The Gulf’s real weakness is its water resources

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Water is a vital strategic resource in the Middle East. Ensuring its security requires the same vigilance that has been applied to protect oil. The region’s population growth and the parallel increase in economic activity have dramatically increased the demand for fresh water. But access to fresh water is increasingly expensive, especially for countries with few natural water sources, including underground aquifers, rivers and lakes. There are no permanent lakes or rivers in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen, and Qatar. As a result, the Gulf States are almost totally dependent on desalination plants to produce fresh water.

In September 2019, crippling attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities highlighted the region’s exposure to potential strikes on critical infrastructure, including desalination plants and storage facilities, which are exposed to a number of threats. These include oil and pollution spills, terrorist attacks, missile, air and computer attacks, and the sabotage of power plants essential to the operation of desalination plants. To appreciate the vulnerability of freshwater supplies to the security of key US allies in the Gulf and a large number of US forces based in the region, it is useful to examine the current capabilities of Gulf countries to produce and store. fresh water.

Many countries, including Iran, have invested heavily in expensive offshore desalination plants. Fresh water produced by desalination represents 86 percent of the freshwater resources available in Oman, 60 percent of those available in Kuwait and between 40 and 50 percent of the resources used by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. The number of desalination plants is quite impressive. The United Arab Emirates has seventy factories, Iran has sixty, and Saudi Arabia thirty-one. These countries are increasing the number of factories to meet demand. In Iran, twenty-five new desalination plants are currently under construction. Upon completion in 2022, Iran’s desalination capacity will reach half a million cubic meters of fresh water per day. In 2018, Oman opened the Barka 4 desalination plant which produces seventy-four million gallons of fresh water per day, increasing Oman’s national water capacity by twenty percent. The Bahraini government recently modernized its four desalination plants and continues to seek foreign investment to meet the country’s growing water needs.

Equally important is the infrastructure needed to store desalinated water. Much of the water produced by desalination plants in the UAE is never used due to the lack of storage facilities. “Desalination plants continue to produce the same amount per hour, around the clock,” said Mohamed Daoud of the Public Environment Agency in Abu Dhabi. “So what do we do with the excess water right now?” We throw it in the Gulf. If desalination plants were destroyed, major Gulf countries could be without fresh water within days due to inadequate storage.

The reserve capacity of water reserves is much less than oil reserves, which can be safely stored at depth. For this reason, most of the Gulf countries are investing heavily in improving the water reserve capacity that will provide more than a few days or weeks of supply in the event of a crisis. Saudi Arabia’s daily water consumption currently exceeds its storage capacity. Saudi authorities are building multiple reservoirs to mitigate the consequences of a loss of desalination and manage periodic increases in freshwater demand. Qatar has launched a similar initiative to build nine tanks at various sites across the country. The authorities have launched the Water Security Mega Reservoirs project to expand Qatar’s strategic water supply reserves from two to seven days. Such enterprises are expensive and, although they are considered essential for national security and economic growth, the cost of maintaining and protecting freshwater will continue to rise until technological breakthroughs and economics of desalination become available.

Geoffrey Kemp is the Director of Regional Strategic Programs at the Center of National Interest.

Lydia Grossman is a research intern in the Centre’s Climate, Security and Middle East program.

Image: Reuters


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