By Ashvin Ramasamy

The members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are expected to sustain economic growth over the next decade but must overcome the daunting task of balancing water needs with sustainable water consumption. Many GCC states are forging ahead with innovative solutions to satisfy an increasingly bigger thirst for scarce water. Known to be part of a very dry region, the Arabian Peninsula has very scarce freshwater supplies, and the amount of available groundwater is dropping.

The region of the Middle East is recognized by many as a world leader in the conversion of seawater for consumption and irrigation. Achieving water expansion goals over the medium to long term will require meticulous selection of technologies featuring high capacity, energy efficiency and autonomy and energy reduction. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates operate some of the largest desalination plants in the area. Saudi Arabia holds the title of largest desalinated water produced by volume, of which 50 percent makes up total water consumption in the kingdom. Estimates of the 2018-2020 Delivery Plan pegs desalinated water demand growth at 60 percent in 2035.

In Qatar, water production capacity is growing in large part due to the approximately $500M being invested per week in infrastructure development. Plans for the next FIFA World Cup in 2022 to be hosted in Doha, Lusail, Al Khor, among others, has sparked fresh interest in water desalination. Under a special agreement with an independent water and power producer, Qatar will secure a 40 percent increase in water capacity, bringing total daily supply to 750,000 m3/day by 2021. The technology employed in Qatar’s ambitious water expansion project is reverse osmosis or membrane desalination.

Saudi Arabia’s overarching development plan, Vision 2030, enshrines water security objectives in one of its foremost pillars, environmental sustainability. The policy goal aims for 24 percent reduction in water consumption by 2022. By decade’s end, water conservation efforts aim to further reduce consumption by 43 percent. The UAE is grappling with the fact that in 50 years its natural freshwater resources will vanish. An alarming drop of one metre/year in the water table in GCC countries puts the onus on governments to develop innovative solutions in record time. In Abu Dhabi, one of the world’s most cost- and energy-efficient technologies will help process approximately 900,000 m3/d of seawater, and will set the standard for lowest energy consumption coupled with onsite solar generation.

A recent news report noted the highest concentration of thermal energy production worldwide from desalination plants is found in the Middle East. It is without surprise that the bulk of the energy-intensive “thermal desalination” plants are still in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In recent years, Saudi water policy-making has taken a stronger stance on reverse osmosis technology, a significantly cleaner desalination process. The recent signing of the Jubail 3A reverse water osmosis plant by Saudi leaders is one of several implementations to address future water requirements. Like some existing structures, the plant will have lower energy dependency on the national energy grid. Jubail 3A will operate solar power systems, providing some autonomous operation capabilities.

Perhaps one of the biggest headwinds over the next 10 to 15 years lies at the intersection of aggressive economic growth and sustainable development. GCC countries strive for innovative research to meet ambitious water security goals. Last month, the second largest national electrical provider in Saudi Arabia signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MoU) with an American firm to integrate energy recovery equipment in desalination plants. By introducing a sophisticated water recovery tool, the Saline Water Conservation Corporation can reduce cost by 15 percent and lower energy use by 50 percent and increase desalinated water output by 20 percent among other benefits, in reverse osmosis processes according to the MoU.

ASCENT’s views on sustainable water development aligns with GCC efforts to overcome scarce water conditions. In-house analytical research performed by ASCENT has yielded insights into successful water management outcomes, such as the water-stressed agricultural zones of South Africa, Lesotho and Eswatini, among others. Many initiatives have successfully introduced key water saving technologies in these areas, such as drip irrigation systems combined with crop intensification and/or alternative cropping systems. Projects produced high crop yields using an efficient water regime throughout the lifecycle. Lessons can support water rationalization processes taking place in the agricultural sector across the Middle East.