How the Persian Gulf Might Solve Its Water Problem

Colour satellite image of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Image taken on December 16, 2013 with Landsat 8 data.

Source Getty

Why you should care

Because one country’s new approach to providing freshwater might just turn the tide in an entire region.

It’s yet another searing day in the desert outside of Doha, Qatar, where Sunil Malik, a construction manager at a power and water plant, seems to be peering from under his hard hat toward the temptingly cool waters of the Persian Gulf. He’s not on a break — Malik is standing by a row of aging exhaust pipes that rise like towers from the sand, and watching old pumps and faded pipes slurp up seawater. All of that liquid is heated and converted into steam, bringing this tiny country of 2.1 million nearly all of its daily drinking water.

Residents here, whose water usage is the highest in the world per capita, know all too well that trouble is brewing: Demand for water is forecast to grow by more than 50 percent by 2022, and “there is only one bathtub to draw from,” says Jonathan Smith, a sustainability adviser who helped develop Qatar’s food security program. But weathered plants — like the one Malik works at — use an old-school (though tried and true) process for removing salts and minerals from nearby seawater that’s extremely expensive, energy-intensive and environmentally destructive. Which is why it’s such a big deal that new independent water projects are coming to town, and that they’re bringing with them fancy tech that could help not only Qatar but this entire region to take a more sustainable approach to providing freshwater for its desert dwellers.

For decades, the six Gulf Cooperation Council nations have relied mostly on the gas-guzzling equivalent for desalinating water.

Specifically, the Qatar General Electricity and Water Corporation is working with the Japanese Mitsubishi Corporation on two plants that are worth roughly $525 million and will use today’s gold standard in water desalination technology — saltwater reverse osmosis. These plants could turn the tide here, experts say, encouraging the region to fully embrace greener practices within the water desalination industry. After all, the six countries in the political and economic union known as the Gulf Cooperation Council, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, account for over 40 percent of the world’s desalinated water and have relied mostly on a gas-guzzling, truck-driving equivalent process, which typically requires using (a lot of) thermal energy, or heat. Reverse osmosis, by comparison, uses filters or membranes to force water through tiny holes that separate salt and water molecules. No wonder “thermal desalination is dying a slow death in the region,” says Tom Pankratz, editor of the Water Desalination Report, an industry publication.

Sure, it might not sound that technologically impressive on the surface. But dive a little deeper and you’ll discover that reverse osmosis actually takes about four times less energy than today’s more widely used desalination process in the Middle East (aka “multistage flash distillation”) and also sucks up 10 times less water. Needless to say, this shift is a big deal for countries and companies around the world that are expected to splash out $8.6 billion this year on water desalination products and services, up 9 percent from last year, according to market research firm the Freedonia Group. And given that per capita gross domestic product (GDP) is higher here than anywhere else in the world, “Qatar has an opportunity to dream big and plan in a way that very few other countries can,” Dana Shell Smith, the U.S. ambassador to Qatar, says in an email to OZY.

water desalination (479740901)

Water, water everywhere, and only desalinated drops to drink.

Source Mohammed Abed/Getty

Of course, Qatar isn’t alone in this push. Israel first pioneered the technology on a large scale in this region, which has since been put into practice in new plants such as the Carlsbad Desalination Project in drought-stricken Southern California, which took 12 years of planning and is expected to start delivering water to folks in San Diego County later this year. And $525 million for independent water projects still pales in comparison to the some $200 billion that’s being spent for FIFA World Cup in Qatar in 2022. In fact, Gary Amy, the former director of the Water Desalination and Reuse Center at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, says to OZY that Qatar should be tapping further into its GDP to fund continued research to improve water desalination. 

For now, though, Qatar is certainly trying to address the water conundrum it’s facing. When OZY recently drove down the crowded roads of Doha, with the city’s tangled mess of Toyota Land Cruisers and roundabouts, it was hard not to spot posters for Tarsheed, a national campaign for “the conservation and efficient use of water and electricity.” Cartoon figures in traditional Qatari thobes spoke to each other about the importance of using less water in an attempt to change habits in a country where the state subsidizes water for everyone, including temporary foreign workers, and even provides it free of charge to native Qataris.


OZYThe New + the Next

Cutting-edge trends, rising stars and big ideas.