Is Desalination the Answer to Middle East's Water Crisis?

Is Desalination the Answer to Middle East's Water Crisis?

The UN World Water Development Report 2016 says water shortages and a lack of access may limit economic growth in the years to come. The Middle East and Central Asia are at particular risk, as the majority of countries in both regions have withdrawn more than 60% of their water resources.

By 2030, UN Water predicts that the world will face a 40% global water deficit. The following blog will examine how the world’s single most important resource is causing increasing strain on the Middle East and why scientists believe desalination could be the answer.


Kieran Cooke, a former foreign correspondent for both the BBC and Financial Times, has Saudi water sector. He says decades of mismanagement means Saudi Arabia could run out of water in the next 20 years.

The Saudi Government introduced a new water metering scheme at the beginning of the year in an attempt to tackle the water problem. It has been met with considerable backlash. Residents claim their bills have more than doubled, and say the National Water Company (NWC) has failed to respond to their complaints.

The Minister of Water and Electricity has stated that Saudi consumption was too high in comparison to the global average. But residents believe they should be treated differently to Europeans or Americans, because they have to perform ablution five times a day.

With a population of 32 million and demand for water rising at five per cent per annum, the Saudi government recognises the immense challenge it faces. The country is one of the world’s most prolific water consumers, using on average up to 350 litres of water per person daily. In Europe, the figure is a much smaller 130 litres per day. Predicted lower rainfall and increased temperatures are expected to exacerbate the problem.

Scientists believe Saudi Arabia’s water shortage can be attributed to a flawed agricultural policy. Agriculture accounts for more than 80 percent of the country’s water usage. In the late 1970s and 80s, the government introduced a food self-sufficiency programme. The country succeeded in becoming one of the world’s largest wheat producers, but at a cost. It takes, on average, 1,000 tons of water to produce a ton of wheat.

So - what can they do to combat their water problem?


Saudi Arabia has turned to desalination plants as the solution to their water shortage. They are now, by far, the world’s biggest user of desalination technology, with more than 30 plants across the coast processing millions of gallons of water each day.

But - desalination comes with its own set of problems. First and foremost, it’s not cheap. To keep up with water demand, an estimated $29 billion needs to be invested in desalination over the next 15 years. To fuel these plants, Saudi Arabia is using up to 1.5 million barrels of oil per day, which is more than the entire daily oil consumption of the UK.

They are not alone. Neighbours Oman have also initiated a study for the procurement of a new seawater desalination capacity. According to a report by the Oman Daily Observer, the Oman Power and Water Procurement Company (OPWP) has commissioned the study on the back of an anticipated 8% increase in the demand for water in Dhofar.  

Reports suggest strong investment inflows into the commercial, hospitality, tourism and residential sectors have also played a role in influencing the decision. The proposed scheme will have a capacity of 100,000 cubic metres per day.


Some scientists believe desalination can even help reduce conflicts in the Middle East. Edo Bar-Zeev, a scientist with the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research, says water shortages will likely be a source of conflict in the Middle East in the future. “But I believe water can be a bridge, through joint ventures,” he says. “And one of those ventures is desalination.”

He points to the Sorek desalination plant in Israel as a prime example. It was built at a time when Israel was running out of water and experiencing its worst drought in over 900 years. Thanks to a new wave of desalination plants, it now has a surplus. The country now gets 55 percent of its domestic water from desalination, and that has helped to turn one of the world’s driest countries into the unlikeliest of water giants.


The International Desalination Association claims that 300 million people get water from desalination, and that number is quickly rising. According to a report published on Research and Markets, the global cumulative investments in desalination plants reached roughly $21.4 billion in 2015 and should reach nearly $48.2 billion by 2020.

As resources dwindle in the Middle East, seawater becomes an obvious option to fulfill water requirements. However, desalination does have its challenges and good planning and management is essential.

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(image - Steve Johnson)

Published by Research and Markets


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