Precious commodity that needs more looking after

Could the supply of water reach crisis point in the GCC? Hugo Berger reports on how changes need to be made to secure the future for our most precious commodity.

Problem that needs addressing: In October
Problem that needs addressing: In October

With a rising population, arid conditions and a scarcity of supplies, the water situation is one of the most important issues affecting the GCC.

And with sustainability being at the top of the agenda, many are realising that the present wastage cannot continue.

In October this year, the UAE government announced its plans to cut the country's water consumption by almost half.

Majid Al Mansouri, secretary general of the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, said Abu Dhabi government will reduce its water consumption rate from 2,081 litres per head a day to 946 litres over the next five years.

The statistics for the country reveal the full extent of the problem. In Dubai alone, almost 931 million litres of water was consumed in 2006.

The UAE as a whole has the third highest consumption rate per capita in the world, falling behind the USA and Canada.

Yet the country has almost no natural bodies of water.

The underground water tables are small and vulnerable to contamination by seawater, plus rainfall is rare.

The only solution has been to desalinate water from the Gulf, a process which requires expensive facilities, high fuel consumption and damage to the ecosystem.

Despite this, demand for desalinated water rose by 11.5% in 2006. The situation is now so severe that a gallon of desalinated water costs more than a gallon of gasoline. And it is not just the UAE which is facing these problems. In the wider Middle East, the water rate is expected to rise by 6% a year, twice the global rate.

Many see the answer to the problems as a multi-pronged assault, which includes more recycling of water, encouraging less wastage and better technologies.

One of the leaders in this field is Middle East water company Metito. The company recently teamed up with Australian firm Flovac Systems to launch a vacuum sewage system.

Mutaz Ghandour, CEO, Metito (Overseas) told Construction Week that the system could
save 80% more water than normal gravity sewers.

He said that if construction companies used these systems in their developments it would play a significant part in helping the water situation.

"I think we have hardly touched the tip of the iceberg," he said. "The demand will be much more than the present supply and hence all the governments are scrambling to build additional desalination plants.

"They want big plants to be built in eight weeks, but there are other solutions to the problems."

Rami Ghandour, executive director, Metito, also agreed more was needed to solve the area's water shortages.

"Part of what we've looked at as Metito is that we've traditionally focused on the plant kind of things, as in ‘let's build more plants and build more capacity'," he said.

"What we've realised as an addition to that is how we can do things more efficiently."

Ghandour added that the infrastructure in the UAE still needed improving, but this was not the only way to solve the water problems.

He said: "We're trying to battle the water situation from both ends.

"From the demand-end, which is the amount of water being consumed and therefore waste water generated, and the supply-end, which is the treatment capacities that are in place.

"Everything in Dubai is only sustainable because of manmade water. That water is expensive, and something we believe needs to be handled with care.

"There are multiple ways to do that, one is to create more water the other is to put in the technology to consume less water.

"And there are socio-economic ways, such as encouraging people to use less water, maybe through higher tariffs."

Roger Ford, senior consultant, Hyder Consulting, believed that the Middle East could learn from lessons in water supplies in the UK.

He said: "The UK went from water being supplied by municipal-type organisations into privatised multi-utility companies in about 25-30 years. In the UAE it is happening in five years because of the need to keep pace with the developments."

He said the change in ownership could lead to higher tariffs, but as they were low in the country, this was inevitable.

Many of the major projects in Dubai are already using water usage reduction methods.

For example, the Burj Dubai is using a high-tech membrane system to recycle waste water, which is then used to irrigate open spaces within the development.

The hotel industry is also taking note of the problem.

It is estimated that each hotel in Dubai uses between 650 and 1,230 litres of water per guest during their stay.

Many hotels have faucet aerators, which use about half the three to four gallons of water (11 to 13 litres) per minute of water which normal faucets deliver.

So the region is slowly coming round to making major changes.

If changes aren't made, it will not only be the water resources which dry up, but possibly the region's economic and construction booms.

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