One of the best videos on water issues is found at http://www.circleofblue.org/waternews/arts/video-no-reason/.
This video shows how water is connected with so many things: economics, war, food, energy and so much more. Worldwide about 97.5 percent of all water is in the oceans. Only 2.5 percent is fresh water. Of that fresh water about 68 percent is in glaciers, about 30 percent is ground water. The rest is to be found as permafrost, atmospheric humidity, and surface water in the form of rivers, lakes, soil moisture, plants and animals and the like.
Most of the river, ground water and other surface water is circulated about a region and even across significant sections of the globe via weather currents, which are in turn, affected by ocean tidal, the jet stream, and the overall climate interactions across sometimes stunningly large areas.
For example, the El Nina and El Nino periodic climate shifts in the Pacific Ocean can have great effects on rain patterns even in places quite far from where they are happening. The monsoons in South Asia are partially defined and helped along by the temperature and pressure changes across the Himalaya and the glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau.
Long-term climate and weather pattern changes explain why the MENA region is water short and desert long.
Many of the desert areas of the world were once not deserts. Underneath some of these desert lay some of the largest aquifers in the world, such as the Great Nubian Sandstone Aquifer under North Africa that spreads fairly well into parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. Then there are the vast underground aquifers under Saudi Arabia that hold more water than can be found in the Persian Gulf, but this water has been draining rather quickly over the last decades due to increased water use for irrigation development of desert crops. It is not just Saudi Arabia doing this.
A large amount of the water in the underground aquifers of the GCC, which is almost all not naturally renewed and from 40,000 to 60,000 years ago, has been used for agricultural purpose over the recent decades.
This use of water is not sustainable for the sole reason that the water is not renewable. A lot of it has evaporated into the atmosphere and has not returned to the ground given the vagaries of the hydrological cycles in the region. Some of this water has been polluted from agricultural, energy, residential, commercial and other uses. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and others in the region have relied massively on essentially increasingly limited water sources from underground.
The MENA region has the highest percentage extraction of renewable freshwater water by far than any other region, and the drier parts of the GCC are some of the highest on the planet. There is very little renewable water in the region and the demands for water are increasing very rapidly. The price of water in the MENA is more often than not well below the natural resource value of the water, and often it is overused and wasted due to its relatively low cost.
To be fair the efficiency of the use of water in the GCC has been improving in some area with improved irrigation techniques and more. However, a lot more needs to be done. Also to be fair, the massive changes that have happened in places like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and the like have been astonishing and much is to be admired, but much water was also wasted along the way and in some perpetually water stressed area. It can seem to the outsider to be rather odd that for all of the driest of the GCC countries the largest use of water has been in agriculture.
Reusing the polluted water is possible, and many in the GCC are taking the importance of reusing the water quite seriously. This has been one very vital step forward.
Saudi Arabia and others in the region have also built many small dams to capture whatever runoff there might be in some places. In a less dry climate, such dams might capture enough to make a difference. In Saudi Arabia only a very small proportion of its water needs are found in this way.
Nearly 90 percent of the surface water to be found in the MENA region is found in reservoirs, but most of this is not in the GCC region. There are no major rivers or rain currents in most of the area to make this happen, excepting in Iraq. However, Iraq relies on Turkey and others for about 50 percent of its water.
Making new water is another solution to the problems the GCC faces. The UAE has even attempted seeding clouds to make it rain in a country not exactly known for downpours. One of the most important trends in the GCC region has been in desalinization. This is one way to turn the seawater into usable fresh water. It is energy intensive and expensive.
However, the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others do not have much choice here. It is either desalinate the water or face severe economic, social, and health problems that could devastate them.
So hundreds of billions will likely be put toward desalinating water and a massive amount of oil and gas will go to these projects. Water is not coming into these drier countries of the region via rain and the like. So if any economic development is to occur, such as the new Saudi economic cities and the continuation of the dizzying growth of the UAE and Qatar that has been happening, then more desalinated water seems to be the major solution taken. There have been serious discussions about importing water from Africa and even as far as Japan, and sometimes these discussions have included importing waste water to be treated in the drier GCC countries and then used for agriculture.
Water trade is an idea whose time has surely come, but as with desalinization this is a supply solution whereas demand solutions are also available and advisable. It surely makes sense to start, as many have in the region, even stricter controls and monitoring of water use, and thinking about and applying more demand management practices. Better pricing schemes can also help.
Yet another source of better water use efficiency, and sometimes the largest sources of water are not found in lakes, rivers and aquifers in some areas, but in more efficient water use, is to change not only agricultural methods but also the crops themselves. There are ways to create hybrid crop varieties that use less water to produce the same amounts. However, sometimes the most important thing to do is scrap heavily water using crops and start producing less water using crops.
This should make a lot of sense in the region, and many are seriously thinking about this alternative. The heavily water using crops can be imported and the internal water saved for other uses and other crops. The powerful logic of water stress will eventually drive some in the region to make these tough decisions.
The water problems of the region are from supply (not much there or by trade, reuse and desalinization) or from demand management during times of economic and population growth (one of the most difficult times, but most important times, to advance better demand management techniques).
One of the most important aspects of this sometimes head-spinning complexity of the water problems of the drier states in the region is that relying on desalinization, especially from few facilities presents serious security problems to the countries. Point sources of water are potential targets for those with ill intent. There are also the potential problems with human error and “Murphy’s Law”—if something can go wrong, it does—that can occur with anything as complex as a desalination plant.
Water is a vital element to the GCC region for food, energy, economic growth and so much more. The increasing water stress in the region is a reason for concern, and if the leaders do not get on to finding solutions to it and soon there could be much bigger problems in store for them. However, given the increasing sophistication of the many of the leaders and their advisers in the region there are reasons to hope for a better future for water use in the region. However, this will take constant and creative thinking and vigilance.
(Professor Paul Sullivan teaches at National Defense University and Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He can be reached via email at: email@example.com)