Management of water demand will have to play a more important role in the GCC in the years ahead, as the region’s population continues to swell and freshwater resources continue to be depleted.

According to the UN’s Water Poverty Index, Gulf states already suffer from a critical water shortage, and yet consumption rates are among the highest in the world. Water demand in the six GCC states increased by 51 per cent, between 1992 and 2007, from 17 billion cubic metres to 25.6 billion cubic metres, as a result of rapid pop-ulation growth and the adoption of Western habits and living standards.

The increased demand has so far been met through the construction of new desalination plants. However, little has been done to curb usage, with the exception of some ineffective marketing campaigns.

Governments have proven reluctant to tackle the issue head-on for fear of stirring up discontent, and water prices continue to be heavily subsidised. Where rates have been increased, they have mostly applied only to expatriate residents.

Water authorities in Saudi Arabia have taken steps to reduce leakages in water transmission and distribution systems by awarding performance-linked management contracts to international companies in a bid to reduce the amount of new desalination capacity that needs to be built. But much larger savings could be achieved if consumption habits changed.

Desalination plants are highly energy-intensive, and building more facilities, rather than implementing tougher water demand management, means gas is being diverted away from local industries and export markets. Eventually there will come a point at which the GCC economies are harmed by ignoring the obvious solution that demand management presents, and that date could well be sooner, rather than later.