The figures speak for themselves. Two-thirds of the earth’s landmass is composed of water, but of that, only 3 per cent is fresh and potable. And of that, less than 1 per cent is found in the Middle East and North Africa, making the region among the driest on the planet.

Yet despite the statistics, water conservation is only now catching on in the Middle East. While growing demand is expected to see per capita freshwater availability halve to just 500 cubic metres a year (cm/y) by 2025, only 1 per cent of wastewater is reused in the region. Of the six GCC states, only Kuwait can claim to have an efficient wastewater treatment system in place.

For years, the capital-rich Gulf could depend on desalination to meet growing demand. But the mindset is changing as governments see the environmental and economic benefits of recycling used water. The polluting effects of untreated discharge, the growing influence of homegrown non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and diminishing aquifers have brought home the stark reality that the current situation cannot continue. This year, almost $700 million has been spent by the GCC states on water reuse projects. This is set to increase to more than $2,500 million by 2015.

Saudi Arabia faces a particularly tough task as it seeks to meet the ever-growing demands for water. With the highest population and largest geographical area of all the GCC states, it needs to invest heavily in its water sector over the coming years. And it plans to do just that. Riyadh plans to invest up to $50,000 million over the next 25 years in boosting well-sourced potable water production and wastewater treatment networks. ‘We have major investment plans to raise the water reuse rate in both cities and rural areas,’ says Abdulaziz al-Jaber, general manager for project execution at the Water & Electricity Ministry. ‘Our aim is to greatly expand our water treatment capabilities.’

The ministry plans to raise water treatment capacity over five five-year development periods up to 2030. About SR 107,000 million has been allocated to increase the kingdom’s non-desalination-sourced potable water supply to almost 8.4 million cubic metres a day (cm/d) by 2030. A total SR 52,500 million has been budgeted to increase water treatment capacity to 5.8 million cm/d.

‘We want to increase per capita recycled water consumption to 250 cm/d for large cities, 200 cm/d for towns and 150 cm/d for rural areas,’ says Al-Jaber. In addition, SR 23,800 million has been allocated for a national dams programme, and the ambitious desalination expansion programme planned by the Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC).

It will not be easy. Unlike most of the other Gulf states, which have tightly compressed population centres, the kingdom’s 23 million inhabitants are spread across an area of 2.3 million square kilometres. One large, central wastewater treatment facility like Sulaibiya in Kuwait is not an option. And with 30 per cent of the population living in small towns and villages, building a water reuse network that caters for all will be close to impossible.

The results, however, will be worth the effort. Water reuse provides several distinct benefits: it reduces the effects of drought; protects ground and surface water; lowers the energy requirement for desalination; and reduces the cost to the consumer. Moreover, the additional treated water capacity can be used for some non-essential purposes such as beautification.

But for any water treatment network to be effective, it needs to go alongside government policies that will encourage its usage. For residential users, the trick is to convince them of the advantages of water conservation, as well as providing an acceptable metering and price policy. For industry, discharge regulations must be enforced to encourage recycling, while farmers need to be convinced on the merits of crop