The water industry in the Middle East has evolved considerably since MEED was launched, but the past two decades have seen the most significant changes, especially in the field of water resource management.
GCC countries have made sizeable investments in creating the institutional capability needed to protect stakeholders interests, tackle water security issues and spearhead technological innovation. The key driver behind this is the water sectors nexus with the social development and economic diversification plans being executed by governments across the region.
Water security is a major concern in the Middle East and is exacerbated by rapid urbanisation and lifestyle changes, which have driven exponential growth in water demand. Water security issues are often assessed under the framework of sustainability and through the lens of resilience and vulnerability. Many governments in the region have initiated multi and bilateral efforts to resolve their water security issues.
Projects on the near horizon, such as the Red Sea-Dead Sea conveyance scheme in Jordan, will tackle inherent water stresses compounded by an influx of migrants. The long-term success of these projects will be driven by geopolitical agendas.
In the coming years, water interactions are expected to go beyond individual nations and become a foundation for international cooperation. Through water security initiatives, the region will see more physical and virtual water transfer projects between countries, leading to mutual benefits.
The trend of adopting innovation to serve customers can be seen even in state-run water companies
Although most utility companies in the Middle East are still focused on asset creation and maintenance, there has been a shift in their approach to customers. The trend of adopting innovation to serve customers can be seen even in state-run water companies. This trend is expected to grow as a new regulatory regime emerges. It is being driven by progress in competing sectors such as power. Growing customer expectations will force water companies to raise their game, especially with the industry opening up to the private sector. Social media, for example, will be used to send instant, two-way water communications to enhance the customer experience.
Although the degree of customer-focused services is subjective and depends on interpretation, the water sector is expected to undergo a successful, cost-effective transition due to the regions adaptive culture and success stories in other sectors.
Technological innovation will play a big role in the future of the water sector, be it sourcing fresh water from unconventional means such as cloud seeding or improving operational efficiency. Although at a small scale, the UAE cloud-seeding programme has inspired the industry. Its success will not only revolutionise the water sector but also other sectors such as agriculture.
Water security is a major concern in the Middle East
Climate change will drive governments to invest in new infrastructure, especially to manage flooding, increased runoff and marine pollution. This trend will enhance research, development opportunities and collaboration between governments, institutions and agencies around the globe.
The evolution of the water industry has led regulators to stretch beyond the conventional water quality and environmental standards concerning the provision of drinking water and collection and disposal of wastewater. Future water regulation in the Middle East is expected to include incentivising efficiency, increasing resilience, improving governance and mitigating risk. With a higher level of private sector involvement, the challenge for governments will be to strike a balance between water stewardship and service provision.
The water sector in this region will soon see regulations that are informed by and based on information management and data analytics. The number of stakeholders will also increase as governments create new, and more focused, agencies and departments to monitor and manage the sector. The Middle East is well-positioned to test alternative funding mechanisms, which means the emerging regulations must also cater to these financial models.
By all accounts, the next six decades will be very different from those past. If achievements to date are an indication of the pace at which the region can develop, the future will be even more dynamic. By 2077, the millennial generation will have done their part and retired. Big data and automation will also have moved on in leaps and bounds. Todays investments in water security, customer service, technology and regulation will have significant effects on this next generation.
Wessam Daoud is regional director for MWH in the Middle East. MWH, now part of Stantec, operates in more than 400 locations across six continents.