Middle East working to resolve water security challenges with investment and technology

Practically every month, newer and more dire predictions emerge as to the countdown towards major water security incidents occurring across the world’s most water-stressed regions. With the Middle East topping that list, concerns regarding drought, famine, disease and water-focused warfare are running at an all-time high. However, the fight back against this existential threat is also gaining momentum.

Middle East areas experiencing major water challenges

Iraq: With its inefficient water infrastructure and agriculture sector, along with thousands of illegal wells being drilled across the country, Iraq’s natural aquifers and groundwater resources are dwindling rapidly. Another exacerbating factor is the increase of major dam projects completed across the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, whose levels have dropped by an astonishing two thirds since the 1970s. The stark impact of Iraq’s water crisis was brought home in 2018 when Basra suffered a major drought event, leading to 100,000 people becoming sick from drinking polluted water.

Gaza: From an abundance of water in previous centuries, Gaza is now experiencing acute problems with its water supplies. Its aquifers are over-drafted, while sewage waste is steadily pumped into the sea, before seeping back into its fresh water supplies. This continues to create disastrous conditions for the 1.85+ million people living in the world’s third most densely populated political unit.

Jordan: Though not directly affected by warfare, Jordan is vulnerable to shocks hitting the international food market, as much of its grain supplies come from the Ukraine. Compounded by a bad 2021 harvest, the country is now contemplating serious food security issues as well as water security. Inefficiency in agriculture is a major focus area for the Jordanian Government, since the sector only provides 5% of the nation’s GDP and 6% of its exports, while representing half of all water consumption.

Smart meters make for water-smart communities

While desalination has long been a necessary part of the Middle East’s struggle to ‘balance the chequebook’ on water security, the reduction of waste is an increasingly vital element of the wider struggle.

Recent analysis from IDC predicts that 80% of worldwide utility suppliers will use digital customer engagement solutions by 2026 to drive efficiency gains and appeal to the more environmentally conscious younger generations. Smart metering is a practice that continues to gain ground in the Middle East as energy/water use subsidies from oil-producing nations are scrapped as a necessary sustainability measure.

With the latest smart meters capable of providing up-to-the-minute data on water consumption and waste, consumers can make more informed and frugal choices in how they run their homes and businesses. More importantly, utility providers gain a much more data-centric, holistic overview of their water infrastructure, leading to better maintenance practices, smart investment decisions and ultimately, more sustainable operations.

The same IDC report says that by the start of 2023, 30% of water utilities worldwide will be pushed to invest in better solutions for integrated information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) data. In the Middle East, where water wastage is rampant, smart meters may prove decisive in balancing the daily water deficit of its growing cities and struggling agricultural sectors.

Middle East Water Security investments roundup

Renewable water supplies for NEOM: A new MoU between ENOWA, ITOCHU, and Veolia has been signed to deliver a first-of-its-kind selective desalination plant powered by 100% renewable energy. The facility will be sited in the OXAGON, NEOM's advanced manufacturing and innovation city. The partnering companies believe that they can finish the facility and begin production by 2024, building up to a production capacity of 500,000m3 of desalinated water per day in 2025. This would be 30% of NEOM’s entire forecast water demand.

Rabigh 4 IWP gathers pace: Saudi Water Partnership Company (SWPC) has prequalified 8 bidders for its Rabigh 4 Independent Water Plant (IWP) project. This is a highly ambitious 600,000m3 per day desalination project that should commence operations in late 2025.

DEWA’s triple water reservoir efforts: Storage is as important as production capacity for the long-term future of Middle Eastern water security. To that end, Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) plans to construct new water reservoirs in three different parts of the emirate. Together, the proposed Nakhali, Lusaily and Hatta facilities will provide a combined storage capacity of 210 MIG (Million Imperial Gallons). The projects represent a total planned investment of around $150 million.

Saudi Arabia’s Tabuk development: No fewer than 26 water, environmental and agricultural projects are underway in the Tabuk region of Saudi Arabia, comprising a $667 million investment in its water security. Within this major scope of works are four desalination projects, while five projects focus on improving water transmission systems. This ambitious move must be seen against the wider backdrop of Saudi Arabia’s national drive to overhaul its water infrastructure and make it fit for purpose in an increasingly water-stressed water future.

Bridging the Gap by all means necessary

Despite the continuous efforts of ME nations to combat water shortages, there remains a massive and troubling gap between demand and the region’s supply capacity. The latest estimates put the current cost of this annual demand gap around $104 billion per year. However, this could reach as high as $300-400 billion, if burgeoning population growth and other demand factors continue to outstrip rising supply.

This brings home the stark reality of the Middle East’s position. Despite its best efforts, the gap is widening, and must be bridged. This has led to the predicted rise of $4.2 billion of new desalination investments for 2022 – a level that will almost certainly need to be topped in 2023 and beyond. As well as driving up supply, the reduction of water waste remains a central priority for the region’s water security struggle. Hence, we can expect to hear more about smart metering, and the wider context of water waste reduction efforts at the city and national levels – in the closing months of 2022.