How water innovation can spur a new era of collaboration
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How water innovation can spur a new era of collaboration

How water innovation can spur a new era of collaboration

Water has held a dual role as both a source of life and a root of conflict throughout history. Its critical role in our existence cannot be overstated, yet we live in a world of scarcity

Gulf Business
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In 2022 and H1 2023, more than 340 water-related conflicts were reported globally. About 80 per cent of them occurred in four regions, including 107 in the Middle East alone.

This alarming statistic helps explain why the UAE made water a core theme of COP28. And last year it also called for a coordinated international response to the threat of global water scarcity.

In a paper published on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs outlined how four billion people experience water scarcity at least one month a year, with this figure expected to grow in the years ahead.

The paper warned that, based on current trends, global water scarcity could lead to loss of life, food insecurity, economic underdevelopment, humanitarian crises, involuntary migration, geopolitical instability and the potential for armed conflict.

This stark warning is worth remembering as we commemorate ‘water for peace’, the theme of this year’s World Water Day on March 22.

Water has held a dual role as both a source of life and a root of conflict throughout history. Its critical role in our existence cannot be overstated, yet we live in a world of scarcity.

However, thanks to new technologies and increased awareness, conflicts can evolve into cooperation, fostering security across the globe.

Water cooperation

The history of water conflicts is as old as civilisation itself. Across millennia, civilisations have grappled with the complexities of water distribution and utilisation.

Ancient Mesopotamia witnessed tensions among its states regarding access to the vital Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In the Middle East today water is particularly precious, and disagreements over its allocation have often escalated into broader disputes. Droughts add yet another dimension of suffering.

However, we have also witnessed remarkable examples of water cooperation over the years. The Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan, brokered by the World Bank in 1960 might have been severely tested at times, but the mere fact of its survival for many decades demonstrates that cooperation is possible even in the most strained geopolitical climates.

In Africa, the Nile Basin Initiative promotes cooperation among the 11 countries that share the Nile River. Another positive example is in Asia where Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam manage resources sustainably through the Mekong River Commission.

These are all highly welcome arrangements in a world where more than three billion people worldwide depend on water that crosses national borders.

Driving collaboration

As we look to increase the range of options for collaboration in pursuit of peace through water, research plays a pivotal role. The UAE, with its arid climate, has been at the forefront of desalination research – especially as it works toward its Water Security Strategy 2036, launched in 2017.

Our work at the NYUAD Water Research Center is also helping push the boundaries of possibilities. The development of advanced membrane technology using nanomaterials enhances the energy efficiency of reverse osmosis desalination. Such advances are crucial in an energy-hungry sector that is set to reach $43bn by 2031.

We see these sorts of technology in action at Abu Dhabi’s Al Taweelah desalination plant, which will be the world’s largest reverse osmosis (RO) facility when fully operational. Allied with its cutting-edge technology, it is also partly powered by solar, helping it set new global benchmarks for energy efficiency.

Using renewable energy sources for water treatment is a crucial, and increasingly realistic, pathway towards making desalination more sustainable. Indeed, DEWA wants all desalination to be powered by a combination of clean energy sources and waste heat by 2030.

As work also progresses around water capture, recycling, and storage, the UAE is at the forefront of creating a range of sustainable solutions to water scarcity. And through international partnerships, we are sharing knowledge and technologies that can mitigate these issues.

A recent example of this outreach is the announcement at the beginning of March of the XPrize Water Scarcity competition. This collaboration between the UAE’s new Mohammed bin Zayed Water Initiative and the American XPrize Foundation will see $119m in prizes allocated for solutions that provide global access to clean water by creating sustainable and affordable seawater desalination systems.

Nidal HilalWater without boundaries

The potential for future water cooperation is immense. Consider the potential of shared water technology hubs, where countries contribute knowledge and resources towards common goals of water sustainability. These connected hubs will help us shift from a centralised and linear water system to a decentralised and circular water system, serving as platforms for dialogue and joint problem-solving.

In this new age of water diplomacy, we must recognize the role of water in climate change adaptation. Climate change exacerbates water scarcity and heightens the risk of conflict. Here, too, cooperation is key. By aligning our efforts to manage water resources sustainably, we can build resilience against the impacts of climate change.

Transparency and data exchange are also critical. Collaborative efforts, allied with advances in fields such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, can help monitor water quality, predict droughts, and manage floods. This will also help prevent conflicts and promote cooperation.

And finally, educating communities about water conservation fosters a sense of shared responsibility. Initiatives like World Water Day raise awareness and inspire action that transcends borders and ideologies.

Above all, our message must be that water cooperation is a necessity, not a luxury.

By embracing research, technology, and collaboration, we can turn water conflicts into opportunities for peace, security, and prosperity. Together, we can ensure a future where water nurtures life as nature intended.

The writer is professor of Engineering and director at NYUAD Water Research Center.

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