Water plan: Meeting sustainability targets in the GCC
Now Reading
Water plan: Meeting sustainability targets in the GCC

Water plan: Meeting sustainability targets in the GCC

Policymakers and planners need to look to squaring the circle of boosting supply while reducing emissions in line with ambitious regional sustainability targets

Gulf Business
Lu'ay Khdeir of Atkinsrealis on the role water plays in meeting sustainability targets in the GCC

While the future of fossil fuels dominated headlines at COP28, the UAE-led conference was the first in 28 years to explicitly identify water as a core theme for discussion.

Specific agenda items included protecting freshwater ecosystems, building urban water resilience, and strengthening water-resilient food systems.

This was a strategic decision given our absolute dependence on a resource that is often taken for granted. Thanks to its developed infrastructure, the GCC has fairly coped with demand despite its location in the world’s most water-scarce region.

But by 2050, it will need to boost its current capacity for collecting and storing water by 77 per cent. This will be a challenging target considering that consumption continues to rise while natural supplies fall.

To compensate, about $80bn worth of water and wastewater projects are planned or underway across the GCC, but this may not be enough. The green hydrogen industry will impact water demand as it is expected to continue its surge as nations work toward the energy transition.

Carbon Capture and sequestration is also due to take off as GCC countries seek to abate their greenhouse gas emissions, which also requires large water resources. And more generally, the GCC states are poised to effectively accelerate their diversification to non-oil economies, further boosting GDP growth.

Traditionally, the answer to insufficient supply has been to build more desalination infrastructure. More than  50 percent of the world’s desalination plants are already found in the GCC, with plans to increase this capacity by one-third over the next five years. However, these are energy-intensive and have environmental implications. They are also expensive, with desalination schemes (including treatment and transmission) costing between $1,000 to $2,000 per cubic meter of water. So the question for policymakers and planners as we look at the immediate year ahead and further into the future is how to square the circle of boosting supply while reducing emissions in line with ambitious regional sustainability targets.

Waste not, want not

The only way left to close the gap and avoid the negative economic and social impact of higher costs will be through innovation. This involves a range of new and improved solutions, starting with the basics. The existing per capita water consumption, ranging from 450 to 500 litres daily, is unsustainable, with the physical leakage component of “lost” non-revenue water (NRW) in the GCC as high as 40 per cent.

Some countries are improving – the UAE has reduced its NRW to 13 per cent by investing in smart leak detection systems. The goal now must be to reach single digit levels on a par with global leaders. This will be a quick win saving hundreds of millions of dollars.

Another quick win is wastewater reuse. While Dubai plans to recycle 100 per cent of its wastewater by 2030 from an already impressive 90 percent of wastewater, across the GCC, reuse is a mere 39 per cent. This needs to be accelerated, especially with the growth of new ambitious sustainable giga cities such as NEOM in Saudi Arabia.

Water: Driving the 3Ds

To truly drive transition and innovation into the future, the water sector should focus on three main connected streams, what we call the “3Ds”.

The first of these is “Decarbonisation”. There is a clear urgency for the GCC to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, especially from heavy industries. This requires clear strategies, a willingness to invest in technologies, and addressing interdependencies across industries. To aid this process, we developed Decarbonomics, a data-driven solution to decarbonise the built environment cost-effectively by making carbon visible across the entire property portfolio and at any stage of the assets’ life cycle.

Some quick wins from this approach would be the localisation and mandating of local supplies for high emitters like steel and aluminium producers. Driving efficient low-carbon concrete composition and accelerating renewable energy and green hydrogen could contribute up to 20 per cent of the power requirement for a large desalination plant – a huge energy, environmental and cost saver.

Promoting “Diversity” as an industry – through age, gender, and nationalisation – is an under-looked but critically important to modernising a sector that attracts only eight percent of Generation Z in developed markets such as the UK, with single-digit female participation on an operational level, and insufficient employment of young GCC nationals. The private sector needs to work closely with governments, not only in investment, but to acquire and retain the right diversity that will drive change and innovation.

This brings us to the final “D”, Digitalisation. The water sector will need this young, diverse talent to help deliver next-level citizen experience, drive operational efficiency across the water cycle by achieving more with less, while ensuring data protection and privacy.

These best practices are vital in ensuring smart water deployment, especially when there are changes to demand or supply. Better links with other industries will aid this process. For example, convergence with the telecoms industry to develop cellular occupancy rate (COR) – using mobile phone data to better understand population movement – can help address unexpectedly high consumption of water linked with population movement and behavioural changes – for instance during Ramadan, or as we saw during Covid-19.

This is all part of the drive to evolve our water systems from being “descriptive”, describing what happened through visualisation, to “diagnostic” of why it happened, using efficient data mining. We must then move to a “predictive” scenario, forecasting what will happen, and finally “prescriptive” by using scenario modelling to help us make a certain favourable scenario a reality.

Real-time monitoring, connected digital twins, and cloud-based asset management will help us shift from a centralised and linear water system to a decentralised and circular water system that fits with regional sustainability goals while catering to rising demand.

With the aid of government policies, and private sector innovation, we face an exciting road ahead.

The stage was set at COP28 to make real progress, and the GCC region has a massive opportunity to lead the global water market sustainable growth by re-defining the role of PPPs, investing in industry technologies and innovations to improve efficiency, and building future talent to safeguard one of our planet’s most valuable resources.

Read: The future of water: Nurturing a water-wise world

The writer is the water market director, Middle East & Africa at AtkinsRéalis.

You might also like


Scroll To Top