How the Gulf is Keeping Water Security Fears at Bay

Water scarcity, although a relatively low priority, is still a concern for the Middle Eastern security agenda. Gulf states in particular can lead the way in ensuring that water co-operation replaces the threat of water conflict.

 By Matthew Machowski, RUSI Qatar

Across the Middle East and North Africa the Arab Spring revolutions have brought unprecedented changes to some of the world's most enduring and entrenched regimes. Some citizens in the region have enjoyed real freedom of expression either for the first time in generations or even for the first time ever.

These advances have come not only at a price in human terms, but also for international energy markets. Brent Crude has been climbing steadily since August 2010, but it is only since the onset of the Arab revolutions in December 2010 that the markets have experienced a significant surge in price.

As pressing as these economic concerns may be and as captivating as these revolutions certainly are, one must not forget other equally profound security concerns, which may prove to be a catalyst as important and as changing as anything we have seen recently. Water scarcity, although still relatively low on the current security agenda, is one of the region's most pressing future security concerns likely to affect all aspects of life.

The future of water scarcity in the Gulf

The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) States comprise some of the most arid areas on Earth.  With minimal internal resources (both surface and groundwater) and minimal precipitation, the region relies mostly on costly desalination processes to generate its drinking water. For example, 98.6 per cent of total drinking freshwater in Qatar comes from desalination.[1] The World Resources Institute (WRI) estimates that this dependence will worsen in years to come, with Kuwait, for example, predicted to have as little as twenty litres of natural freshwater per capita per day available to its residents in 2025, an amount well below the World Bank's water scarcity benchmark of 2,700 litres per capita per day.

A combination of future population growth (according to the UN Water Report, the GCC is expected to expand its populace over five-fold between 2005 and 2050)[2], increasing urbanisation, rising temperatures, improvements in the standard of living and the growth of tourism will produce an exponential rise in local water consumption in the coming decades.[3]

Today the Gulf countries represent the highest per capita users of water worldwide. According to Qatar's inter-ministerial Permanent Population Committee (PPC), Qatari residents currently consume 675 litres of water per capita per day, approximately twice the average EU consumption.[4] Given that Qatar's population is expected to increase nearly eightfold by 2050, the use of water in the small state is liable to increase significantly.[5]

While policy makers are slowly becoming increasingly aware of this issue (though you might not notice this given their penchant for highly water-intensive landscape beautification features), [6] the same cannot be said for GCC citizens who, either because they do not pay, or pay only a nominal charge (one per cent of actual production cost in Saudi Arabia), for their heavily subsidised water, remain largely oblivious to these issues. Staggering levels of water wastage further aggravate local water scarcity.

Water Co-operation or Conflict?

Access to water in the Middle East and North Africa has considerable implications for the regional balance of power and inter-state relations. Water depletion or degradation, as well as uneven distribution and increased demand, can 'breed conflict'. [7] Thus far there have been various diplomatic crises and disputes between Turkey, Syria and Iraq over the control of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, or between various riparian countries on the River Nile. The common use of the Disi aquifer by Jordan and Saudi Arabia, for example, has also recently become increasingly securitised.

In 1985 Boutros Boutros-Ghali famously warned that 'The next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics.'[8] These comments were echoed a decade later by Ismail Seragaldin, a former Word Bank Vice-President, and, more recently, by the Swiss President, Micheline Calmy-Rey, who argued that water would become 'the oil' of the twenty-first century. While these provocative sentiments promote a re-examination of the core security concerns in the Middle East, thus far water clearly has not been an instigator of conflict.

Moreover, a study carried out by Oregon State University in 2001 found that, out of 1,800 water-related domestic and international 'incidents' between 1948 and 1999, experiences of co-operation greatly outnumbered those of conflict. And in 2002 Kofi Annan echoed these findings by suggesting that water problems had great potential to become a catalyst for future co-operation, too.

Trans-boundary co-operation around water tends to originate in a shared, multipartite vision of furthering sustainable development. This imperative motivates countries to seek negotiations, and has led to the emergence of various international agreements such as the Nile Basin Initiative, the 2010 Abu Dhabi Water Declaration, or the Circles of Co-operation project advocated by Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan in May 2010. Water scarcity has induced co-operation even within highly hostile environments. The joint Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian water and waste management project, 'Good Water Makes Good Neighbours', initiated in 2001, represents successful, small-scale, bottom-up trans-boundary water co-operation in a conflict zone.

Future Security Threats: Desalination

In spite of significant costs, the majority of freshwater consumed in the GCC region comes from huge seawater desalination plants. Saudi Arabia spent over $17 billion on new desalination plants in 2008 alone,[9] and is expected to spend another $50 billion USD in the next ten years in order to meet its water demand.[10] The GCC's high dependency on desalination leaves them vulnerable to any intentional or accidental oil spillage in the Gulf, which could lead to an extreme water shortage in the region.

Desalination inherently poses a significant threat to the local environment. Due to its extremely energy-intensive nature, it contributes significantly to air pollution. Moreover, the concentrate and chemical discharges to the marine environment, and a subsequent steady increase in water temperatures and salinity are the most obvious environmental threats associated with the process of desalination in the Gulf.[11] Huge volumes of brine discharged into the Persian Gulf, in excess of 132 million cubic metres per day, are likely to decrease local biodiversity and severely harm the ecosystem.[12] Moreover, a future rise in the highly saline Persian Gulf sea level is likely to affect natural in-land water resources and further salinate agricultural lands affecting local food security.[13]

Threats and Co-operation

Based on an appreciation of a potential major water crisis in the event of contamination of the Gulf waters, Qatar recently embarked on plans to build a QAR10 billion ($2.75 billion) freshwater reservoir. As vast and costly as it is, its capacity is limited to only approximately seven days' worth of water supply. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that the need for such enormous reservoirs, or other mitigating technologies, with the capacity to stave-off the worst excesses of future crises is a potential avenue for furthering regional partnership, and could follow the example of the joint GCC power grid.

Wastewater treatment appears to be another area for potential regional co-operation. The GCC leaders are scheduled to discuss the issue at the Gulf Wastewater Summit in Dubai in April 2011.Furthermore, the Abu Dhabi Declaration issued by the 31st Summit of the Supreme Council of the GCC further links water security with energy and food security, and calls for collaborative action to change regional water consumption patterns.

The high cost of water production compels governments to minimise their water wastage and reduce excessive groundwater mining, which in the case of the UAE represents as much as 70.9 per cent of total groundwater withdrawal.[14] Existing regional wastewater treatment facilities can only recycle around 75 per cent of urban and industrial waste.[15] Pollution from the remaining wastewater poses a significant health hazard by contaminating local groundwater aquifers.

Policy Recommendations

Bringing about changes in regional water consumption trends is politically challenging. Providing fresh water for free, or nearly free, to GCC citizens has installed a popular perception of the limitlessness of supply and a commensurate lack of any awareness of the water predicament. The  Qatari population, for example, uses on average 310 litres of water every day, more than double the average for Western European countries. These figures position Qatar among the highest per capita household water users in the world.[16] Therefore, implementing financial disincentives in the form of water rates may have serious implications for the traditional ruling bargain of the richer GCC countries, whereas adding another financial burden to citizens of  more impoverished states may lead to further protests.

Logically speaking, the answer is to decrease the amount of water spent on local agriculture: Qatar, for example, has 925 productive farms located on 9,800 hectares of land that utilise as much as 74 per cent of freshwater but account for just 1 per cent of GDP.[17] Saudi Arabia, having recently arrived at a similar conclusion, has all but given up on large-scale domestic food production, deciding to terminate its long-standing policy of self-sufficiency in wheat production by 2016.

Overall, it remains clear that the sooner the GCC governments deal with their water scarcity and their current ill-fated water consumption trends, the greater long-term benefits they will then enjoy.

Building a secure regional network of desalination plants and fresh water reservoirs; regional provisions for co-operative action in the event of serious water contamination; collaborative investment in alternative energy and water production (desalination fed by solar or nuclear energy) as well as co-operation in tackling water wastage patterns has the potential to further unify the regional players. In fact, a future drive to innovate water production techniques and the further development of currently utilised desalination processes may even prove highly attractive for regional economic security, as future global demand for water is assured.

Moreover, if the GCC can adopt a collective approach to water innovation and research, they could, while not replicating the key place that oil and gas have had in their economies, potentially establish the region as pioneers in future water technology, offering them a key area of economic diversification.


[1] Aquastat, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, "Water Report 34,", 2009, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, (accessed 02 March 2011).

[2] ibid,

[3] Economist Intelligence Unit, The GCC in 2020: Resources for the Future (London: The Economist, 2010): 12.

[4] The Peninsula, "Water consumption in Qatar very high: Expert," 15 March 2009.

[5] Aquastat, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, "Water Report 34,", 2009, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, (accessed 02 March 2011).

[6] Duraid Al Baik, "Call for unified water strategy," Gulf News, 8 December 2010,

[7] Homer-Dixon in Uttam Kumar Sinha, "Water Security: A Discoursive Analysis," Strategic Analysis (Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses) 29, no. 2 (Apr-Jun 2005): 321-322; David Grey and Claudia Sadoff, "The Global Water Challenge: Poverty, Growth & International Relations (Global Issues Seminar Series)," The World Bank, 25 January 2006, (accessed May 12, 2011).

[8] Boutros Boutros-Ghali in Geoffrey Lean and Mark Rowe, "Blair's Support for Dam May Speed World's First Water War," 1131926.html, 12 December 1999, The Independent (accessed March 05, 2011).

[9] Emirates 24/7 News, "UAE produces 14% of global desalinater water," 31 August 2010; Saudi Gazette, "SR95 billion spent on water desalination," 7 November 2010.

[10] Minas, Querubin J., "Saudi Arabia needs $50 billion new investment in desalination projects," Saudi Gazette, 3 October 2010.

[11] Renee Richer, Conservation in Qatar: Impacts of Increasing Industrialization (Doha: Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS), Georgetown University, School of Foreign Service Qatar, 2008): 5.

[12] Mohammed Hajeeh, "Water Conservation in the Gulf Co-operation Council Countries: A Decision Support System Approach," International Journal Society Systems Science (Inderscience Enterprises Ltd.) 1, no. 1 (2008).

[13] Richer, op. cit., 1-2.

[14] Atef Hamdy, "Water Crisis and Food Security in the Arab World: The Future Challenges," Global Water Partnership: Mediterranean,

[15] Dawoud, op. cit., 191.

[16] "Qatar tops per capita water use in world," The Peninsula, 30 March 2011, (accessed May 12, 2011).

[17] Richer, op. cit., 9.


Explore our related content