Saudi Arabia last year abandoned a three-decade programme of wheat production that had turned it into one of the world’s top ten producers because the annual crop was rapidly depleting a much more vital resource: water.
This year’s unprecedented heatwaves in parts of the Middle East have further highlighted dependence on scarce water supplies in a region that stretches from the arid Gulf to the countries of the Sahara. Competition for water is seen as posing as much a threat of conflict as does the politics of oil.
In a report published in August on water security in the Middle East and North Africa, the World Bank blamed increasing consumption, inadequate governance and weak enforcement among the factors leading to a depletion of water resources – especially groundwater – at an unprecedented rate.
The scale and seriousness of the problem is prompting governments, private companies and scientists to develop innovative solutions to a chronic problem and to develop new investment strategies.
Concerns over water security are scarcely new, the four millennium-old Code of Babylon’s King Hammurabi, the earliest written compendium of laws, imposes fines on farmers who fail to maintain their irrigation systems.
Since then, the basic issues have remained. But the challenges of the 21st century are on a different order of magnitude and can be reduced to simple arithmetic: the region is consuming water at a faster rate than it is being replaced.
With the 400 million population of an increasingly urbanised Middle East and North Africa estimated to double in the next 50 years, what sort of far-reaching measures are governments taking to tackle the crisis?
Governments In some of the most arid areas of the region have long pursued the relatively costly option of desalination to meet water demand. Saudi Arabia is the world leader in desalination, with 27 plants around its coastlines, and plans to spend almost $25 billion by 2020 to expand capacity.
However, there as elsewhere, the trend is towards using solar power rather than precious hydrocarbon reserves to extract fresh water from the sea. The Saudis and others are turning to privatisation of the sector to help with future projects.
The sale of the kingdom’s $7.2 billion Ras Al Khair desalination plant, the world’s largest, is due to go ahead by the end of this year in what is expected to be the forerunner of other state asset sales.
The Saudi Water and Electricity Co. recently invited private developers to express their interest in a new so-called reverse osmosis desalination project north of Jeddah that would eventually produce 1.2 million cubic metres of water a day.
Regional investors are also seeking their own stakes in international leaders in the water sector. Mumtalakat, Bahrain’s investment company, last year acquired a significant stake the UK’s Envirogen in a deal that will help the specialist water treatment company to expand operations throughout the Gulf Cooperation Council zone.
Scientists in the region are at the same time cooperating with overseas partners on water research. The British Council is involved in funding UK-Gulf joint research projects that include desalination and sustainable waste management.
The technological advances are not limited to cheaper and more efficient desalination. Water demand has also boosted the market for atmospheric water generators, small units that extract drinkable water from the air. It is a sector dominated by international companies such as California’s Hendrx Corporation and WaterMaker India.
With investment and sales prospects in the Middle East increasingly attracting the attention of international companies, the industry-backed Produced Water Society is this year moving its annual seminar of engineers and scientists to Abu Dhabi from its regular venue in Houston.
Beyond the Gulf, Jordan has become a focus for technological research in the water sector. In a country swelled by an influx of refugees in the past decade, annual per capita consumption is less than 150 cubic metres, a sixth of the water available to a person in the United States.
Scientists in Jordan are working on so-called low pressure “drip” technology which maximises the irrigation of crops with less energy input than earlier drip methods.
In neighbouring Israel, the creator of drip technology – it relies on irrigating the roots of individual plants rather than wastefully flooding fields – the sector pioneer Netafim offers computerised sensors that monitor the water requirements of crops.
Amid predictions that parched areas of the Middle East could soon become uninhabitable because of a lack of water, these and other techniques and strategies represent at least a tentative effort to head off regional water conflict.