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Can the MENA region overcome the water crisis?
In the face of increasing demand and dwindling supply, promoting sustainable water management is crucial.
Fourteen-year-old Ali lives in a remote village near Mogadishu, and every day he treks more than ten miles to fetch water from the well.
Unfortunately, millions of people around the region are also deprived of access to safe drinking water.
Poor water management, inefficient use in agriculture and industry, and excessive domestic consumption have caused catastrophic water scarcity. Climate change has worsened the issue by altering rainfall patterns, while overuse of groundwater resources has led to depletion.
By 2040, approximately one-fifth of all countries will face chronic water scarcity, with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) being the most severely affected.
The region is experiencing a surge in demand for water due to population growth, urbanization, and economic development, while the supply of water is dwindling due to climate change, overexploitation of groundwater, and pollution.
Despite being home to only 6% of the world’s population, the region receives a mere 2% of the world’s renewable fresh water. Thierry Froment, the Chief Executive Officer of Veolia Water Technologies in the Middle East, says that in regions like MENA where water is scarce, it is imperative to increase the reuse of water and, whenever possible, substitute drinking water (which is mainly produced from desalination) with reused water.
He argues that using irrigation water in the same way as drinking water is not practical. This is because a significant amount of treated sewage, which could be reused for irrigation, is dumped into the ocean, where it mixes with seawater. This mixture then requires desalination, a much more expensive process regarding energy and chemicals.
“Achieving greater water reuse may necessitate a considerable expansion of the treated sewage network, along with a potential shift away from large central sewage treatment plants towards smaller facilities scattered throughout the area. This would enable the treated sewage to be repurposed for irrigation, district cooling (as a feed for cooling towers), street cleaning, and other similar applications within the local vicinity,” adds Froment.
THE COMPLICATIONS OF WATER MANAGEMENT
The increasing global population, urbanization, and climate change threaten sustainable water management worldwide. This is mainly due to the depletion of freshwater reserves.
In many countries in the MENA region, studies have revealed that more freshwater is being extracted than the renewable volume present in aquifers. Moreover, the quality of freshwater resources is rapidly deteriorating due to pollution.
Nidal Hilal, Director of NYUAD Water Research Center and Professor of Engineering, suggests that renewable sources like seawater can address the challenges of pollution and overuse. To achieve this, there is a need to advance research in desalination to make it affordable and sustainable since the region relies on energy-intensive desalination techniques with a high carbon footprint.
There are the carbon emissions associated with pumping and treating water and moving it around our homes and cities. It all adds up to the energy demand. Living differently with water is a no-brainer if we want to reduce energy use.
To promote sustainable water management in the region, there should be a shift towards low-energy technologies such as membranes and using renewable energy to power desalination and wastewater treatment. This approach would pave the way for a more sustainable future.
People mostly don’t think about where their water comes from or where it goes. That’s going to need to change.
When it comes to promoting sustainable water management, Hilala says, “Lack of social awareness and barriers to innovation are the two largest roadblocks.”
“Firstly, the current infrastructure is predominantly designed for highly energy-intensive thermal desalination technologies, which pose significant challenges for implementing sustainable alternatives. Secondly, the gravity of the situation is often underestimated by the masses.”
Furthermore, some countries in the Middle East have per capita water consumption that surpasses the global average despite having some of the world’s lowest freshwater reserves.
Hilal says, “These challenges demand a holistic approach that transcends technological advancements and encompasses social awareness, policy reforms, and government incentives, all aimed at fostering effective and sustainable water management practices.”
Froment says sustainability concerns in the region are not as pressing as elsewhere as wastewater disposal costs and electricity prices are relatively low, resulting in fewer differences in operational costs between efficient and inefficient plants.
Many sewage treatment plants in the Middle East lack sludge digestion facilities for biogas production. Those with them often flare gas instead of using it for cogeneration or district cooling.
Hilal notes that membrane technology, a method of filtering and separating substances that is efficient and environmentally friendly, has a lower land and carbon footprint compared to traditional thermal desalination processes.
Globally, membrane desalination installations have surpassed thermal desalination in capacity, but the transition in the MENA region has been slow due to harsh seawater conditions.
The NYUAD Water Research Center develops membranes specifically for the region’s conditions, including reverse osmosis, membrane distillation, microfiltration, ultrafiltration desalination, and wastewater treatment processes.
In addition, the center is developing multifunctional membranes that address common operational challenges, such as membrane clogging, without interrupting the desalination process.
Solving water challenges requires a multifaceted approach, from desalination plants to wastewater treatment facilities. Because we know with climate change and without actionable programs, the number of people in the region without access to safe water will continue to increase.