saw Ajman Sewerage finalise $140 million in financing for its pioneering new wastewater project. This is a landmark deal and highlights the development trend in the UAE towards creating water infrastructure that supports state-of-art sewerage systems. Ajman’s project comprises the construction of 22 pumping stations, 225 kilometres of gravity pipeline and 30 kilometres of pumping mains, as well as a new 49,000-cubic-metre-a-day wastewater treatment plant. This will serve 350,000 people living across more than 45,000 properties to modern sanitation facilities.

Other water innovations unveiled this month

  • General Electric has won a $14.3 million grant from the US DoD (Department of Defense) to develop AIR2WATER, a highly portable, compact heat-exchange machine capable of efficiently extracting drinking water from air. The critical addition is the use of ‘sorbent materials’ for coatings capable of absorbing molecules – in this case absorbing hot air and turning it into water. If successful, AIR2WATER could provide a highly efficient and portable alternative to current generation dehumidification technology.

A rising tide of investment and innovation

If all the indicators are that current efforts won’t be enough to successfully tackle the worsening global water security issue, then a sustained increase in technological innovation and overall investment during this decade is all but inevitable, especially in the case of the Middle East. Given how fundamental the need for clean water and sanitation is to human existence, the problem of water security cannot be ignored and will be met with a rising allocation of resources from both the public and private spheres. If recent months are anything to go by, we should expect to see plenty more headline announcements this year of ground-breaking new innovations being funded for development, and expansive new water infrastructure projects being greenlit.