Water crisis in the Gulf needs radical solutions

Lou del Bello

Freelance journalist, and regular IRIN contributor

Despite their location smack in the middle of the desert, the Gulf countries have water parks, public fountains, and bright green lawns.

But all that glitters is not gold, and a water crisis is looming for countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Technology can alleviate its natural scarcity – there will be enough to drink – but the costs and environmental impacts are simply unsustainable in the long run.

So what’s to be done? Experts argue that radical change is now the only way to avoid disaster, but policymakers are reacting far too slowly.

The problem

Desalination, a technique that removes the salt from saltwater to make it drinkable, produces around 90 percent of the water in the Arabian Peninsula, a region that is naturally arid but consumes 816 cubic metres of water annually per person, well above the global average of 500.

The most popular technique for removing salt from water is thermal distillation – water is evaporated, the vapours collected, and the salt separated out.

This requires a fair bit of energy, which is usually obtained by burning fossil fuels – increasing carbon emissions that some have argued, if left unchecked, could push heat in the already steamy region to an unliveable level.

The process also leaves behind a highly saline solution that ends up in the sea: Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE all have desalination facilities on the shores of the Gulf, sending brine discharges into its shallow waters.

Columbia University anthropologist Gokce Gunel is concerned about “peak salt”, the possibility that the Gulf will become so salty that desalinating its waters will become unaffordable.

The peak salt concept has been on the radar for years now, but only recently have scientists and policymakers begun to take it seriously.

High salinity not only ups the price of creating drinking water, it also alters the chemistry of the marine ecosystem, threatening coral reefs and other creatures.

Sea pollution also causes algal blooming, known in common parlance as “red tide” for the dramatic appearance it takes on – when algae spreads out of control, increases toxicity levels, absorbing the ocean’s oxygen and suffocating fish.

The technical option

Farid Benyahia, a professor of chemical engineering at Qatar University, is concerned that “there are big environmental issues associated with desalination on a massive scale”.

So he’s on the hunt for a viable alternative to traditional methods, and told IRIN by email that he’s hit on an invention that aims to solve both the problems of carbon emissions and excess brine in one.

Through a cycle of chemical reactions, Benyahia's method turns CO2 and saline solution into solid substances that can be disposed of in a more controlled manner (read: not back into the water).

Though still at an early stage and not entirely impact-free, this new method could massively reduce the side-effects of traditional desalination.

Other radical solutions are being explored.

The UAE, where it rains on average only three days a year, is even reportedly looking into ways to make it rain artificially.

The people problem

Whichever way you look at it, Benyahia believes that over-consumption is a major piece of the puzzle.

"Water has been historically heavily subsidised by Arabian states and in some countries… it is free,” he said. “This is set to change soon, and it has already started being more expensive in some Gulf states."

Gunel said that because humans can produce fresh water artificially, we have come to see it as an inexhaustible resource.

“There is not enough attention towards the social relations that created climate change in the first place,” Gunel told IRIN. “[This] perpetuates the environmental conditions in which we find ourselves.”

So locals water luxurious gardens, keep their lawns in tip-top shape, and wash cars with abandon, lulled into a false sense of security.

After years of attempting to encourage residents to decrease their water usage with limited success, countries like Qatar are now enforcing penalties against wastage – first time violators who use drinking water to wash cars or clean courtyards can incur a fine of up to QR 20,000 ($5,500).

And in Saudi Arabia, new policies that reduce or remove water subsidies have led to a public outcry. Authorities have also attempted to lower water use, handing out showerheads that are more efficient.

At the end of the day, if a crisis is to be averted Gunel says Gulf countries must do more than artificially boost the availability of fresh water – they need to change the public perception of water from a free, endless resource to a man-made commodity that is expensive, finite, and has to be managed.

That’s a tough ask in countries where gated communities sport pools and golf courses, and Gunel believes that for the most part, politicians are still not really challenging the status quo.

“You can't ask people to change their lifestyle radically, it's not an idea that will ever become popular.”

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(TOP PHOTO: The Dubai Mall sits on an artificial lake. Guilhem Vellut/Flickr)