WATER CRISIS: THINK GLOBAL, ACT LOCAL
Fresh water is a unique natural resource. Unlike hydrocarbons, it is essentially non-substitutable. Whether for drinking or irrigation – there is no replacement for it. As such, water is a critical resource for human life just as it is for almost all eco-
Unlike fossil fuels, fresh water is a unique natural resource and is essentially non-substitutable – whether for drinking or irrigation – it cannot be replaced.
Unfortunately, only 3% of the total water on the planet is fresh water, while about 97% is salt water from its oceans. Of the fresh water that's available, approximately 70% is frozen in glaciers and ice caps, leaving less than 1% of the total world water supply readily usable for humans.
And even though water – unlike hydrocarbons – is finite but renewable, its renewal and sustainability won't be ensured if consumption exceeds its renewal rate. At a time of rapidly-rising water usage around the globe, water resources are therefore coming under significant stress, making already existing shortages more severe.
According to the World Bank-sponsored 2030 Water Resources Group, demand for water worldwide may exceed supplies by 40% by 2030 at current growth rates. The Gulf States, including Qatar, which are located in one of the world's most arid regions with scanty rainfall, high evaporation rates and no rivers, are among the major contributors to this demand growth.
Driven by growing populations, the establishment of new industries and socio-economic development, the region's water supply-demand gap has widened
dramatically in recent years. As a result, Gulf countries depend to a very high degree on desalination to meet their runaway water requirements. Today, the Gulf region accounts for nearly 50% of the world's desalinated water capacity.
In the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region, desalination capacity is expected to grow from 21 million cubic meters a day (cm/d) in 2007 to nearly 110 million cm/d by 2030 – of which 70% is in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Algeria and Libya, according to a joint report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) and the International Energy Agency's Energy Technology Systems Analysis Programme (ETSAP).
This will contribute to the surge in energy use in the region. The annual electricity demand for desalination in MENA is expected to rise to 122 terawatt hours (TWh) by 2030, a factor of three higher compared with 2007. In the UAE, for example, seawater desalination requires about 10 times more energy than surface fresh water production, and its costs are projected to increase by 300%.
Indeed, the world's water and energy needs are so closely linked that, going forward, they can't be separated from each other. As a result, water and energy – together with food security and climate change – are the critical issues topping today's global policy agendas.
Energy companies – like other industries – are consumers of fresh water, if at a smaller scale than, for example, the agricultural sector. Still, as global energy demand continues to rise and more water-intensive methods are being applied to extract unconventional hydrocarbons such as oil sands, effectively managing the overall use of the resource through new and advanced recycling and reuse technologies is becoming seminal.
As such, the energy sector at large will have to intensify its efforts to address and prepare for future water challenges in many parts of the world. A stronger focus by the industry on research and development (R&D) into water management, reuse, recycling and desalination – as is already happening at Qatar Science & Technology Park (QSTP), where numerous international energy firms have set up shop – is therefore essential.
Qatar's particular challenges of having access to very limited fresh water reserves while at the same time growing rapidly both in terms of population and industrial development, mean the issue of water is more pressing here than in many other countries. Setting up R&D facilities in the Gulf state therefore is an almost natural choice to tackle the water issue and develop local solutions that can ultimately be applied globally. It is also in line with the country's own vision of transforming itself into a knowledge economy and reducing its dependence on hydrocarbons.
There can be little doubt that R&D will play an important role in meeting the world's water challenge going forward. But it will only be one element in what needs to be an integrated economic approach to water resource management. Apart from energy companies, other private-sector stakeholders such as agricultural producers, technology providers and industrial water users will have to make critical water management decisions.
Governments will have to introduce policies aimed at increasing efficiencies, pricing water according to its real economic value, and reducing economies' water-intensity, in particular in countries that face scarce and diminishing water resources. In short, it is vital that all stakeholders get together if a water crisis is to be averted