ME Water Crisis in Review – Can technology turn the tables?

As 2021 ends, we review the state of the Middle East’s ongoing water security troubles, and assess the impact of technological advances in balancing the scales.

Water scarcity – A perennial problem for the region

In newsletters throughout this year (and previous years), our coverage of water industry development has invariably pointed towards two major trends. The first is that water scarcity – an issue affecting all ME nations – is getting worse due to climate change, water debt (consumption outstripping demand) and other complex social and ecological factors. 

The second trend is that technological solutions are increasingly pointing the way towards long-term solutions to this age-old problem. If the past year has shown anything, it’s that attacking the issue from both ends – boosting production of potable water and eliminating its wastage – will requires vast technological muscle to pull off.  

A snapshot of ME water scarcity issues as we enter 2022

Water scarcity remains a major issue in all ME nations, even the richest and most advanced ones. Despite increasing awareness and the mobilisation of huge resources to address it, water security is an even more stark issue for the region at the end of 2021 than at the beginning. 

The following represent just a few of the most visible challenges created by the worsening water security picture in the Middle East.

Even desalination leaders like Saudi Arabia and the UAE are by no means free of the wider issues attached to water scarcity. Increasing desalinated water production capacity also incurs a higher environmental cost, in the form of marine ecosystem degradation from pumping brine back into the sea. 

Technology will provide the turning point in this decade

The size, scale, severity and range of issues linked to water shortages in the Middle East continues to paint a bleak pattern for millions of people living there. However, despite the dire circumstances that have been developing in recent months, there is a continual source of hope developing in parallel to the problem. 

During almost every month this year, we have highlighted a slew of new water technologies, either in development or actively entering commercial service. This month is no different, as three new solutions in more efficient desalination – essential for providing potable water to the region – have emerged. 

World’s First Subsea desalination plant: This month saw work begin on a world-first development in the ongoing struggle to make desalination as efficient and scalable as possible. Multinational engineering firm Rosenberg Worley is building a new desalination plant at Stavanger, Norway. Unlike any before it, this plant is being built beneath the waves. This deep-sea solution brings a range of suitability benefits compared to land-based facilities, and its designers believe that each subsea module will be able to produce 50,000 square metres of desalinated water per day – enough to cover the needs of a mid-to-large-sized city.

Capacitive deionization (CDI): The Department of Environmental Technology at Wageningen, The Netherlands, Israel Institute of Technology; and Wetsus, European centre of excellence for sustainable water technology, have teamed up to conceive a new theoretical model, CDI, and could develop an electrochemical separation technology product for the chemical-free treatment of water. reverse osmosis (RO) is still the predominant method for desalinating seawater or reusing contaminated water, but it still requires chemical treatment to remove certain health-hazardous ions. With CDI, the entire process would be achieved without the use of any chemicals at all. Though still in testing, this could prove a revolutionary technology with unprecedented sustainability implications if commercialised.  

Nanocomposite membranes: Japan’s Shinshū University is at the forefront of carbon nanotube technology, and has been developing this crucial nanotech since 2013. This month, the university showcased the potential of its latest iteration of the solution. As an improvement on traditional RO desalination techniques, the use of Carbon nanotube-based membranes, which are 1/50,000th the thickness of a human hair, may reduce desalination operational costs by 10%–15%.  They could have the ability to simplify raw seawater pre-treatment facilities, further reducing costs. At a time when scalability and sustainability are equally vital in water production, this is a big step forward.

A rising tide of technological impetus

While last month’s COP26 summit demonstrated that there is an increasing political will to act on climate change, it also highlighted the complexity of the key issues at stake. This complexity is producing delays in translating talk into action, and all the while the most climate-vulnerable nations continue to face the greatest risks. As such, the rapid development, distribution and implementation of relevant technologies will be essential in the coming decade to turn the tide from regional water scarcity to global water security.