More than 85 percent of the region is classified as arid and hyper arid, while about 60 percent of Arab countries fall under the “absolute scarcity” threshold of 500 cubic meters of renewable water per capita per year.

In short, in the MENA region, 5 percent of the world’s population has access to merely 1 percent of the world’s total water resources. Moreover, the population is expected to grow from 300 million today to 598 million in 2025, and according to the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO), by that time the availability of fresh water is to fall 50 percent.

Grim scenarios are even grimmer with the notion of the on-going climate change, which will bring about even higher temperatures, and cause even greater demand for power, especially water. In fact, the current rapid rate of water depletion across MENA may see the region categorized as one with “physical water scarcity” by 2030.

According to the recent World Bank climate report, “Turn Down the Heat: Confronting the New Climate Normal,” the greatest increases of temperature in the MENA region by the end of the century are expected in Beirut and Riyadh, where the number of hot days are projected to reach 126 and 132 days per year respectively.

To secure more water for its growing population and businesses, Middle East and North African governments are expected to spend an estimated USD 300 bn on water-related projects by 2022. In the GCC, where water and power consumption is rising 7 percent annually, and the population is expected to reach 70 million by 2050, from its current level of 45 million, governments are investing USD 100 bn from 2011 to 2016 towards implementing better water technologies and energy-efficient desalination.

Huge investments

One of the major sources of water in the MENA region is the sea. Desalinization plants line the Mediterranean and the Gulf, providing most of the region’s drinking water by separating salts and impurities from the sea water. GCC nations have more than 45 of them, producing two-thirds of global desalinization capacity, but there is a need to increase desalination capacity to more than 5,000 million gallons a day to meet projected regional demand.


Presently, desalination provides two-thirds or even more of the potable water used in the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, while in Saudi Arabia it accounts more than 70 percent of water used in the cities. In 2013, GCC countries committed USD 32 bn to water and renewable energy projects, while more than USD 12.5 bn of investment is allocated for water projects across the MENA region in 2015.

Of the total global desalination capacity, UAE contributes 35 percent, Saudi Arabia 34 percent, Kuwait 14 percent, Qatar 8 percent, Bahrain 5 percent, and Oman 4 percent, and with continuing investments in desalination plants and Integrated Power and Water Projects (IWPPs), capacities are likely to reach 9,000 cubic meters per year by 2030.

According to Frost & Sullivan, by 2020, it is expected that the Middle East will add an additional 39 million cubic meters per day of desalination capacity since 2010, which indicates an approximate investment of USD 50 bn.

But seawater desalinization is expensive – it requires heavy capital investment and high operation and maintenance costs, and it is a very hydrocarbon-intensive process: desalinized water can cost up to 30 times more than ordinary water, despite state-of-the-art technology developed and implemented in producing enough water in the GCC.

The cost of even the most efficient desalination process is USD 1 per cubic meter of water, and about four tonnes of carbon are emitted per million gallons of freshwater produced in an average plant.

Desalinization accounts for between 10 percent and 25 percent of energy consumption in the GCC: according to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE spend USD 3 bn every year on desalination.

According to a report by MIT Technology Review, the Kingdom uses 1.5 million barrels of oil per day on water desalination, while in Kuwait desalination processes consume almost 300,000 barrels of oil a day, and by 2017 this could rise to 20 percent of the country’s total oil output, which stands at around 3 million bpd (barrels per day).

Moreover, the desalination process also discharges salt back into the sea, jeopardizing marine life and introducing new environmental risks. In recent years, the water market in the GCC has seen many new, innovative concepts like membrane distillation, low temperature distillation, forward osmosis, tri-hybrid applications using nano filtration, which aim energy-efficient desalination and lowering the energy footprint of plants.

Considering other sources

Water waste
It is against the law in Qatar to keep external lights on between 7am and 4pm, and to use running water from a hose on gardens or to wash cars. A recent legislation, which amends Law No. 26 of 2008, doubled the maximum penalty for violators to QR 20,000.

Ironically, the Gulf countries, where the total groundwater reserves total no more than 50 billion cubic meters, have highest rates of water consumption in the world: The per capita water consumption in the domestic sector in GCC countries has reached 500 liters per day, and in some countries, it is even more than 700 liters per day.

An average person needs 20-50 liters of safe freshwater per day for drinking, cooking and cleaning. While a mere 2-4 liters per person are needed for drinking purposes, some 2,700 liters of water are required to produce food for one person.

According to a study from 2012, the demand for potable water in the GCC states is expected to reach 11.9 million cubic meters a day by 2025. Water supply in Saudi Arabia and the UAE is above 90 percent coverage, and it is predicted that in the next couple of years, water supply in urban regions will reach 100 percent coverage in these countries.

Realizing that conventional desalinization powered by fossil fuels, is not the only answer to the water problem, focus of the water sector in the region is shifting towards sustainable practices, such as alternative energy sources like solar and nuclear power, and waste water treatment and recycling.

But in the MENA region, only 55 percent of waste water is treated, and of that only 15 percent is formally reused. Investors are beginning to recognize the opportunity, so the market for water and waste water treatment equipment in the GCC is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 10.6 percent up to 2020 to reach USD 4 bn. Solar desalination projects are underway in several GCC member states, but the water production costs are still high – for solar it can be USD 2 per cubic meter of water.

Produced Water (PW) is also starting to be used for non-potable purposes. PW needs special handling like any industrial waste, but it has potential to be recycled and reused for industrial as well as irrigation purposes. The GCC annually generates about 1.85 billion cubic meters of PW, and Frost & Sullivan predicts that the PW management market will reach USD 482.6 million in 2017, growing at a CAGR of 10.9 percent. An average of USD 0.1-1 operational expenditure is incurred to treat one cubic meter of PW.

Other major sources of water in the GCC region are vast underground reservoirs of water or aquifers. But they are over exploited due to extended farming and agricultural use, which, according to FAO, accounts for around 85 percent of available rain-fed, irrigated and groundwater resources in the MENA region, and 80 percent in the GCC.

Extremely poor water management in the region can be seen through the fact that in some countries, between 15 and 60 percent of water disappears through leaks or evaporation (according to the World Bank, leakages in urban systems across the MENA region are often about 40-50 percent). So, meeting the demand is only half of the problem, and the other half is ensuring sustainable water and energy programmes.

Water and food security

An inefficient agricultural sector is a serious threat to water supplies: statistics show that more than half of the water drawn for agriculture does not reach the plants as intended. Water and food security are firmly connected, but food self-sufficiency is a whole other thing. Even in its wettest year, the Arabian Peninsula needs more than twice as much rainfall to meet minimum thresholds for rain-fed cereal production.

Production of wheat in the desert is very expensive – it takes around 1,000 tons of water to grow a ton of wheat, and Saudi Arabia is, after 30 years, stopping domestic wheat production next year to reduce the burden of farming imposed on its water resources.

Recent reports say that the Kingdom’s consumption of water and electricity is double the international average. The government reported that water consumption stands at 2.8 million tanks, out of which more than 70 percent is from non-renewable groundwater, despite the strict instructions to rationalize water consumption, and authorities are warning that if the trend continues, it is likely to result in a serious strain on the economy.

According to studies, Saudi Arabia’s consumption of water per year is around 20 billion cubic meters, which puts the country in the third position among the largest consumers of water in the world. The Kingdom is the world’s largest producer of desalinated water: there are 30 desalination stations that produce more than three million cubic meters a day of potable water, but that is clearly not enough.

There is progress in reusing waste water – it is expected that the Kingdom will, in next few years, become the third largest water reuse market in the world after the US and China, according to the Sustainable Water Alliance. Currently, only about 18 percent of the 1.84 million cubic meters of waste water the country processes daily is reused.

In Abu Dhabi, which is planning to reuse 100 percent of its treated waste water for irrigation by 2018, up from the 7 percent of treated waste water it uses currently, local farmers are working with the government in order to cut agricultural water use in half and ensure sustainability. Only 6.5 percent of the UAE’s land is suitable for farming and it is difficult to produce economically viable crops in conditions of extreme heat, low rainfall and barren desert soil.

Despite being the country’s major consumer of water, the agricultural sector, contributes to only 3 percent of the country’s GDP and employs only 3 percent of the labor force. Daily demand for water in the UAE alone is 400 liters per capita per day, more than 82 percent above the global average individual demand of 250 liters per capita per day. Dramatically reducing water use in the agricultural sector is a critical goal and improving the viability of the sector reduces the UAE’s vulnerability to crises.

New solutions

One of the proposed solutions for resolving water scarcity in the GCC is building a USD 10.5 bn water pipeline from Oman to Kuwait. The project, still in early stages, is planned to be completed in three stages: first, the GCC states will be linked by a regional pipe network costing USD 2.7 bn.

Then at the cost of USD 4 bn a massive desalination plant is to be built in Sohar in Oman, with the ability to receive seawater from both the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman. Finally, a second and identical desalination plant will be built in Ashkhara in Oman.

Together, the project will be capable of producing 500 million cubic meters of desalinated water a year and transporting it to areas in need. But, some experts argue that transporting water over long distances is not advisable, because the costly produced water won’t be drinkable when it passes 2,000 km from Oman to Kuwait.

Regional overview


– Two new desalination plants are planned at Qurayyat and Shuwaikh to meet the increase in demand. While the Qurayyat IWP will have a capacity of 200,000 cm/d, the Shuwaikh plant will have a capacity of 225,000 cm/d. (Source: MEED and HSBC)

UAE (Abu Dhabi)

– The Mirfa IWPP is planned to come on stream around 2016, and will be able to process 52.5 MIGD of seawater into potable water via reverse osmosis.

– Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s clean energy company, has established a pilot project to develop desalination powered by renewable energy. The scheme involves Spain’s Abengoa, France’s Degremont and Sidem, and US firm Trevi Systems. (Source: MEED and HSBC)


– USD 1.4 bn financing for the first phase of the Al-Zour power project was the first procured by Kuwait’s Partnerships Technical Bureau (PTB) as part of a public-private partnership (PPP) programme. The implementation of the Al-Zour North phase 1 project, which will add 1,500MW of new capacity to the country’s generation network and desalination capacity of about 105 million gallons a day (g/d), was a major breakthrough after years of waiting. The project was conceived in the mid-1980s, but it was two decades later, in 2004, that the Ministry of Electricity and Water (MEW) finally invited bidders to prequalify for a 3,000MW steam project. (Source: MEED and HSBC)


– Saudi Arabia has the Gulf’s biggest planned renewables programme, with Riyadh setting a target of producing 54GW of power through renewable energy projects by 2032. Nearly half of this is to be commissioned by 2020.

– In April 2014, the Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC) invited companies to submit bids for the contract to expand the 85 MIGD desalination component of the Shoaiba 2 plant south of Jeddah. The work will involve fitting a multi-effect distillation expansion unit to increase the capacity of the plant by 16 MIGD.

– New desalination plants are planned at Haql 3, Duba 4 and Al-Wajh 4, each of which will have a 2 MIGD capacity. (Source: MEED and HSBC)



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