It may be hard to imagine today, but a world without water – at least water for human use – is not such a far-fetched scenario as you might think.

Across the planet, water security, safety, supply and sustainability are becoming increasingly problematic.  Strain is being put on resources and reserves like never before, and a growing proportion of the global population is already facing significant difficulties.  Today, an estimated 3.6 billion people (nearly half the global population) live in areas that are potentially water-scarce for at least one month per year.  Top-end estimates suggest that figure could reach 5.7 billion people by 2050[1].

To the casual observer, issues over global water supplies may appear difficult to understand.  When 70% of our planet is covered by water, what is the problem?  However, freshwater – the kind of water that we drink, bathe in and irrigate our crops with – is incredibly rare.  Just 1% of the world’s water is accessible freshwater.  Another 2% is freshwater, but it is locked in inaccessible location, such as frozen glaciers[2].The accelerating impact of climate change is also reshaping some of the biggest water issues facing communities across the world.  We are facing a growing challenge of too much water in some places and not enough water in others.  And climate change “is and will worsen the situation in most cases,” says Professor Arjen Joekstra from the University of Twente in The Netherlands[3].

World Bank Group President Dr. Jim Yong Kim (Left) and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres

So serious is the water problem that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and World Bank Group President Dr. Jim Yong Kim issued an unprecedented joint warning in March 2018:

“… Some parts of our planet are suffering from the misery of drought while others endure the destruction of floods.

 Climate change is exacerbating natural variability of the water cycle, increasing water stresses that constrain social progress and economic development. 

Our health, food security, energy sustainability, jobs, cities, and the ecosystems on which all life is based are all being influenced by the way water is being managed in different parts of the world.[4]

Water issues facing the Middle East

The Middle East, North Africa and Turkey (MENAT) region is at the nexus of some of the world’s most challenging conditions in terms of water availability.

Source: video courtesy of the Middle East Institute.

Despite being home to 6% of the global population, it survives on just 1% of the world’s freshwater resources[5].

Daniel Sagi-Vela, Chief Executive Officer of FRV, solar and wind renewable energy company and part of Abdul Latif Jameel Energy says:

“Because we often look at sustainability from the standpoint of developed countries, water is often not perceived as a big issue.

But from the standpoint of developing countries, water is much more important than power.”

The World Water Forum states that 40% of the Arab population is already living in conditions of absolute water scarcity[6].  More worryingly, during the decade between 2005 and 2015, per capita freshwater availability in the region dropped by about 20%, from about 990 cubic meters to 800 cubic meters[7].

In 2013, a study conducted by NASA and the University of California Irvine showed the Middle East losing the equivalent in freshwater resources of the entire Dead Sea during a seven-year period between 2003 and 2009[8].  And the Dead Sea itself is shrinking.

Nineteen countries, including Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, have total renewable water resources (TRWR) of less than 500m3 per person per year[9].

With the pressure on water supply set to increase yet further as population growth and the effects of global climate change take their toll, water availability per capita in the MENA region is expected to halve by 2050[10]

Exploring the Saudi situation

In Saudi Arabia, falling water supplies are compounded by high levels of personal use – stretching an already scarce resource even further.  Urbanization and improving lifestyles mean that people are using more water as they go about their normal activities, including everyday tasks like gardening and car washing.  In fact, the average daily water consumption per capita in Saudi Arabia is 266 liters day (96.8 cubic meters per year) in 2017 compared to 270 liters per day (98.4 cubic meters per year) in 2016, recording a decline of 1.7 percent for the first time since 2013 according to the General Authority for Statistics –however, this is still double the average of European Union citizens[11].

About 49% of the water consumed domestically came from desalinated water with 2017 consumption estimated at 1.55 million cubic meters, versus 1.38 million cubic meters a year earlier, a growth of 12.8% and growing for the seventh consecutive year from 2011

It is not only at an individual level that water resources are under pressure.  The country’s growing economy also has increasing water requirements.  Industrial water demand, for example, has grown 7.5% per year in recent years and is set to increase by 50% by 2032[12].

The agricultural sector is another major factor in high water consumption in the Middle East, frequently accounting for 80 percent of annual demand in the region[13]

Experts worry that overuse during the second half of the twentieth century and the mounting demographic and economic pressures of more recent decades could push Saudi Arabian water supplies to their breaking point[14].

Some studies suggest that 80% of Saudi Arabia’s stored freshwater beneath the desert has been used for agriculture in the space of one generation[15].  In addition, by some estimates, natural water resources in parts of the country are in danger of disappearing within the next 20 years[16].

There are clear signs that a corner has been turned, however, and the situation is slowly improving in the region.  Saudi Arabia, in particular, has received international recognition for its commitment to addressing this situation, in order to ensure its growing economy and thriving population have access to the water resources they need to prosper.

 The respected academic journal, ‘Annals of Global Health’, says:

“By developing desalination plants, expanding water recycling processes and infrastructure, transitioning from domestic agriculture to outsourcing food products, and now taking the reins on solar development and beginning to phase out fossil fuels, Saudi Arabia is doing just about everything it can to ensure domestic water resources will be available and accessible, and that it will be able to sustain these practices[17].”

Saudi Arabia already has the largest desalination capacity in the world, producing over 5 million cubic meters per day of desalinated water.

It has announced plans to increase this figure further, with another nine desalination plants being developed on the Red Sea coast at Jeddah – a clear sign of its intent to face the water challenge head-on.  But to meet the industrial and manufacturing growth targets outlined in Vision 2030, it is expected that much more investment in this area will be needed in coming years.

Understanding the key water difficulties

In the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2018, water crises were named as the fifth biggest threat facing our planet over the next decade, with three areas of particular concern:

  1. Water scarcity
  2. Desalination
  3. Water quality

 Addressing water scarcity

Water scarcity is not limited to certain areas of the planet: it affects every continent and is being exacerbated as rapidly growing urban areas place heavy pressure on neighboring water resources[18].

Fourteen of the world’s biggest cities – including Tokyo, Mumbai, New York, London and Rio de Janeiro – are already experiencing water scarcity[19] and nearly half the global population live under conditions of severe water scarcity at least one month of the year[20]. In summer 2018, follow years of low rainfall, South Africa’s second city, Cape Town, was just days away from running out of water.

In some areas, a lack of rainfall means groundwater tables are reducing and becoming saltier.

In 2015, some of the 20 million residents of São Paulo even began drilling through basement floors and car parks to try to reach groundwater[21] – a particularly alarming turn of events for a place once given the nickname in Brazil of ‘The City of Drizzle’.

In other regions, a different issue is at play.  According to the World Economic Forum, Dhaka, Houston, Jakarta and Mexico City are among a number of cities around the world that are pumping so much groundwater from the earth around them that the very land they sit on is collapsing[22]

The impact and potential consequences of water scarcity are difficult to overstate.  Not only is a huge proportion of the world’s population already living in water-scarce regions[23] it is estimated that by 2050, as much as half of the world’s grain production could be under threat.

Mircea Dincă, Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a member of the Abdul Latif Jameel Water & Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) team at MIT, researching innovative water harvesting technology for use in water-stressed areas, said: Many people are aware of the energy challenges facing our societies, and the need to focus on more sustainable sources of energy.  Fewer people are aware of the challenges around water scarcity and water stress that face many regions of the world; challenges that are only going to get more and more serious.  It is projected that in a few years over 30% of the world’s population will not have access to a sustainable source of fresh water.”

For the MENAT region, the outlook for water scarcity is particularly stark.  The World Bank estimates that without a significant change in either water use habits or the development of new resources, by 2040, some 60% of the region could face either high or extremely high water stress.  By 2050, it believes water scarcity could cost the region between 6% and 14% of its GDP[24].

Promoting changes in the agricultural sector, which remains the region’s largest user of water, will be key.  Some progress has already been made through the promotion of nature-based solutions – a collection of strategies the UN says can help to address contemporary water management challenges, including agriculture, sustainable cities, disaster risk reduction and water quality[25].

It is urging governments to better identify and promote the win-win outcomes of nature-based solutions.

It insists: “There is great potential for nature-based solutions to make significant, and in many areas unique and essential, contributions to achieving sustainability of water resources and meeting various water management objectives.  This fact is currently widely underappreciated[26].”

The growing focus on desalination technologies

Seven years ago, General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, said of the water challenges facing the region: “We are preoccupied by this major issue[27].”  It remains just as relevant today.

While the world’s freshwater supplies remain limited, the demands on it are only increasing and are expected to increase by nearly one-third by 2050[28].

With dwindling freshwater reserves unable to meet a rising demand, and with “swathes of (Middle East) countryside … reduced to desert because overuse of water[29], the region is increasingly turning to desalination plants and waste water treatment units.

Desalination involves removing the salt from sea water to make it fit for human consumption, agricultural and industrial use.  More than 150 countries use desalination and more than 300 million people rely on desalinated water every day.

The MENAT region is one of the pioneers in the use of desalination.  The International Energy Agency (IEA) calculates that almost 60% of the world’s total desalination capacity is located in the Middle East[30].  Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait are among the world’s top four countries in terms of desalination capacity, with these three countries alone representing more than a third of global capacity.  Furthermore, desalination capacity in the Middle East is set to increase six-fold between 2007, and 2030[31].

Dirty water and the re-use of wastewater

According to the latest figures from the World Health Organization (WHO), dirty water remains a huge challenge for a substantial part of the world’s population.

More than two billion people “use a drinking water source contaminated with faeces” and almost 850 million people lack even a basic drinking-water service[32] (defined as an improved drinking-water source within a round trip of 30 minutes).

Among the diseases listed by WHO that are spread through contaminated water and poor sanitation are cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid, and polio.  This is despite the human right to water and sanitation that is safe, accessible and affordable, being recognized by the UN General Assembly in 2010.

The failure to provide clean water does not just violate an individual’s human rights.  It also compounds significant economic problems, according to the World Bank:

“Inadequate water supply and sanitation cost the (MENAT) region some US$ 21 billion per year in economic losses.  Mortality due to unsafe water supply and sanitation in a few countries in the Middle East and North Africa, especially those affected by conflict, is greater than global averages.  Inadequate water supply and sanitation cost about 1 percent of regional GDP annually, with conflict-affected countries losing as much as 2–4 percent annually[33].”

There is some positive news on the horizon, however, as governments and organizations wake up to the challenges of water scarcity and focus more attention and resources on addressing the challenges this creates.

In particular, ground-breaking research, innovative technology and technical advances around water scarcity, desalination and water quality are creating much-needed opportunities to make a step-change in the global response to water availability.

Transforming the future for water

With the UN warning of conflict and civilizational threats unless actions are taken to reduce the stress on rivers, lakes, aquifers, wetlands and reservoirs[34], it’s clear that urgent action is required across the world’s most pressing water challenges.

There is no ‘magic bullet’ to solve the world’s water crises.  Instead, a combined approach will need to be adopted, bringing together world leaders, governments, the latest developments in research and technology, and significant infrastructure investment.  The UN says: “The urgently required change will be complex, multi-faceted and challenging, and often controversial.[35]

One sector where major advances could be forthcoming is desalination.  Currently, 90 million cubic meters of desalinated water is produced around the world every day.

More than 18,000 desalination plants produce drinking water[36] in a process that requires vast amounts of energy.  But the use of huge amounts of fossil fuels to provide the energy to power desalination plants is simply replacing one environmental problem with another.  Currently, traditional carbon-powered desalination plants emit 76 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) globally.  One forecast, working on a business-as-usual scenario, puts that figure at 218 million tons of CO2 by 2040[37].

That is changing, however, and the Middle East is at the forefront of innovations to use renewable energy to reduce the CO2 emissions caused by desalination.  One such innovation is solar-powered desalination.

“We believe the future is solar desalination,” says Daniel Sagi-Vela, Chief Executive of solar-photovoltaic and renewable energy developer Fotowatio Renewable Ventures (FRV) sister company in Abdul Latif Jameel Energy to desalination and water treatment plant developer Almar Water Solutions.

Some markets are already taking steps to improve the energy efficiency of desalination plants.  In Western Australia, for example, the state government requires all new desalination plants to use renewable energy[38] – with the result that the Perth Seawater Desalination Plant (SWRO) is powered by electricity generated by a wind farm.

As the costs associated with renewable technologies continue to decrease, further advances in the technologies used both for generating renewable energy and the process of desalination will combine to make renewable desalination much more accessible.

A combined approach

While desalination based on renewable energy is a clear route forward, this transformation cannot be done in isolation.  There remains a need to continuously develop new and innovative approaches to confront the world’s water challenge, with governments, industry, science and society all playing their part.

Scientific development is also key.  Fostering partnerships between industry and academia, through initiatives such as the Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT, is crucial to help translate pioneering research into practical solutions for communities around the world.

J-WAFS was established in 2014 with the aim of bringing together the world’s leading minds and facilitating research of effective technologies, programs and policies relating to water and food security.  It has already provided millions of dollars through its Annual Seed Grant Program for research funding in these crucial areas.

Professor Xuanhe Zhao - Abdul Latif Jameel®

One of the projects funded by J-WAFS saw Xuanhe Zhao, a Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, research a vibration-based membrane cleaning technology that had the potential to improve the efficiency, and therefore reduce the costs, of the reverse osmosis process most commonly used in desalination.

Rohit Karnik, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, was another to benefit from J-WAFS Annual Seed Grant Funding.  He led a group of researchers attempting to provide safe drinking water for the world’s poorest citizens.  Their work focused on the use of xylem membrane structures in sapwood that could be harnessed to filter water and remove bacteria, potentially providing safe drinking water in rural areas of developing countries for just a few cents per week.

A third project, which is still underway and has funding until August 2019, aims to have a viable, proven prototype of a remarkable technology that could have huge implications for water scarce regions.  Led by Mircea Dincă, Associate Professor, Department of Chemistry at MIT and Evelyn Wang, Gail E. Kendall Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, it involves developing a water harvesting technology that uses metal organic framework (MOF) materials to draw water from the air.  Mircea Dinca says: “There is enormous potential for this technology to make a big difference in water scarce regions like the Middle East and North Africa.”

In September 2018, seven more projects were funded through the J-WAFS Program.

MENAT can lead the way

The MENAT region has access to the skills, resources and knowledge to be a global pioneer in water availability – and benefit from the huge commercial opportunities it presents.

By prioritizing the water challenge and encouraging investment, innovation and partnerships across society, the region can put itself at the forefront of a fast-growing, innovative industry that will become increasingly vital to global development in the coming years.

[1] The United Nations World Water Development Report 2018, UN Water, March 2018

[2] Earth Observation of Water Resources, World Bank Group – Environment & Natural Resources

[3] From Not Enough to Too Much, the World’s Water Crisis Explained, National Geographic, 22 March 2018

[4] Making Every Drop Count: An Agenda for Water Action, United Nations, 14 March 2018

[5] Can the Middle East solve its water problem? CNN, 12 July 2018

[6] Arab Regional Report 2018, World Water Forum, March 2018

[7] Arab Regional Report 2018, World Water Forum, March 2018

[8] As water disappears from the Arab world, data is falling from the sky, The World Bank, 20 March 2013

[9] Water Scarcity and Future Challenges for Food Production, Water, 10 March 2015


[11] Saudi Arabia is running out of water, The Independent, 19 February 2016

[12] A Saudi Water Crisis Lurks Beneath the Surface, Stratfor, 5 January 2017


[14] A Saudi Water Crisis Lurks Beneath the Surface, Stratfor, 5 January 2017

[15] Saudi Arabia’s Great Thirst, National Geographic, accessed September 2018

[16] A Saudi Water Crisis Lurks Beneath the Surface, Stratfor, 5 January 2017

[17] Climate Change and Water Scarcity: The Case of Saudi Arabia, Annals of Global Health, Vol 81, May-June 2015

[18] Water Scarcity, UN Water, accessed September 2018

[19] From Not Enough to Too Much, the World’s Water Crisis Explained, National Geographic, 22 March 2018

[20] The United Nations World Water Development Report 2018, UN Water, March 2018

[21] Why fresh water shortages will cause the next great global crisis, The Observer, 8 March 2015

[22] Water crises are a top global risk, World Economic Forum, 16 January 2015

[23] Progress on Drinking Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, World Health Organization, 12 July 2017

[24] Can the Middle East solve its water problem? CNN, 12 July 2018

[25] The United Nations World Water Development Report 2018, UN Water, March 2018

[26] The United Nations World Water Development Report 2018, UN Water, March 2018

[27] Water is more important than oil for UAE: Mohammed bin Zayed, Emirates 24/7, 13 December 2011

[28] The United Nations World Water Development Report 2018, UN Water, March 2018

[29] Why fresh water shortages will cause the next great global crisis, The Observer, 8 March 2015

[30] Energy Efficient Desalination, International Water Summit, 15-18 January 2018

[31] Hybrid technologies to power innovation in water desalination, Opening Doors, Winter 2017

[32] Drinking-water, World Health Organization, 7 February 2018

[33] Beyond Scarcity: Water Security in the Middle East and North Africa, The World Bank, 2018

[34] Water shortages could affect 5bn people by 2050, UN report warns, The Guardian, 19 March 2018

[35] Making Every Drop Count: An Agenda for Water Action, United Nations, 14 March 2018

[36] Energy Efficient Desalination, International Water Summit, 15-18 January 2018

[37] Energy Efficient Desalination, International Water Summit, 15-18 January 2018