Water Promotes Stability
In the Middle East’s arid climate, innovative partnerships can safeguard water security
Ashortage of fresh water means a surplus of political tension — a truism to which the Middle East has repeatedly borne witness. Economic despair caused by drought was among the stresses that sparked the 2011 uprisings in rural Daraa, Syria, one factor that led to the country’s ongoing civil war. With climate change continuing to alter the region’s rainfall patterns, Amman, Cairo and other cities have witnessed mass migration and unplanned urbanization driven in part by access to plentiful water.
Though affluent Arabian Gulf countries have so far managed to avoid the direst consequences of their water shortages, engineers warn that existing technologies can’t alleviate this scarcity forever. At its rate of water consumption, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) could deplete its natural freshwater reserves in decades, a 2005 report from the Emirates Industrial Bank noted.
In countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, an influx of Syrian refugees threatens to stretch reservoirs beyond capacity. In those countries, host communities and new arrivals can find themselves too close for comfort, competing for an already-scarce resource and stirring resentment between the two groups. Water shortages have led to worsening sanitation and higher rates of illness among refugees, according to Oxfam.
“We are seeing increased tensions between refugees and host communities across the different countries,” said Daniel Gorevan, who leads Oxfam’s Syria Crisis policy. Countries such as Lebanon must “develop their infrastructure and ensure the services provided benefit refugees and poor host communities alike.”
Potable water in Jordan
Jordan has taken great strides to address these challenges. In March 2017, Jordan opened its first desalination plant, in Aqaba, set to work at a capacity of 500,000 liters per hour, according to The Jordan Times. The plant is an example of public-private partnership: It will run in affiliation with the KEMAPCO Arab Fertilizers and Chemicals Industries, allowing the kingdom to recover its investment after seven years. Jordanian Water Minister Hazem Nasser said the project will meet Aqaba’s water needs until 2035.
In the next few years, Aqaba will see the opening of a second desalination plant as part of the $10 billion, multinational Red Sea-Dead Sea Project. The World Bank-financed project will produce not just fresh water, but a salty brine to replenish the Dead Sea, which has shrunk dramatically in the past 20 years from the diversion of the Jordan River.
“Potable water is a priority in Jordan,” said Saad Abu Hamour, secretary-general of the Jordan Valley Authority. “We are trying to secure it by linking the two seas.”
The brine will be pumped along a 180-kilometer pipeline between the Gulf of Aqaba and the Dead Sea. Jordan has been the strongest proponent of the Red-Dead canal, as it’s known in environmental circles. At the same time, the project will include the construction of a hydroelectric plant to supply electricity to Jordan and surrounding countries.
“The deal will help satisfy Jordan’s increasing water needs for development,” Nasser said.
Collaborating with the United States Agency for International Development, Jordan has also expanded and rehabilitated its wells and irrigation canals and trained hundreds of water experts. Several water networks and wastewater treatment plants have been built and renovated in recent years.
Innovation in the Gulf
Gulf countries are among the world’s leaders in finding high-tech solutions to water shortages. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar are home to 45 percent of the world’s desalination plants; Saudi Arabia alone plans to spend nearly $25 billion to expand desalination capacity. Saudi Arabia’s Saline Water Conversion Co. is the largest desalinated-water company in the world, producing almost 3 billion liters per day, representing 50 percent of the kingdom’s drinking water. In 2015, the Saudi-based Advanced Water Technology announced the development of the al-Khafji desalination plant, the world’s first large-scale solar-powered desalination plant. Upon completion in 2017, the plant will produce 60 million liters of fresh water a day for the city of al-Khafji.
Desalination presents its own challenges: The process is comparatively expensive and can place a strain on the environment, particularly in shallow bodies of water like the Gulf.
Engineers like Qatar University’s Farid Benyahia have proposed myriad innovative solutions to this problem, including Benyahia’s creation of a procedure to safely dispose of brine, the high-salinity output of the desalination process.
In an interview with Unipath, Professor Raed Bashitialshaaer of Sweden’s Lund University advocated for the construction of multinational desalination plants and “water transport” initiatives — like that between Turkey and Cyprus — between water-rich and water-poor countries.
“Joint projects can increase security between both countries by reducing tensions,” he said. If countries build more than one plant in the same location, he added, they can reduce the average costs of the projects.
Sources: U.N.-Habitat Regional Office for Arab States, Oxfam, The Jordan Times, U.S. Agency for International Development, The Water Project, The Guardian, Middle East Policy Council, water-technology.net, waterworld.com, Reuters, desalination.biz