Middle East races towards solutions around water security

With the Middle East warming up twice as fast as the rest of the world, the spectre of water scarcity continues to be a key priority in region. Recent months have outlined the severity of the threat, with droughts and diseases relating to unclean water affecting communities around the world.

Risk raises urgency – A short timeline to total water exhaustion

A recent UNICEF report demonstrates that the Middle East North Africa region now contains 11 of the 17 most water-stressed countries in the world. While many MENA countries have the innovative capacity and economic muscle to secure water supplies through desalination and other water freshwater production methods, many do not. Egypt, despite making great progress in recent years to expand its renewables-powered desalination capacity, still runs an annual water deficit of seven billion cubic metres. Unless its ongoing efforts to boost production and cut back on consumption and waste are successful, UNICEF fears that the country may be in a dire state.

With COP27 rapidly approaching (6 to 18 November 2022), Egypt’s role as the host nation will doubtless bring its water security efforts – along with that of the wider region – into focus.

Waste not, want not – Reusing wastewater holds the key to water security

The struggle for water security is bound up in the wider drive for overall economic and environmental sustainability. This remains the chief priority of practically every Middle Eastern nation in the face of climate change challenges. While making desalination cleaner, cheaper and more scalable is a crucial ongoing strategy, wastewater reusage and recycling also poses an opportunity. 

The recent UNICEF report outlines that in 19 countries across the region, resources embedded in wastewater (including nutrients like phosphorous and organic carbon) could be used to irrigate 2.6 million hectares of agricultural land, while at the same time sourcing energy for around eight million households. Given that farming is routinely the biggest consumer of Middle Eastern nations’ potable water supplies, this kind of problem-solving synergy is exactly what is needed to make a sizeable impact on water scarcity, fast.

According to ReWater MENA, the number of projects for water reuse has doubled every decade since 1990. Leaping from 40 projects in 1990 to 409 projects in 2020, the recapture rate is rising. Today, around 50% of municipal wastewater produced across the region can be repurposed. This is a significant opportunity for vital potable water supplies, which will likely lead to a greater determination by regional nations to focus more intently on boosting their wastewater recapture and reusage rates. 

Driving up Desalination’s Potential to Deliver

Desalination, while still costly, is certainly proving to be essential. Some Middle Eastern countries rely on it for up to 90% of their drinking water, and this ratio is unlikely to be reduced any time soon. 

If the challenges of desalination are well known, so are its potential for scalability and reliability. For coastal areas, access to seawater is essentially limitless, and with constant gains in overall efficiency and renewable energy provision at desalination plants, there may soon come a time when desalination’s production capacity can outstrip rising demand. 

This month, an eye-catching innovation emerged from the UAE. Abu Dhabi-based startup Manhat uses a desalination method which involves placing sealed constructs on open water surfaces where water evaporates due to solar radiation. This technique mimics the natural water cycle and, crucially, produces clean drinking water with zero-carbon emissions and zero brine rejection – the two biggest issues associated with desalination.

Agile, experimental innovations of this nature, pioneered by startups are set against a wider backdrop of the Middle East’s push for drastically boosting the sustainability of existing desalination facilities of mega-project size and scale. Back in June we reported on the start of NEOM’s joint venture with Veolia and Itochu to deliver a reverse osmosis (RO) water desalination facility powered by 100% renewable energy. With plans set in motion already, this facility will be operational in 2025, producing 500,000 cubic metres of potable water every day via renewable energy sources – 30% of the futuristic smart city’s anticipated daily needs. 

The push for renewables-powered desalination is not solely limited to the region’s leading economies either. Back in Egypt, KarmSolar, an Egyptian solar power and utilities company, has a pilot solar-powered desalination plant under construction along the Red Sea. Despite its small starting capacity of 200 cubic metre per day, this is indicative of Egypt’s long-term thinking. 

Pushing for a greener future

November will see the arrival of COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, and with it a renewed focus on the most pressing environmental threats to humanity. Decarbonisation, clean energy transition and keeping global warming to beneath the 1.5-degree-Celsius threshold will all be at the top of the agenda. So too will the need to combat water scarcity, a threat facing every region. 

As we prepare for the most crucial international conference of our time, proponents of various scalable water security solutions are already laying the groundwork for their arguments. Desalination, by virtue of its existing importance to the Middle East and other water-parched regions, will continue to feature heavily in the debate. However, it will share the limelight as one of several key pathways to water security. Wastewater reusage, consumption reduction methods and awareness building, advanced agriculture (hydroponics, vertical farming, next-gen irrigation, etc) and air moisture reclamation will also factor into the broader regional and global effort to swing the scales back in favour of supply over demand.