WITH their countries consuming water at alarming rates, governments in the Gulf Cooperation Council are looking for ways to increase the supply of fresh water and get households and businesses to use it more conservatively.
Excess consumption has become a serious issue in the region. On a per capita basis, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates consume 91% and 83% more water than the global average, and about six times more water than the U.K., according to an analysis by Booz & Company. Qatar and Oman are also above the global average for water consumption, despite their desert climates.
GCC residents and businesses have disregarded the consequences of their water usage to enjoy benefits more common in countries with ample rain and overflowing aquifers. But with the population of the GCC increasing in excess of 2% a year, and with rapid expansion in the region's economies, there is a growing recognition within many GCC governments that current water consumption patterns are unsustainable.
"Water scarcity is a reality in just about every Arab country," says Dr Walid Fayad, a Beirut-based partner in Booz & Company's energy, chemicals and utilities practice. "If they don't make changes, these countries will find themselves in serious trouble."
GCC governments recognise the issue and have begun taking measures to address it: For instance, Saudi Arabia will phase out purchases of locally produced wheat by 2016 in order to discourage its growth and reduce the burden that farming imposes on the Kingdom's water resources. But there is more to be done.
Road to Sustainability
GCC governments have a number of tools at their disposal to ensure the sustainability of their water supplies.
Agriculture reform. Agriculture accounts for 80% of all the water used in rural parts of the GCC, yet contributes only a few percentage points of GDP to these countries' economies. "This is completely out of proportion, and it is one of the first things that countries need to change," says Dr Fayad.
In addition to fulfilling more of their fresh produce requirements through imports, Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries will likely limit agriculture to areas that have renewable water sources and will encourage local farmers to concentrate on crops that need less water, he says. They should also pay more attention to maintaining the pipes that serve agricultural regions, regulating water pressure, and adopting "smart" irrigation techniques.
Education of consumers. Many GCC residents have no reason to suspect that water is in short supply. For instance, in the United Arab Emirates, there are vast expanses of green, on the golf course and in gated communities, giving the impression that water is plentiful.
"There is a general lack of awareness in the region, largely because of subsidies that disguise actual costs and that obscure the severity of the situation," Dr Fayad says.
The only way this will change is if people understand there is a problem and become part of the solution, he adds. Stricter regulations about the efficiency of everyday fixtures -- including faucets, showerheads and toilets -- would underscore the importance of conservation and have a secondary educational benefit at the same time that they are curtailing some of the built-in excesses of today.
Tariff structure reforms. Better education would set the stage for the next essential change, involving tariff structure reforms. It is not a given that GCC governments should cover all the costs of delivering and consuming water in their countries; on the contrary, the region's excessive use of water shows the unintended consequences of such generosity. GCC governments should restructure their water