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Solving Middle East water challenges

The Middle East and North Africa is the most water-scarce region in the world. With a dramatically increasing population expected in the years ahead, it will become even more difficult to provide water for the people who live there. Smart water management and new technology will play a vital role in meeting Middle East water challenges.

Lack of water is nothing new to an arid region like the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Although 7 percent of the world’s population lives in MENA countries, it has less than 1.5 percent of the world’s renewable freshwater. As the region’s population has grown over the years, a lack of available freshwater has become an enormous challenge.

Water stressed and water scarce

In the MENA region, annual available renewable water amounts to about 1,200 cubic meters per person, according The World Bank. To put this in perspective, hydrologists define an area as water stressed when annual water availability per person is below 1,700 cubic meter. Water scarce is defined as dropping below 1,000 cubic meters. When availability is at or below the water stress level it can significantly constrain socio-economic development.

For certain MENA countries, the annual available water is much lower than average. There are only 794 cubic meters per person in Egypt, 462 in Tunisia, 161 in Jordan, 33 in Qatar and 7.3 in Kuwait. Looking ahead, MENA’s population is expected to grow from about 380 million today to about 540 million in 2025. The availabilty of water per person by 2050 is expected to be half of what it is today.

Given the severity of Middle East water challenges, governments, organizations and companies in the region are looking for immediate and long-term solutions.

Depleting groundwater supplies

Some countries in the MENA region – like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – have very little access to renewable freshwater. They rely primarily on groundwater and desalination. Other countries, like Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, get much of their water from rivers they share with neighboring countries.

The lack of freshwater in the region, made worse by increasing droughts, has led several countries to draw on groundwater at unsustainable rates. According to a report from the World Water Assessment Programme, Egypt’s annual withdrawals of groundwater exceed 350 percent of renewable resources. Libya exceeds it by 800 percent and Saudi Arabia by 954 percent.

Much of the withdrawn water in MENA countries is used for agriculture. According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, agriculture accounts for more than 80 percent of total water withdrawn in Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the UAE, and 90 percent or more in Iran, Yemen and Sudan. The global average is 70 percent.

Despite the shortage of water in the region, many countries heavily subsidize water so its true cost – and the risks associated with the shortage – are unknown. The Gulf states, for example, have some of the highest per capita domestic water consumption rates in the world. Changing how water is managed will involve changing public opinion about the value of water.

Investing in infrastructure

To help solve the region’s water challenges, their has been a huge investment in infrastructure. Water supply and access to clean water and improved sanitation have increased significantly.

Many countries have invested in desalination plants to meet the growing demand for water. For example, Saudi Arabia has the largest desalination capacity in the world. Desalination plants, however, are expensive and very energy intensive. There is a current trend in MENA to look for more energy-efficient solutions, as many are aware that the production of food, energy and water are closely connected.

Some MENA countries use their desalinated water for agricultural purposes, which is also energy and cost intensive. At the same time, improvements in agriculture and food security have not been matched with policies that encourage the efficient use of water. According to a World Bank water brief, the growing MENA population and climate change will inevitably reduce the amount of water available to agriculture.

“Farmers will either be forced to adapt when their aquifers become exhausted or surface water too unreliable, or the transition can be managed, and mitigated to some extent by policies to increase water productivity, increase investments in modernized irrigation systems and non-conventional water resources,” the brief states.

Using treated wastewater for both agriculture and industrial use is one way MENA countries are attempting to optimze their water use. “Reusing waste water is no longer a luxury, it is a need, especially in an area that is infamous for its water scarcity,” said Dr. Basel Al Yousfi, director of the Regional Centre for Environmental Health Action at the World Health Organisation, at a recent conference in Dubai. “I do not think we can afford to use any drop of water without maximum utilization.”

Developing better solutions for Middle East water challenges

In 2004, Xylem helped design a desalination plant in Dubai, one of the world’s ten largest seawater reverse osmosis desalination plants. To address the high-energy use of desalination plants, Xylem’s innovative solution included energy recovery turbines that generate their own energy. This cut external energy requirements by 45 percent compared to older desalination plants.

In order to better support its customers, Xylem in recent years has been expanding its operations in the Middle East and North Africa. This has enabled the company to work more closely with customers in developing solutions for Middle East water challenges.

“Xylem works with the entire water chain, everything from acquiring water to transporting, treating and analyzing it,” says Vincent Chirouze, Regional Director MEA, Xylem. “We already have offices in Dubai, Beirut and Turkey, and are planning other expansions in the region in the near future.”

by Simon