Middle East Water crises deepens – What can be done?

Water demand continues to rise, while rainfall and natural aquifers diminish. This has been the case in most of the Middle East for decades, but the recent months have seen this deadly dynamic come into greater focus as the fallout is felt by communities struggling to access the most basic of human needs. But what can be done to release the long-term water security pressure on the region? And what is being done right now to combat the crisis?

Water shortages – A widening gap to bridge

Some of the most recent estimates on this matter of survival suggest that by 2030 the world will face a 40% gap between water supply and demand. Of course, this isn’t a uniform issue evenly distributed across the globe, and arid regions with lower levels of natural freshwater resources will continue to feel the pinch more sharply than elsewhere.

A recent UNICEF report released an analysis that nearly half of the water used across the Middle East and North Africa is unaccounted for or lost in leakages, due to failing water systems and infrastructure, alongside weak water resource management policies and a lack of regulation. This brings into sharp relief the need to ramp up overall improvements in water usage and reclamation systems, rather than relying purely on desalination to make up the shortfall.

Desalination improvements – Cleaning up a necessary solution

However, desalination still remains essential for satisfying the Middle East’s current water demand, a situation that is unlikely to change for years or even decades. The commitment to desalination as the prime focus for boosting water supply can be seen in March’s announcement by Saudi Arabia that it will deliver no less than 60 water projects with a combined investment value of over $9.33 billion. Estimates suggest that these will amount to new provision capacity of 7.5 million cubic metres of water per day by 2027.

Alongside new projects in the pipeline in Saudi Arabia, the UAE is nearly ready to commence operations at Taweelah Reverse Osmosis, the world’s largest RO water desalination plant. Once operational, it will provide nearly 100 million gallons of potable water per day, making it 44% bigger than the world’s current largest low carbon water desalination plant.

With the Middle East cementing its position as the global leader of desalination, the two biggest concerns with this approach – namely that it’s energy-intensive and its brine by-product is a major marine pollutant – are only going to become more of an issue as desalination capacity grows.

New breakthroughs may help tackle (or at least alleviate) both problems. On the energy side, a team at Purdue University in the US has developed a new ‘batch’ method of desalination which cuts energy usage by up to a quarter. Instead of constantly pumping seawater through reverse osmosis membranes, the water is pumped in batches, concentrated and desalinated before the next batch arrives.

Purdue also has several small-scale prototype desalination setups that utilise hybrid energy sources, wind, wave and solar. Crucial work has been undertaken at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, where Dr Muhammad Wakil Shahzad has pioneered a multi-effect distillation system that uses solar energy. His system is almost twice as energy efficient as conventional desalination methods.

Water recycling and waste avoidance

Desalination can only do so much in bridging the regional and global water gap. More careful conversation of existing water resources is just as crucial, and can be achieved with a lower environmental impact.

New water infrastructure is the key to realising more efficient water provision with less wastage. This is an understanding inherent in the new plans for Saudi Arabia’s latest round of water network expansions. In mid-March, the green light was given to build three new independent sewage treatment plants (ISTPs). The facilities, Madinah-3, Buraydah-2 and Tabuk-2, are being built with a sustainability focus on mind, and will provide high-quality treated water for use in agriculture, replacing the current use of fresh water. Once complete, these three plants will save 418,000 cubic metres of water every day. As an added sustainability bonus, they are being majority funded by green finance loans.

As well as big infrastructure investments, new technologies and innovations have an equally vital role to play. Directly tackling issues of water losses and wastage, the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) has implemented a new smart ball leak detection system that uses sound to find otherwise undetectable leaks. The system literally uses a ball, small in diameter, that is inserted into the pipe network and follows the water flow, cataloguing sounds that have unique characteristics that signify leaks, gas pockets or other anomalies. Since its implementation last April, the smart ball system has already saved 68.45 million gallons of water, and more than $745,900 in associated costs.

New thinking for an old problem

The twin pillars of the Middle East water crisis are as old as the basic economic concept of supply and demand. Namely, natural supplies of water are literally drying up, while demand soars as the region’s population grows.

While the fundamentals of national and regional water strategies haven’t changed (to boost supplies while cutting demand by tackling wastage) we can see a clear acceleration of efforts to achieve them. When it comes to major new infrastructure developments, larger investments are being earmarked and more ambitious projects tendered, but always with an eye for long-term sustainability. At the same time, water authorities are eagerly embracing technologies that allow them to approach the problem more intelligently, rather than simply trying to outpace it with more supply.

As the crisis continues, it’s clear that reinforcing failing water systems of the past is not a viable option. Creating new, intelligent and sustainable water infrastructure is in the minds, and budgets, of every Middle Eastern nation as a matter of necessity.