For most countries in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena), groundwater management is a national priority. Over-extraction of this precious resource has been happening for years. According to the World Bank, some Mena countries such as Saudi Arabia have recorded a drop in aquifer levels of up to 5 metres a year since 2000.

Falling water levels are not the only issue. If the rate at which water is extracted from the aquifer overtakes the natural rate at which it is refilled, the salinity of the water increases as seawater seeps in. This is the case around much of the Gulf.

“There are three types of aquifer in the GCC,” says Saad Alani, director of water and environment at Abu Dhabi-based Hyder Consulting Middle East. “Type ‘A’ is the nearest to pure [water]. It is not bad quality and 30 years ago people would have been drinking it. Type ‘B’ is more saline – between 4,000 and 8,000 ppm TDS [parts per million total dissolved solids] – and could be used for irrigation. Type ‘C’ is 10,000 to 30,000 ppm TDS and is nearer to seawater.”

Seawater is usually 30,000-40,000 ppm TDS but anything above 15,000 ppm TDS is considered saline. Fresh water is typically below 1,000 ppm TDS.

Increasing salinity

The problem the GCC countries face is that type A aquifers have been all but exhausted and type B aquifers are slowly becoming more saline. As the salinity increases, the treatment required to make the water useable becomes more expensive – the more salt the water holds, the more power is required to remove it.

“Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are still desalinating ground water but seawater desalination is on the increase,” says Alani. “Some places will be bone dry within 30 years.”

In a bid to slow the rate at which aquifers are drying out and stop salinity levels rising, GCC governments are implementing a range of measures to manage demand. Some of the most dramatic have been introduced in Saudi Arabia, where the decision to reduce water used for irrigation has resulted in a fundamental shift in agricultural policy.

In January 2008, the kingdom announced it would become an importer of wheat rather than a producer, because of the high volumes of water needed for irrigation.

Thanks to the high cost of providing water for wheat production – 1,000 cubic metres of water are required for each tonne of wheat grown – it was costing the kingdom $100 more to produce a tonne of wheat than it would cost on the international market. Wheat is currently priced at about $177 a tonne on international markets.

In other countries in the region, such as Morocco, farmers are being encouraged to grow higher-value crops for which the price covers the cost of the water used.

“Many countries in the region have potential for increasing production of high-value fruits and vegetables because they are located close to Europe,” says Julia Bucknall, lead water specialist for the Mena region at the World Bank.

Reducing demand from the agricultural sector is one way to prolong the life of aquifers, but in Kuwait another method has been introduced: using processed sewage effluent to recharge aquifers. At the Sulaibiyah waste-water treatment works, for example, sewage is treated to such a high standard that it can be used for agriculture and re-injected into aquifers. The $430m plant was built by a special project vehicle called Utilities Development Company, owned by the local Kharafi Group and the US’ Ionics, for the Public Works Ministry. The plant was completed in November 2004 under a 30-year build-operate-transfer contract.

Reuse of water is not unusual in the region, with Abu Dhabi aiming to reuse 100 per cent of its effluent by 2010. However, using this processed water to recharge aquifers is less common, with government’s preferring to use the water directly for irrigation and industry.

Reducing demand and artificially recharging aquifers are two options for GCC governments facing water shortages, but in North Africa a third way is being explored. By carrying out extensive joint investigation of shared groundwater resources in the Northwest Sahara aquifer system, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya are learning how to increase extraction without damaging their shared resource.

The three countries’ shared groundwater network consists of two layers of aquifers. Since 1998, a tripartite study has been under way to determine the geology and hydrology of the system. “The governments involved in the Northwest Saharan aquifer have established an agency and a formal agreement to co-operate on managing the aquifer, which is very unusual for international groundwater,” says Bucknall.

The study is being managed by the Sahara & Sahel Observatory (OSS), which has created a mathematical model of the 1 million-square-kilometre system. The model has been used to predict the future behaviour of the water resource based on a range of scenarios. At current abstraction rates, the water levels in the two main aquifer layers would drop by 20-60 metres by 2030. Salt water intrusion would affect some areas and artesianism – where natural pressure thrusts ground water to the surface – would be reduced.

If abstraction continues to increase as it has over the past 50 years, from 0.6 billion cubic metres a year in 1960 to 2.5 billion cubic metres a year today, the results would be much more severe. Assuming an abstraction increase of 101 cubic metres a second in Algeria, levels will drop by up to 400 metres by 2030 and artesian wells will cease to exist.

But this does not necessarily mean that abstraction levels must fall. Modelling has also demonstrated that if water is taken from alternative locations – far removed from the current areas of intensive extraction – the aquifer would be able to withstand increases in the amount of water withdrawn, potentially enabling as much as 7.8 billion cubic metres a year to be withdrawn by 2050.

Such findings have been important for all three countries that rely on the aquifer. The next stage is joint management strategies.

“Last week [late August] we began the third phase of the project, which involves getting a consultation mechanism established and improving agricultural irrigation practices to make better use of the water,” says Kati Tahvonen, officer at the Division of Global Environment Facility Co-ordination, part of the UN’s Environment Programme.

The organisation is providing finance to the project and working with the various national and joint committees to oversee the execution of the scheme and give technical assistance where required.

By working together to learn more about the aquifer, the three countries that share it will be able to plan where to extract water without damaging essential supplies. Water policy experts say this is a strategy that could be employed successfully in other trans-boundary water bodies such as the Nubian aquifer, shared by Libya, Egypt, Chad and Sudan, and the Disi aquifer, shared by Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Well preservation

The Nubian aquifer is the world’s largest fossil water aquifer system and the source of water for Libya’s $20bn Great Manmade River project. The Disi is a smaller, non-renewable aquifer vital to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, where it is known as the Saq aquifer. Water from the aquifer has been used extensively in northern areas of the kingdom such as Tabuk, Hail and Al-Qassim since the 1970s.

Saudi Arabia has dominated the use of the Disi aquifer, but Jordan’s use is set to increase as a $1bn conveyor system to take water from the aquifer up to the capital, Amman, begins operation in 2013. Financing for the project, which is being built by Turkey’s Gama Holdings and the US’ GE Energy Financial Services, was agreed in June 2009.

Little is known about this groundwater system, which is understood to be non-renewable, with an estimated life expectancy of about 50 years. This lack of information is worrying, says Francesca Greco, an independent water policy consultant who has spent six years studying the Disi aquifer. She is currently working on a doctorate at King’s College in London.

“Over the past 10 years, the media, the population that will be affected by the rise of the water price, and the academic researchers have not been given fundamental data about the project,” she says. “How much water is there in the Disi aquifer? What are the ‘shared’ quantities among the two countries?”

MEED understands that a memorandum of understanding governing the aquifer was signed in late 2008 by Jordan and Saudi Arabia, but Greco says this may not mean more information will come to light. “Even now, with the signing of the memorandum, the contents of this document are not disclosed and we cannot say if they are respecting the international law about trans-boundary waters,” she says.

Saudi Arabia’s National Water Company and Jordan’s Water & Irrigation Ministry declined to comment on the status of the Disi aquifer.

“In a water-scarce region such as the Middle East, I see aquifers as a cushion that countries are using to soften the impact of the rapidly increasing demand for a fixed or even decreasing quantity of surface water,” says Bucknall. “But the cushion is slowly deflating.”

Across the Middle East, management of aquifers is improving, but more could be done both collaboratively and at a national level.