Making a little groundwater go a long way

17 July 2014

Across the region, a variety of measures are being employed to reduce dependence on non-renewable groundwater resources. A joint GCC strategy aims to strengthen these efforts

In late June, the UAE launched an international campaign to provide 5 million people around the world with clean drinking water. Announcing the initiative at the start of Ramadan, Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum said “Water in our land is a great blessing, and our ancestors knew its precious value because they were deprived of it.”

We are also well aware of its value because a considerable portion of our financial resources are allocated to providing water. We have to thank God for this blessing by preserving it and helping those in need around the world.”

The GCC states are among the most water-scarce in the world. With the exception of the coastal areas in southwestern Saudi Arabia and Oman, which have reasonable rates of rainfall to recharge groundwater, the majority of groundwater in the GCC is non-renewable, with ages ranging between 6,000 and 22,000 years, says Waleed Khalil Zubari, chairman of the water resources management committee at Bahrain’s Arabian Gulf University.

Serious consequences

Abstraction of groundwater is therefore depleting available supply and, in some cases, wells are running dry. In other cases, aquifers are suffering from seawater intrusion and are becoming increasingly saline. For the agricultural sector, which is the biggest user of groundwater in the region, this is having some serious consequences including forcing the closure of farms.

Statistics gathered by Arabian Gulf University show that in a typical year, the agricultural sector accounts for 72 per cent of all water used in the GCC, equivalent to 18.8 billion cubic metres a year (cm/y). About 94 per cent of this comes from groundwater. Across the region efforts are under way to reduce this usage of water by adopting modern irrigation methods, changing farming activities and embracing wastewater reuse.

GCC countries have ambitious plans for the reuse of tertiary treated wastewater

Waleed Khalil Zubari, Arabian Gulf University

On the municipal water supply side, desalinated seawater has been replacing groundwater as the predominant source, accounting for 74 per cent of all drinking water supplies in the region. “In 1980, desalination capacity did not exceed 1 billion cubic metres, in 2010, it reached about 10 billion cubic metres, and in 2016, the contracted desalination capacity will escalate to more than 19 billion cubic metres,” says Zubari. He adds that the rapid growth rate is in line with the region’s population expansion and the fast pace of urbanisation.

The aggressive growth in desalination capacity is in contrast to the slower pace of development of treated wastewater, known as treated sewage effluent (TSE). “While desalination has been aggressively increased to meet the municipal water supply, treated wastewater has been lagging behind,” says Zubari. “Treated and reused wastewater has not been tapped to its full potential yet. However, GCC countries have ambitious plans for the reuse of tertiary treated wastewater.”

In technical terms, it is possible to treat sewage so thoroughly that it can be directly consumed. All pathogens, organic loading and heavy metals are removed using an array of treatment processes that go beyond the traditional primary and secondary treatment methods, and use additional tertiary systems such as ultrafiltration, dechlorination and disinfection.

Water resources used to meet municipal sector consumption*, 2010-12
CountryDesalinated waterGroundwaterTotal
Saudi Arabia1,2581,0252,283
*=Million cubic metres a year. Source: Arabian Gulf University

To date, the biggest user of TSE is the UAE, which has successfully employed recycled water for almost 10 per cent of all agricultural demand, equivalent to 309 million cm/y. Of the total 3.1 billion cm/y required, 2.3 billion cm/y comes from groundwater and 531 million cm/y from desalination. Other states are now looking to follow the UAE’s lead. In Qatar, for example, the $2.5bn Inner Doha Resewerage Implementation Strategy (Idris) includes a $400m package for a TSE system to feed industrial and agricultural areas.

For the UAE, however, the use of TSE is just one of the measures being pursued to reduce reliance on groundwater. “The percentage of the annual groundwater supply in the country is about 50 per cent of the total water demand,” says Sultan Alwan, assistant undersecretary for water resources and nature conservation at the UAE’s Environment & Water Ministry.

“The other main sources are seawater desalination, treated wastewater and surface water,” he says, pointing out that surface water is a very small contributor at about 1 per cent. Desalinated water, however, accounts for 100 per cent of municipal supply (40 per cent of the overall total), making the UAE the only GCC state to have completely moved away from using groundwater for household supply.

Conservation strategy

In 2010, the UAE developed a national water conservation strategy, and, as part of this, banned the cultivation of water-intensive grass such as Rhodes grass. It is also promoting water conservation techniques such as hydroponics. In Abu Dhabi, for example, the Farmer’s Services Centre, run by Australian rural development specialist GRM International, has distributed $33.8m-worth of irrigation equipment to 1,200 farms, and is working on a host of other initiatives aimed at reducing water use and improving the quality of farmed products.

Meanwhile, Oman has also had to look carefully at its agricultural sector as increased salinity of its groundwater, caused by over-pumping, is forcing farm land out of production. The most important farming region of Al-Batinah, which accounts for about half of the sultanate’s total agricultural land, has been hardest hit, losing 5,040 hectares of land to salinisation since 1997.

Water consumption by sector *, 2010-12
Saudi Arabia2,28375314,41017,446
*=Million cubic metres a year. Source: Arabian Gulf University

In response to these challenges, the government launched a National Salinity Strategy in 2012. The plan outlines several important areas for change, including continuation of the well licensing system that was introduced in the 1990s, and extending the concept of zoning to protect potable water resources and environmentally sensitive areas. This will be used to take some highly saline areas out of production and shift agricultural activity to other areas with better groundwater resources.

Each new farm is to be issued with a water allocation, which will be digitally monitored. Farms will also be given subsidised irrigation equipment and automated water demand soil sensors. Other measures being implemented include the construction of new recharge dams and the use of TSE. However, Muscat is aware these measures will not be sufficient to slow down the rate of seawater intrusion and that there has to be a cut in groundwater usage.

Protecting groundwater is perhaps more critical for Oman than anywhere else, as its agricultural sector relies on the resource for 100 per cent of its supply, and 26 per cent of municipal supplies. Other GCC states have made more progress on diversification of resources. Saudi Arabia, for example, has had major success in reducing groundwater demand in its agricultural sector after undertaking a major policy shift over the past decade. In 2007, the kingdom took the landmark step of changing its wheat production policy to substantially reduce water consumption by agriculture. The organisation responsible for buying wheat – the Grain Silos and Flour Mills Organisation – was ordered to reduce domestic wheat purchase by 12.5 per cent a year until domestic production is phased out in 2016. Water savings from this are expected to be in billions of cubic metres each year.

On the municipal side, Saudi Arabia uses groundwater for 45 per cent of all supplies. For the summer of 2013, Riyadh turned to groundwater to ensure the city could meet demand and to put a stop to the black market for water tankers being supplied to private customers at inflated prices.

Aware there would be a supply gap before the Ras al-Khair desalination plant came online in 2014, with a capacity of more than 1 million cubic metres a day, the kingdom’s National Water Company implemented the Riyadh Water Supply Enhancement Programme. This entailed boring 43 deep wells around the city, which varied in depth from 170 metres to 2,400 metres. Groundwater for the project was retrieved from the Al-Manjour aquifer and treated in small-scale plants supplied by France’s Degremont, part of the GDF Suez group.

As the scheme got under way, GDF Suez told MEED it was expecting large demand in growth for these units, which can bring groundwater up to drinking water standards using much less energy than is required by desalination plants treating seawater.

In terms of wastewater reuse, the Arabian Gulf University’s statistics show that in Saudi Arabia, this only accounts for 1 per cent of supply, with 175 million cm/y being used in farming against total agricultural demand of 14.2 billion cm/y. But the kingdom’s major cities all have plans for increasing the use of TSE, which means major investment in wastewater treatment facilities and distribution pipelines.

TSE recharge

Another option for wastewater being considered in the region is to recharge aquifers using TSE. Zubari says pilot studies have been conducted in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, but the method has yet to be implemented. From an economic perspective, he says tertiary treated wastewater should be reused directly in irrigation or industry, and only used for recharge when there is a surplus. This is something Bahrain is seriously considering as its TSE production expands due to the ongoing investment in wastewater treatment and TSE systems.

Across the region, governments are examining a range of approaches to reduce groundwater use. A new unified GCC water strategy is currently under development by the GCC Secretariat. It will be published in mid-2015 and run until 2035.

Whatever approaches the strategy recommends, there is no doubt the situation facing the GCC is hugely complex and challenging. The 20-year plan will provide an important opportunity to drive progress on promoting water efficiency and protecting groundwater before too many wells run dry.

In numbers

1 billion cubic metres Seawater desalination capacity in the region in 1980

19 billion cubic metres Projected seawater desalination capacity in the region in 2016

Source: Arabian Gulf University

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