The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is one of the most water-scarce regions in the world.
For years, the water crisis has exacerbated conflict and political tensions. Moreover, the issue continues to significantly impact the health and wellbeing of people in the area, especially women and children. In fact, according to UNICEF, nearly 90% of children in the region live in areas of high or extremely high water stress.
As global temperatures rise and the climate crisis accelerates, the MENA water crisis is expected to worsen - and impact economic growth. The World Bank found that climate-related water scarcity could lead to economic losses equaling up to 14% of the region’s GDP over the next 30 years.
Yet technological innovations and advanced water-management systems are helping to mitigate the situation. This includes the development of major desalination plants, as well as the implementation of sustainable agriculture and water-recycling programmes.
Ahead of the World Economic Forum’s 2023 Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, four industry leaders share their thoughts on the MENA water crisis and detail ongoing efforts to help the region overcome water scarcity in the coming years.
Peter Terium, Chief Executive Officer, ENOWA; Managing Director, Energy, Water & Food, NEOM
“In NEOM, located in the north-west of Saudi, underground water has been more and more used for agriculture and irrigation due to the increase in population in the region. This has led to a drop in the ground water table and has dried up many of the springs in the area, changing the face of the environment. The aquifers no longer have the capability to regenerate themselves due to the water demand and open dumping of wastewater on the land has led to pollution of this scarce resource.
“By replacing the underground water used for irrigation with the desalinated water, and processing the wastewater and recycling all water that normally goes to waste, we will rebalance the ecosystem and bring back the natural oasis in the region. ENOWA, NEOM’s energy and water subsidiary, is creating a circular water system. To realize this, we bring together innovation across the water value chain, and beyond.
“Globally, average water loss is about 30%. By using innovative technologies, ENOWA aims to reduce loss to 3% which reduces the overall infrastructure and costing for water. With smart monitoring technologies, 100% recycling of wastewater, and the production of clean industrial resources, we are maximizing the potential of water use in industry, farming and to rebalance nature."
Bahrain Economic Development Board
"Gulf Cooperation Council members are taking a multi-faceted approach to addressing water scarcity. Saudi Arabia's Rabigh 3 Independent Water Plant produces 600,000 cubic metres of desalinated water a day using reverse osmosis. It can meet the needs of 1 million households and is recognised by Guinness World Records as the world’s largest reverse osmosis desalination plant.
"A region as dry as the Arabian Peninsula demands both innovation and efficiency. Bahrain’s agriculture relied exclusively on groundwater until 1985 when the government began treating wastewater for reuse. Today, recycled water covers 40% of the sector’s needs.
"Bahrain EDB focuses on attracting investments and building solutions that have a positive impact on issues like water scarcity, such as Pavilion Water – a water desalination specialist that produces fresh water with zero greenhouse gas emissions.
"Innovative farming is also helping produce more food with less water across the region. UAE-based start-up Smart Acres is a vertical indoor hydroponic farm that, compared to traditional methods, yields 20 times as much food while using a tenth of the land and 90% less water.
"International cooperation on research to solve water scarcity is already proving important, too. Oman, for example, is working with the Dutch government to introduce new ideas to the region, while the Middle East Desalination Centre in Muscat acts as a pioneering hub for research."
Paddy Padmanathan, Vice-Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, ACWA Power
“Billions of people around the world lack adequate access to water, a basic need to sustain healthy life. The Middle East and North Africa is the worst off in terms of physical water stress receiving less rainfall than other regions but, yet having fast-growing, densely populated urban centres that require more water.
“Immediately the awareness of the issue needs to be heightened and consumption needs to be contained at 150 litres per day. But to even supply that low level of consumption, we need to keep innovating.
“We at ACWA Power continue to stretch technology to reduce energy, chemical and sophisticated consumables consumption by challenging conventional practices, increasing the use of big data, the phenomenal power of computing, advanced analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence to reduce the cost of taking salt out of seawater (desalination) and by increasing the utilization of renewable energy also simultaneously reduce the carbon footprint of this energy intensive process to increase the provision of potable water at a progressively lower cost reducing the impact on climate change.
“With the track record of being the leading desalinator in the world, today dispatching 6.4 million cubic metres per day of desalinated water we are proud to have led the cost reduction challenge by bringing the cost of desalinated water from $2+ per cubic metres just a few years ago to less than $0.50 per cubic metres today.”
Majid Al Futtaim Holding
"With some of the highest per-capita water-consumption rates, a hot and dry climate, wasteful water infrastructure and a heavy reliance on greenhouse gas-producing desalination, MENA countries are particularly affected by water scarcity. The region’s rapid population growth has also led many countries to rely heavily on ever-depleting ground and surface water.
"At Majid Al Futtaim, we understand the scale of the issue and began addressing it as part of our sustainability strategy. We developed a clean water investment strategy that focuses on investing in water generation technology, local offsetting and the development of renewable-powered reverse osmosis desalination plants.
"In our food and beverage retail sector, 80% of products are sourced locally from the region. We’ve also introduced micro irrigation systems and hydroponic farms into our supply chains to minimise water loss and promote sustainable farming. Meanwhile, in the fashion industry, which as a whole uses 93 billion cubic metres of water annually, Majid Al Futtaim engages with suppliers to offer sustainably made products designed to last longer as well as be re-used or recycled.
"Majid Al Futtaim also institutes sustainable water management systems into its building and community development sector. This includes, for instance, the use of on-site water treatment technologies and sustainable gardening practices."