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Time to stop going with the flow.

Byline: Jumana Al Tamimi

The Arab Gulf states have spent $21 billion (Dh77 billion) in the last 40 years in building desalination plants, excluding operational costs.

When such projects were first taken up, they were among the better available options to overcome water scarcity but the circumstances today are quite different with the whole world looking seriously at conserving resources.

In the Gulf, the alarm bells have been ringing for years, but not many people seem to have taken notice. Today, experts in the region are warning that it is virtually impossible to continue building water desalination plants to meet increasing demand and therefore water wastage must be reduced as well.

Solutions, they say, are known to the "acute" problem but are "difficult and more complicated to put into action".

"The problem has been there for a long time," Professor Waleed Al Zubari, expert on water resources management, and vice-president of academic affairs at the Bahrain-based Arabian Gulf University, told Gulf News.

"It is an acute ongoing problem that didn't crop up today," he said. The solution, therefore, "is not related to one party, but rather should be a collective accomplishment".

It's hard to leave out population growth and agricultural practices when looking for ways to address the problem, experts believe.

The Arab region's population growth rate, estimated at nearly 2.2 per cent, is well above the global average of 1.17 per cent.

Rapid population growth leads to increasing demand for food, which in turn calls for more agricultural produce and a higher demand for water for irrigation.

From nearly 300 million in 2002, the Arab population is expected to reach 395 million in 2015 u nearly 5.5 per cent of the world's population, UN estimates show.

Total available surface water resources in the Arab countries are estimated at 277 billion cubic metres per year, only 43 per cent of which originates within those countries, research documents reveal.

For instance, nearly 60 per cent of the Tigris and Euphrates river waters originate from outside the region, namely Turkey, while 100 per cent of the Nile River originates from the Ethiopian Plateau, experts noted.

Low rainfall rates coupled with the threat of desertification further complicate the situation. Desertification is formally defined under the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) as "land degradation in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities".

Quoting a UN Environment study, the 2009 Arab Human Development Report said desertification has "swallowed up more than two-thirds of total land area of the region" u 9.76 million square kilometres to be precise, or 68.4 per cent of the land area. Ongoing desertification threatens about 2.87 million square kilometres or a fifth of the area of the Arab countries, it added.

The highest ratio of desert-to-total-land area is in the Arabian Peninsula at 89.6 per cent, followed by North Africa (77.7 per cent), the Nile Valley and the Horn of Africa (44.5 per cent) and then the Mashreq, or the Middle East, at 35.6 per cent.

Despite variations in individual water resources among Arab states, most of them fall way under the water poverty line u defined as the availability of 1,000 cubic metres per person a year.

Complicated issue

"Solutions are known," for the water problem in the Arab world, Al Zubari said. "But who would be capable of stopping the population growth? Who would be capable of putting high tariffs on water consumption? Who would be capable of reconsidering the agricultural policies? It is a complicated issue and can't be solved by one party," he said, noting that in many Arab countries, food security is considered part of national security.

While the GCC countries "have the financial ability to build desalination plants, they can't keep building these plants forever; these are very expensive projects, and they are burdens on the budgets," he said.

According to the UN's Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), it is estimated that $21 billion was spent from the 1960s until 2000 on building desalination plants.

Today, the GCC's annual capacity stands at close to 3.2 billion cubic metres a year.

"We need not continue going on with the same pattern: building desalination plants whenever the demand increases. We need to cut down on the demand," Al Zubari said, adding that such a course of action would be needed at several levels, such as household consumption, agricultural use and industrial consumption.

"But we have not reached the point of [full] public awareness that there is a big problem," he said. While Arab experts say water scarcity warnings have not been followed up with as much gusto, many of them strongly believe that raising the level of public awareness about the severity of the water problem holds the key to addressing the situation.

"People waste water in an unbelievable manner whether in the GCC or the rest of the Arab countries," said Professor Rafeea Gobash, a prominent Arab researcher and academic from the UAE.

People behave almost "as if the [water] problem doesn't concern them", Gobash, who earned her PhD in community and epidemiological psychiatry, told Gulf News.

Between 20 per cent to 30 per cent of water consumption can be saved by getting people to think about the problem, she added.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia between them have the two largest water desalination plants in the world, experts observed during a water conference held in Dubai earlier this year.

The two Gulf states, along with Kuwait and Qatar, are among the top ten countries in the world in terms of water desalination, it was noted.

Gobash sought to highlight Japan's efforts to optimise water consumption as an example of how other developed countries could reduce water wastage. She recalled her visit to an electronics factory in that country while attending a scientific conference a few years back. "They proudly showed new machines that used less water. All of the machines they showed me used less water."

Another example is Singapore, which has won worldwide recognition for its inventions to reduce wastage of water and its willingness to share conservation technologies with others. Scientific efforts in the island state are coupled with a massive public campaign to make people aware of the problem and how costly it is to address, experts said.

Media campaigns

People have been urged to take shorter daily showers, for instance. "Every minute less means saving nine litres of water, which are equivalent to nine large bottles of Coca Cola," people were told.

As a result, the percentage of water wasted dropped from 9.5 per cent in 1990 to 4.7 per cent in 2005, Singaporean experts said.

In some Arab countries, media campaigns were launched a few years ago, though on a limited scale. In other countries, such as Jordan, where the water problem is rather severe, people who are caught hosing their cars or driveways could face big fines.

While countries like Singapore are also into recycling waste water for human consumption, experts in the region said such an option u purifying kitchen run-off for drinking purposes u is under study.

However, "there is no comprehensive programme to reuse what we call the grey water," Al Zubari said. "The issue is not whether such an option is possible or not, the issue is how we can collect the grey water separately from the black water [sewage]."

But again, "we have the sea water to desalinate, so why would we resort to purifying the grey water," he asked.

Up to 30 per cent of the treated waste water in the Gulf region is being used for agricultural purposes, Al Zubari said, comparing the figure to the global average of 70 per cent.

Increasing the percentage of treated waste water used in irrigation, adopting new technologies for irrigation and decreasing levels of water consumption are, according to Al Zubari, among the best available options to conserve water in the Gulf region.

"We need to look at the other side [of the problem]," he stressed, "which is to decrease the demand on water."

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Date:Dec 9, 2009
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