x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Water is the greatest gift in the desert

It was with good reason that the 31st Gulf Cooperation Council, gathered in Abu Dhabi this week, concluded with a Quranic verse: "We made from water every living thing."

They were the usual concerns for such a senior gathering of Arab officials: security worries over Iran, terrorism and peace in the Middle East were all high on the agenda. But in the end it was "water security" that arguably took centre stage, making it the first time an environmental issue had been discussed at such a high level in the region.

It was with good reason that the 31st Gulf Cooperation Council, gathered in Abu Dhabi this week, concluded with a Quranic verse: "We made from water every living thing."

As a religion born in a harsh desert terrain, Islam ascribed the most sacred of qualities to water. It is the purifier and heavenly source of life, and its conservation is part of Islamic teachings. Even the term "Sharia" was originally related to water, meaning "the place from which one descends to water", and included rules about sharing the liquid in pre-Islamic Arabia that were later expanded to embody Islamic laws in general.

Now, it is time once again to apply rules about the use of water, but on a far more regional level.

In a 15-point declaration, put together by the UAE in its role as the host of this year's summit, a broad plan was outlined to deal with one of the GCC's most "significant challenges" - a sustainable water supply.

"While abundant in oil and gas, our habitat is scarce in water, the lifeline for any civilisation and its development," read the Abu Dhabi Declaration.

The declaration urged the introduction of GCC legislation that would improve efficiency of industries and promote water conservation. Targeting the individual will be another top priority; in the UAE, the average resident uses 550 litres of water a day, the highest rate in the world. The global average is 250 litres a day.

Last year, the UAE used 4.5 billion cubic metres of water, with more than half coming from groundwater. Farming uses 97 per cent of that groundwater, while contributing just 3.3 per cent of GDP.

So in effect, the declaration called for a strategy that would take into consideration the effects of climate change, the impact of agricultural practices on the Gulf's water resources, the region's strategic water reserves and the effects of desalination on marine life and climate change.

"Water security and its sustainability is a great concern," said Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, in a press conference after the summit. Immediately afterwards, Sheikh Abdullah boarded a plane for Cancun, Mexico, to attend the UN climate change summit.

Armed with the Abu Dhabi Declaration, one of the wealthiest groups of nations in the world will present a united Arab front on how to deal with the world's water crisis and hopefully inspire change at the UN summit.

The climate change negotiations will continue into next year, where governments will meet in another summit in South Africa in December, and then in Qatar in December 2012.

In other words, in two years the eyes of the world will be on the Middle East to see if our leadership will be able to save the planet.

At present, half of the world's desalinated water is produced in the GCC, a process that costs us dearly both financially and environmentally. So one of the immediate steps will involve improving existing desalination plants by introducing more fuel-efficient technologies.

At the moment just nine per cent of the water used comes from treated wastewater, and more than 40 per cent from desalination. In the UAE alone, there are 83 desalination plants, providing nearly 65 per cent of domestic, commercial and industrial needs.

The Federal National Council raised the alarm on a water crisis in November when it declared that these plants will be insufficient by 2017. The FNC said that serious steps have to be taken at governmental level to tackle "this national security issue".

A federal law on water management was issued in 1981, but was never implemented.

Other points in the Abu Dhabi Declaration stress the importance of diversifying sources of energy and food security, as well as introducing local and regional standards to limit the carbon footprints of the public sector and private homes. Applying more efficient standards for home appliances such as air conditioners, so vital in the Gulf's hot climate, were also singled out.

All this comes at a time when headlines like "the Levant prays for rain" are dominating regional news, when Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories, which normally enjoy healthy rainfall, are in the grip of a drought brought on by one of the driest winter seasons in more than a decade. The heavy rains and storms forecast for this weekend will come too late to prevent the tragedy of 42 people burnt to death in Israel in recent days by fires that are a consequence of the continuous dry spell.

The situation is equally grim in Lebanon, where farms and ski resorts are struggling with drought that threatens livelihoods. Just 51.2mm of rain has fallen since September. Rainfall over the corresponding period last year was 214.8mm.

"Climate change is the biggest threat facing our region, including losing our agriculture, coast and water resources," says Wael Hmaidan, the executive director of the environmental pressure group IndyACT, and one of Lebanon's most vocal activists on the issue.

He points out that the International Panel on Climate Change has predicted that the Middle East will lose about 20 per cent of its water resources by mid-century.

"In countries like Lebanon, year after year, the rainy season is becoming shorter and shorter," Mr Hmaidan warns.

"It will become worse, but the yearly change is incremental, so we do not feel surprised or shocked. It is similar to a frog in a water kettle that is being heated slowly. The frog will not jump out."

At least the UAE is not taking any chances. Nor is it waiting, after already investing millions of dollars in preventative measures.

In September, the Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority awarded a contract worth US$315.8m (Dh1.16bn) to build a water-storage and recovery system in the emirate. It will take the form of an underground aquifer storage facility in Liwa with a capacity of 27 million tonnes of water for use in the event of an emergency.

Although for the typical home or business in the UAE that is something to be imagined rather than experienced, that is not the case for our neighbours in Saudi Arabia.

For at least 15 years, residents in residential compounds and neighbourhoods in major Saudi cities have been relying on privately run "water trucks" to help them cope with their ever-dwindling national supply of water. So precious is this resource that at times it has created a "water black market", where water-tanker drivers charge double, if not triple, especially neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the city centre.

I experienced this first hand, living with my family in Jeddah during the 1990s. If I came home to find the bath tub filled with water, it meant someone in the household had spotted that water flow from the taps was weak, signalling an imminent cut within the next hour or so. Sometimes it took a whole day, sometimes longer, for the water to come back.

In those days I often took showers using bottled water, or "canister" water that my mother would buy from private water suppliers.

This "extra water" was often not of the best quality. Sometimes it felt a bit salty or had a strange hue. But when one is desperate for water for washing and flushing, these factors seem insignificant.

These days, the family has a backup water storage in the back of the villa, filled by a truck once a month. It costs several hundred riyals on top of the municipal bills for water and electricity, but is a necessity.

In some compounds, there are special staff who monitor water usage. Leave the hose watering the garden for more than an hour and the "water police" will come and fine you. Another conservation measure means that cars can be washed only with water from a bucket.

Saudi Arabia is planning to invest $53bn in a variety of water projects over the next 15 years, 70 per cent of which will be for sewage and wastewater treatment projects. It wants to start reusing sewage water, which currently only contributes six per cent to seven per cent of the kingdom's water.

Just how seriously Saudi Arabia is finally taking the water issue is best represented by the Saudi Crown Prince Sultan, deputy premier and minister of defence and aviation, taking time this week to welcome into his palace the winners of this year's Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz International Prize for Water, worth more than one million riyals (Dh980,000). Prince Sultan congratulated the winners on their research work in water "for the benefit of entire humanity".

In this Year of Water - or perhaps the lack of it - the UN General Assembly has declared that access to clean water and sanitation are fundamental human rights. After much talk about the importance of water, it is only now that the world is taking notice.

As Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations, put it in Cancun: "Nature will not wait while we negotiate."

 

Rym Ghazal is a writer and a columnist for The National. She lives in Dubai

 

rghazal@thenational.ae