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Water: a looming disaster?


Water: a looming disaster?

Najib Saab

January 2012, Al-BiaWal-Tanmia (Environment and Development)

While addressing a session on water security during the Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi, I was afraid to end up reiterating already known information. But I discovered that the Arabs still need to know a lot about this subject.

I mentioned that the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) report on water showed that as early as 2015 - and not 2025 as had been thought -the Arab World's annual per capita share of freshwater might be less than 500m3, which is considered severe scarcity.

In three years time, the annual per capita share of renewable freshwater shall drop to 77m3 in Saudi Arabia, 26m3 in the UAE, and 5m3 in Kuwait. Such are the limitations of nature, and the volume of water available on Earth today is the same from which dinosaurs drank tens of thousands of years ago. But the amount of water in the Arab Region will continue to diminish due to the effects of climate change, while the population continues to grow exponentially. Apparently, the sole option left for many Arab countries is filling the gap by desalinating sea water by using highly expensive and often polluting methods.

However, the amount of water consumed by an average individual for personal use in some countries that depend entirely on desalinated sea water such as the Gulf States, especially Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is the highest in the world, exceeding 500 liters per day.

Moreover, golf courses continue to spread like mushrooms, in some of the driest countries in the region, where each course consumes a quantity of freshwater equivalent to the supply needed for16,000 human beings. 

Besides, production of milk and dairy products, using fodder irrigated by non-renewable fossil groundwater whose resources are gradually depleting, is also expanding in some of the driest countries of the region. It is worth noting that each liter of milk requires 1,000 liters of water to be produced, most of which goes to the irrigation of fodder. It is needless to mention that it is not sustainable to export fossil water, which is actually more precious than fossil fuel.

We should know that while agriculture consumes 85 percent of the freshwater in the Arab world, irrigation efficiency is less than 30 percent, i.e. we are losing 70 percent.  

We have to know also that, except for some isolated attempts, 60 percent of wastewater is not treated, and out of that less than 40 percent is reused.

I stopped here, and referred participants in the Summit to AFED's report on water for more alarming details: The Arab region is facing a water disaster, and most current measures are just meant to buy some extra time.

I did not expect to see my statement published on the front pages of newspapers in the UAE and other Gulf countries the next morning. What I said did not contain anything that was not mentioned in AFED's report on water, which was released a year earlier and whose findings were publicized in Arab and international media. But it seems that the stage of the Abu Dhabi summit gave the information a new impact. This coincided with an interview with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, published on the same day, in which His Highness said that water in the UAE was more important than oil. He called for the development of research and studies, and planning for the conservation of natural resources to meet future needs.

The Saudi newspaper al-Eqtisadiyah quoted my words on the front page under the headline "Looming Disaster". This upset me at first impression because I found it kind of sensational and provoking. Yet it seems that provocation in the press has some benefits when based on facts, and this must have been the intention of the editor: The headline spurred heated debates expressed in dozens of comments on the web page of the newspaper.

One comment called for addressing the problem with practical measures, including use of "smart fixtures", prevention of wastage in distribution networks, wastewater treatment and reuse and fair pricing of water. Another reader responded to this comment saying that access to water is the right of all humans, so it may not be priced. A third reader replied: "Our problem is extravagance", and quoted a Hadith calling for moderate consumption of water. He suggested pricing water in brackets, with minimum prices for the essential quantities needed for basic use, and gradually higher prices for excessive consumption. A fourth comment added: "We irrigate gardens with the most expensive desalinated water, rather than using treated wastewater, and lose our groundwater on low-value agricultural products".

Yet another reader doubted all the figures, considering them as part of a foreign plot and intimidation scheme "to impede the achievement of food security and deprive people of their right to water". He was supported by another reader who said: "It is natural that people in the Gulf countries consume a larger amount of water, due to the high temperatures and the need to wash several times daily, let alone the needs for ablution-wudu".

A reader derided what the ‘foreign conspiracy theory' saying: "We should be aware of our defects. Our problem is that we are overexploiting our definite resources". Ahmed Saleh al-Mussab wrote on the same website: "When we export dairy products, we are effectively exporting water. We must simply produce what we need for our local consumption". The debate continues on "al-Eqtisadiyah" website.      

There is no use in deceiving ourselves with flimsy justifications of overconsumption, such as claiming that the warm weather calls for using a larger amount of water. In the dry regions of Australia, which depend on desalination, water consumption per person is equivalent to half the consumption in the Gulf States. In Canada, which has a high per capita consumption rate, the average is 340 liters per day, or about half the rate in the UAE. This is compared to 120 liters in Britain, where experts attribute this low level of water consumption to pricing policies.

Agricultural efficiency in dry countries must be measured by the quantity of food produced per cubic meter of water and not per hectare of land. Now, if some people insist on breeding cattle in the desert to feed on fodder irrigated with non-renewable groundwater, and exporting their products to other countries, the law should require the import of animal feed equivalent to 1,000 liters of water for every one liter of exported milk, and consequently using imported ‘virtual water', rather than wasting depletable aquifers. Since agriculture is the largest consumer of water in the region, reaching 85 percent of total consumption, in addition to very low efficiency rates, management of water should begin with controlling agricultural production, bearing in mind that ‘food security' cannot be achieved at the expense of  ‘water security'.

We also have to admit that there have been some successful attempts, such as the project of treating ‘wudu' water and reusing it for irrigating the garden at the Mohammed Hamoud Mosque in Sib area near Muscat.

Let us remember that 13 Arab countries are among the world's 19 most water scarce countries, and that the average per capita share of renewable freshwater in eight Arab countries is below 200m3 per year, less than half the severe water scarcity threshold. This even drops down to less than 100 m3 in six countries. These figures account for all needs: agricultural, industrial, municipal and personal.     

‘Al-Eqtisadiyah' headline was true because the water disaster is definitely coming if Arab countries persist on neglecting the problem, or at best address it with partial, incomplete solutions.

Going back to the Abu Dhabi meeting, I asked my interlocutor, an official of a government institution: Was any verifiable progress achieved in water management during the past ten years, in terms of reducing per capita consumption and improving efficiency? Was there any achievement other than increasing desalination capacities without managing demand? He replied: "During this period, we have been conducting studies and setting standards".

I was returning from Kyoto, where I heard the Japanese wisdom: "Fantasy without work is daydreaming, while action without imagination is a nightmare". Studies are necessary, but we have enough of that, and the Arab water problem is critical and urgent. So, let us put a quick plan based on the facts that we know, and begin to work immediately.

Arab Environment in 10 Years
ARAB ENVIRONMENT IN 10 YEARS crowns a decade of the series of annual reports produced by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) on the state of Arab environment. It tracks and analyzes changes focusing on policies and governance, including level of response and engagement in international environmental treaties. It also highlights developments in six selected priority areas, namely water, energy, air, food, green economy and environmental scientific research.
Environmental Agenda
Environment in Arab Media
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