With World Water Day approaching on 22nd March, it’s hard not to turn our attention to the MENA (Middle East and North African) region. The MENA is the scarcest region in the world when it comes to water – it has 5% of the world’s population, but only 1% of the world’s renewable water sources.
Analysis by the World Resources Institute (WRI) indicates that in 2040, the Middle East in particular is likely to be under severe stress when it comes to water. It predicts that it will have 14 of the 33 most water stressed countries in the world, including nine that are likely to be highly stressed with a score of 5.0 out of 5.0 - Bahrain, Kuwait, Palestine, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Lebanon.
The scarcity of fresh water resources compounded by a combination of rising populations, urbanisation, climate change and historically inconsistent resource management approaches are together putting insurmountable pressure on a dwindling supply. That said, local populations have over the years become highly ingenious in accessing and utilising its scarce water resources. The imbalance between the population and the scarcity of water has led to the development of sophisticated groundwater access methods such as wells, tunnels, dams and channelling natural springs, enabling maximum benefit to be gained from the available fresh water.
The worrying situation is that the demand for water in this region is likely to surge in the next few decades – which is particularly fuelled by increasing populations. Since 1970, the population of the MENA has more than doubled from 173 million to 380 million people – and is likely to double again by 2050. This will undoubtedly increase consumption from people, agriculture and companies. Other factors also need to be considered – an increasing number of people moving to cities will put a strain on supplies and the emerging middle class are likely to increase the demand for water intensive food production and electricity generation.
Out of this pretty bleak picture, I think that an impressive water management and engineering response has arisen, both locally and internationally. A number of national and regional political initiatives have created an environment that is thirsty for bold technical solutions and innovative investments as a means to provide solutions for the challenges when it comes to water resources. It is essential that this drive to develop innovative solutions keeps the momentum and is supported by both national governments and the private sector. This would really help to ensure that the region’s growth is not held back by its water supply.
I have been working in the water sector for over 25 years, both in the UK and abroad, so I can be confident in saying that the MENA region is leading the way across the world with installing desalination technologies, which is helping it tap into the one, almost limitless renewable water resource. The investment in this currently under-utilised resource is impressive and as time goes on, the efficiency of the technology will increase whilst the TOTEX cost of technology decreases. There are also ongoing initiatives to tackle the power costs of desalination with both new energy recovery technology and also the linking of desalination to solar power sources to provide more sustainable energy generation solutions.
Wastewater re-use is also being pioneered in the region with the effluent from wastewater treatment being cleaned to high qualities so that it can be reused in irrigation, industrial uses and for cooling water. In Jordan, the As-Samra Wastewater plant re-uses wastewater to serve a population of 2.2 million people. In Ajman, 30% of the city’s wastewater is being re-used, with the aim of moving towards majority re-use in the medium future.
At Atkins, we were lucky enough to be the lead designers for the Briman Reservoirs, in Saudi Arabia which not only holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s largest drinking facility but more importantly will provide secure water for the population on Jeddah for years to come. Innovation here was key and was best demonstrated through the use of post-tensioned engineering which allowed the reservoirs to be built up to a height of 18 metres (rather than 8 metres, which would have been the height if traditional methods had been used).
What has come out of the water scarcity is a hunger and desire to innovate and use the latest technologies, which will help to ensure that the MENA’s future isn’t held back by its lack of water. And what can we in the UK learn from this? For me it’s the fact that if there is a real desire to innovate, it can well and truly have very real and tangible benefits that go beyond the water industry. It’s all about the bigger picture.