The amount of fresh water available to each person in the Middle East could fall by half by 2050, a leading international expert warned at the launch of the Arab Water Academy in Abu Dhabi yesterday. "All of the water resources are pretty much tapped out and the question is how you deal with this in the future," said Peter Rogers, a professor of environmental engineering and city planning at Harvard University in the United States.
Established by the Cairo-based Arab Water Council and co-hosted by the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi and the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai, the academy will develop new training initiatives, with the aim of helping to avert a water crisis. Demand for water in the region is growing by 2.3 per cent a year, said Mr Rogers. As the Middle East's population and wealth grows, so too does the demand for water.
Rising global food prices have pushed governments to grow food locally, which also increases the need for fresh water. "Very little attention has been given" to the management of water in the region, said Dr Shawki Barghouti, director general of the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture. "We have basically exhausted all our resources." Planners are hoping the Arab Water Academy, the first of its kind in an Arab state, will help by developing a community of experts.
The UAE and other Gulf countries have traditionally responded to water scarcity by boosting desalination capacity. Most of the potable water in the region is produced via desalination, a process in which dissolved salts are removed from seawater. However, earlier this year a UN official warned that GCC countries would find it increasingly difficult to continue building desalination plants at the current rate.
The region's water consumption was so high that continuing in the same way would require significant financial investments and might prove impossible to sustain, said Dr Ahmad Ali Ghosn, the natural resources programme officer at the UN Environment Programme. In Abu Dhabi, residents consume an average of 550 litres of water per day. If consumption levels remained this high, Gulf governments would have to spend up to US$35 billion (Dh129bn) in the next decade to finance the expansion of their desalination capacity.
In addition, water is heavily subsidised in the region, with end-users paying between five and 10 per cent of the cost. The UN estimates that GCC countries spend between US$1 and US$2 to produce a cubic metre of desalinated water. Governments must also consider environmental costs and physical restrictions related to the increasing salinity levels, he said. "The sea will not physically support such growth," said Dr Ghosn.
Desalination also has several adverse effects on the environment. It is an energy-intensive process, in which desalination plants release large amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. It has adverse impacts on the marine environment as well. In many cases, salty brine - a by-product of desalination - is released back into the sea. This changes the salinity levels and temperature of the waters, which are important to the well-being of coral reefs and seagrass beds.