The Middle East will face acute water supply pressures in the next 15 years, with consumption in the region projected to increase by 50 per cent in that period, said delegates at the World Economic Forum summit in Dubai.
The increased demand would force governments to find ways of wringing extra yield out of every drop of available water, delegates said, but nuclear power was cited as one means of increasing production of desalinated water to help supplies last.
"We're already at the crisis," said Rabi Mohtar, the director of the Global Engineering Programme at Purdue University, citing population pressure and mismanagement of water resources. The Middle East's population is projected to grow by 4.5 per cent this year.
"Our governments are lacking in terms of institutional ways of water-demand management," he said.
The region needed to consider efficient use of water in a host of public-policy arenas, including agriculture and energy, Mr Mohtar said. The efficiency of water consumption during the production of food in the region was only 30 per cent, compared with 45 per cent globally, he said.
However, some delegates said that increasing water desalination would be an effective way to meet demand.
"Nuclear could be a very attractive option," said Luis Echavarri, the director general of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency.
"Nuclear has a benefit in that it can only be used for the production of electricity. It cannot be used for any other thing," he said. "It's an additional source of electricity that can be used for producing water."
The UAE's first nuclear power plant is expected to come online in 2017.
Last month, Rashid Ahmed bin Fahad, the Minister of Environment and Water, told members of the Federal National Council: "Water is … considered the primary challenge in the UAE."
Agriculture was one area in which water use needed "a fundamental rethinking", he said.
The Government is preparing a draft law on water usage, intended to improve efficiency throughout the UAE and increase oversight of water resources.
Delegates at the Dubai conference agreed, however, that the free availability of water in the Middle East was leading to waste, especially in agriculture, which accounts for about 70 per cent of all water used.
"The way we use water in the region isn't efficient," said Usha Rao-Monari, a senior manager in the infrastructure department at the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group.
"Look at city networks - the wastage and loss is as high as around 50 per cent.
"There has to be a more structured and systematic view taken on demand management in all of this region," she said.
Margaret Catley-Carlson, the patron of the Global Water Partnership, said the Middle East faced a large challenge but not an impossible one. "I think we can [increase water efficiency], but it's going to involve some habit change."