Creating efficiencies for the Middle East’s biggest water consumers

Perhaps even more than oil, it’s the future of water that’s on the minds of governments, scientists and business leaders all across the Middle East. The sustainable production, storage and delivery of water is one of the biggest challenges facing the region today – current analysis suggests that if things stay the same, by 2050 water scarcity will cause the MENA region economic losses that represent 14% of its entire GDP.

Fortunately, when it comes to the Middle East’s biggest water-consuming sectors, things certainly aren’t ‘business as usual’. Long-term water sustainability strategies have been prompting significant changes in attitudes and operational practices in the following industries, changes that are accelerating in pace thanks to the emergence of advanced technologies that provide better, less wasteful ways to live and work.

As the region continues to battle to achieve viable water security and sustainability, the following key sectors have become focal points for new thinking and, crucially, new investment.


By far the biggest water consuming sector, farming, forestry and agriculture claims up to 70-75% of many of Middle Eastern nations’ water usage, as traditional irrigation methods soak up hundreds of millions of litres daily. Changes and improvements to ways this industry uses water have the greatest potential to tackle waste and free up vast quantities of potable water for other purposes.

Crucial water-saving solutions for this sector

Vertical farming: Through the use of advanced environmental controls and hydroponics, the region’s difficult desert conditions are no longer such an insurmountable problem. Vertical farming allows for large quantities of vertically-stacked plants to be grown all year round without the need for soil, massively reducing water usage. Already this approach is bearing fruit (or vegetables, in this case!) as the UAE is now operating the region’s first commercial-scale vertical farm in Dubai’s Al Quoz area – the 8,500sq ft farm produces 18 varieties of micro-greens.

Smart irrigation: Through tightly controlled and monitored irrigation of crops, the potential water savings on offer are huge and increasingly well documented as more test programmes get off the ground in the Middle East. A recent smart irrigation pilot project in Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hassa reported a 44% decrease of water consumption as well as a 21% increase in crop yields compared to traditional methods.

Improved water treatment techniques: Once again, freeing up potable water sources is of vital importance, as agriculture’s traditional wastefulness is rapidly depleting aquifers and groundwater reserves. In Egypt, by the end of 2018, more than 10% of all water used for agricultural purposes was recycled drainage water, with that figure growing in 2019 due to greater investment.

Drones: UAV technology has enjoyed a surge in farming in the past five years as drones can easily map large farmland areas and monitor conditions, allowing farmers to make much more strategic decisions based on hard data. Pilot programmes are currently underway in Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khaimah to monitor date palm yields, where the synergy of drones, AI and IoT can create the most accurate, reliable actionable information for farmers to increase productivity while eliminating water overuse.

Municipal (domestic households) usage

The next biggest offenders in terms of water consumption as well as wastage are the general public. Particularly across the GCC nations, an unsustainable yet long-standing tradition of water subsidies, price support programmes and a lack of reasonable tariffs have combined to create massive and perennial water wastage in households across the region. This means that municipal households can account for as much as 20-30% of any given ME nation’s total water usage.

Crucial water-saving solutions for this sector

Public education programmes: Given that water still costs a fraction of what it costs to produce, there isn’t the necessary economic incentive to adopt stricter water conservation habits in much of the Middle East. Instead, ME governments are going to greater efforts to educate and encourage their citizens to be environmentally responsible and proactively reduce their personal water consumption habits. Last month saw nearly 30,000 students from 459 schools in the UAE recognised for their conservation efforts which saved a combined total of 188 million gallons of water.

Improving home controls: Tackling wastage at home needs to be simple and convenient if it’s going to be widely and routinely adopted. New home environmental controls can make a big difference in this regard. Abu Dhabi’s Environment Policy and Planning Sector (EAD) is currently vetting suitable AI-based home environmental control technologies for implementation in its AI and digital transformation initiative which aims to reduce the emirate’s massive ‘water footprint’. Abu Dhabi’s per capita daily water consumption rate is 560 litres, one of the highest in the world.


Accounting for around 5-10% of various ME countries’ total usage, water for industrial purposes remains a significant source of wastage and hence remains fertile ground for change. In 2017, industry was responsible for 9% of all the UAE’s water consumption.

Crucial water-saving solutions for this sector

Large-scale wastewater recapture and treatment: Industrial processes, from construction to energy production, create high volumes of wastewater that could be successfully collected, treated and reintroduced into further industrial or agricultural operations. While only a small fraction of wastewater is ever treated and reused in Middle Eastern nations (usually less than 5%), the UAE is leading renewed efforts to reuse 100% of its wastewater by 2020. Large-scale project like the Strategic Tunnel Enhancement Program (STEP) will be essential to realising this ambition, as the completion its next phase enable it to handle 1.7 million cubic meters of wastewater every day by 2030.


While individually the various commercial sectors aren’t nearly the water users that agriculture and domestic households are, together they still represent a viable target for impactive change. Hospitality in particular remains a big water sponge, as hotels, restaurants and resorts need a lot of water to keep their customers comfortable.

Smart water utility infrastructure: Improving the measurement, analysis and control of delivered utilities is now being viewed as an essential method of tackling waste and inefficiency. Smart meters are a key tool in this fight, as they allow for more strategic usage and can detect leaks and other issues much more quickly than manual methods. In Dubai alone, Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) is installing over 270,000 new smart meters as part of its Demand Side Management Strategy to reduce energy and water demand by 30 percent by 2030.

Environmental controls: Much like the average domestic household, commercial entities – particularly those occupying large buildings such as hotels or office blocks – are leveraging AI and other automation technologies to enjoy significant savings in water and electricity.

Tackling water wastage at its source

By going after the biggest and most recurring sources of water wastage, respective ME countries have the change to slow or even reverse the disastrous trend of water scarcity that has been steadily encroaching for decades. In each of these cases, technological advancements are enabling a complete rethink of wasteful practices, in turn allowing for vast quantities of water to flow back into the region’s natural and manmade reserves.