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Monday, August 3

Guess how much water reserves Doha has: Desalination and the consumption paradox

"In fact, most of the region’s countries have water availability below the scarcity level."

"...many of the Gulf states find themselves in a situation where they need to burn oil to make water, which they then use to extract more oil."

"The International Energy Agency estimates that desalination in the Gulf represents approximately 12 per cent of the region’s total energy use. Saudi Arabia alone burns 1.5m barrels of oil every day to desalinate water, an amount equivalent to the daily oil consumption of Italy. Similarly, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi uses over half of its domestic energy to make potable water."

"It’s also possible to argue that it was desalination, and the availability of  'easy water,' that made such population growth possible: that in turn created a need for more desalination. The result was a demand cycle that’s really hard to break."

"The desalination process is causing environmental damage, too. It is thought that desalination has increased the salinity of the water in the Gulf itself by 2 per cent over the last 20 years."


Doha, capital of Qatar, in 1904


Montage of Doha city and municipality today 


Doha has three days of water in reserve. 

We learn from Wikipedia (which published the photographs featured above) that the population of Doha, as of 2014, is 900,545 within the city proper:
The city is located on the coast of the Persian Gulf in the east of the country. It is Qatar's fastest growing city, with over 60% of the nation's population living in Doha or its surrounding suburbs, and it is also the economic center of the country. ... As the commercial capital of Qatar and one of the emergent financial centers in the Middle East, Doha is considered a world city by the Globalization and World Cities Research Network. Doha accommodates Education City, an area devoted to research and education."  
A world city means in part that it hosts many international gatherings, which places considerable demands on the city's water supply

Karim Elgendy's July 16 report for CityMetric, Doha has just three days’ supply: are water shortages the biggest threat to the Middle East? begins with a helpful historical summary of the water sources that allowed the region's major cities to emerge and flourish. Doha, for example, was built around a number of wells. But I'm going to plunge in at a later point in the narrative:
  
[...]
Burning oil to make water to make oil

With the exception of the cities along these three large rivers [Nile, Tigris, Euphrates], water has remained a limited resource, and the region could only sustain a limited population size. So as its population grew, and their standard of living increased, demand for water in the cities of the Middle East rose – and natural water resources were no longer sufficient to meet demand.

In the 20th century, population growth accelerated at such a rate that regional cities could no longer live within their sustainable environmental boundaries and additional water sources had to be found.

In just 50 years the population of the region more than tripled, rising from 97m in 1960 to 351m in 2010.

With limited rainfall and ground water, and newly found oil wealth, the Gulf subregion turned towards desalination to keep up with demand. Rapid population growth in cities such as Riyadh – now 190 times larger than it was before the discovery of oil – may have justified a decision across the oil rich region to use some the oil to “manufacture” potable water.

It’s also possible to argue that it was desalination, and the availability of “easy water”, that made such population growth possible: that in turn created a need for more desalination. The result was a demand cycle that’s really hard to break.

Either way, desalination remains a major component of water supply in the region. It is currently estimated that 70 per cent of the world’s desalination capacity is in the Gulf states. The region is generally considered to have spearheaded advances in desalination technology.

This focus on desalination came despite its high energy costs. The International Energy Agency estimates that desalination in the Gulf represents approximately 12 per cent of the region’s total energy use. Saudi Arabia alone burns 1.5m barrels of oil every day to desalinate water, an amount equivalent to the daily oil consumption of Italy. 

Similarly, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi uses over half of its domestic energy to make potable water.

Ironically, given the water needs of the oil industry, many of the Gulf states find themselves in a situation where they need to burn oil to make water, which they then use to extract more oil.

The Gulf countries have also tapped into their ground water reservoirs. These are non-renewable fossil aquifers and, soon enough, this approach proved unsustainable.

Ground water withdrawal over the last 30 years in the UAE has caused the fresh water table to drop by a meter, a rate which risks the complete depletion of UAE ground water within the next half a century. Similarly, after its ground water withdrawal reached alarming levels, Saudi Arabia recently had to scale back its wheat self-sufficiency program; by 2016 it’ll rely on importing 100 per cent of its food.


Watching the aquifer fall

Other subregions have decided to live within their means – but only relatively. They’ve largely accepted that per capita water resource will inevitably dwindle as their populations growth, but still occasionally tap into their non-renewable ground water.

The most extreme case of such tapping is Sana’a where a mix of rapid population growth and excessive ground water use saw its water table dropping by 2 meters a year. The Yemeni capital is expected to be the first city in the world to run out of economically viable water supplies, potentially by 2017.

Even Egyptian and Iraqi cities, which have historically enjoyed abundant water, are facing challenges. Egyptian per capita water availability is expected to reach severe scarcity levels (that is, 500m3 per capita per year) by 2025. 

Despite access to half of the Nile’s water, Egyptian cities’ demand for water currently outstrips supply by 27 per cent, and population growth is expected to trigger shortages.

Iraqi cities, on the other hand, appear less at risk, as they are only expected to reach water stress levels (1500m3 per capita per year) by 2025. But things are worse than they seem: this 25 per cent reduction of per capita water availability represents the steepest drop in the region.

Considering all the different water sources on offer, the region’s overall supplies remain quite low: they average just 1076m3 per capita per year, just over the 1,000 m3 scarcity threshold which identifies where a country’s water availability represents a barrier to development. In fact, most of the region’s countries have water availability below the scarcity level. The world average is 8,500m3 per capita per year.

Despite this scarcity, and the high cost of water desalination, water in the Middle East remains relatively cheap. As a result of heavy government subsidies, the final consumer – be that industry, agriculture, or households – is unaware of the true cost of water: something that’s disincentised the introduction of water efficiency measures across most of the region. The region has the second lowest water productivity levels globally, generating less than $7 of GDP for every cubic meter of water used.

The elephant in the room here is the 1.5m km2 of agricultural land which represent the region’s agriculture sector. That represents 7 per cent of the region’s landmass; but it accounts for 85 per cent of water consumed, compared to 70 per cent globally.

This disparity can partly be attributed to the sector’s reliance on inefficient irrigation techniques: it makes heavy use of flooding and furrow irrigation, while neglecting micro irrigation techniques such as drip irrigation. With the exception of Israel and Jordan, most of the region’s states have failed to shift their agricultural systems towards water efficient irrigation techniques.


Where now?

The situation is challenging, but the region’s cities are not necessarily doomed to an unsustainable future. To meet growing demand, they’ll have to work on both securing sustainable water supplies and on managing demand. But they’ll need to do this in the context of population growth, conflicts and climate change.

Given the region’s population growth rate, per capita water availability is expected to fall by half by 2050. In addition, climate change is expected to shift rain fall patterns: total rainfall is expected to drop by 20-30 per cent by 2070.

Desalination also comes with significant risks, and the cities of the Gulf are particularly vulnerable to supply shocks. Doha, for example, is estimated to have just three days' water supply; it’s currently building a strategic reservoir that will raise this to a week.

The desalination process is causing environmental damage, too. It is thought that desalination has increased the salinity of the water in the Gulf itself by 2 per cent over the last 20 years. What's more, an average of 75 per cent of the region’s surface water originates outside it. That leaves it vulnerable to future resource conflicts.

One way to achieve sustainability and water security in the region would be to fully embrace solar desalination. That would allow cities to leverage solar energy, the region’s most abundant renewable energy source.

This option would require significant infrastructure investment – an investment that many cities may feel uneasy about. But if the long term future hangs in the balance, such investment may be the difference between an abandoned oasis and a sustainable one.
_____
Karim Elgendy is a sustainability consultant based in London. He is also the Founder and Coordinator of Carboun, an advocacy initiative promoting sustainability in Middle East cities.
He tweets at @CarbounCities.

[END REPORT]

There are few questions I have about Elgendy's suggestions.

1. Drip tape irrigation can be counterproductive in the long run. As readers will recall from the New Yorker article I quoted in a post that addressed the consumption paradox, not wasting a drop of water in irrigation means there's no water runoff to help recharge groundwater sources. 

2. Solar-based desalination doesn't address the issue of Gulf water salinity; while there is at least one new technology that desalinates without returning salt to the source waters, clearly it will be several years if ever before this kind of technology is adopted exclusively in the Middle Eastern countries. 

3. Elgendy is talking about a large region of the world that is becoming almost exclusively dependent on desalination.  Meanwhile, the region is on a never-ending development spree that creates huge infrastructures that guzzle huge amounts of water just to sustain themselves.  

The Persian Gulf is quite shallow allover, and 8 nations and many major cities in those nations have coasts along its shores. The gulf is also badly polluted from industrial waste dumping and oil spills.  When these factors are combined with the 8 nations slurping up increasingly huge amounts of Gulf water for desalination, a reasonable question is how long that body of water, and its ecology including marine life, can withstand the onslaught.        

4. I won't dispute at this point Elgendy's statement implying that Abu Dhabi uses desalinated water for drinking water. But my understanding, from other reports I've read, is that the Gulf countries don't use desalinated water for drinking and that they would be a long way from converting waste water to drinking water.  Perhaps attitudes are changing in this regard or will change. But my point is that for the present, at least, potable water must be at an increasingly steep premium in the region.

5. Various countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia, are talking about building nuclear energy plants. The nuclear plants require so much water to maintain that I have blanked out the statistic I quoted just a few weeks ago on this blog. It's possible the plants would use less water in the long run than the water used to drill for oil. But as far as I can see, either way you cut it you're not getting away from the consumption paradox. Not in the Middle East.  

Even with these questions I wish to thank Karim Elgendy for his report. I learned a great deal from it. I will close with a photograph from Wikipedia of Doha suburbs:

It's a desert, folks, with a desert climate.  

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