With summer temperatures approaching 50 degrees Celsius and only a few centimetres of rainfall each year, the Gulf’s climate might well be considered inhospitable.

Yet archaeological digs in Gulf countries in recent decades have revealed the remains of civilisations dating back to the early Bronze Age. What sustained these prehistoric communities was a plentiful supply of water.

Key fact

Water availability is expected to halve between now and 2030, when the Gulf’s population will reach 52 million

For, despite first appearances, the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula has considerable fresh water reserves, stored in underground aquifers.

Perhaps the most important of these is the Umm Er Radhuma aquifer, which extends from Kuwait in the north to the islands of Bahrain and as far south as Haradh, on the Saudi mainland.

Fertile land

The aquifer is fed by the Tigris-Euphrates river basin and builds in pressure as it approaches the Gulf coast, where in the past fresh water used to well naturally to the surface. Ships sent out by Alexander the Great to explore the Arabian coastline found a fertile land. The Kuwaiti island of Failaka, now mostly scrubland desert, was described by his captains as “covered all over with thick wood” while Bahrain “bore garden fruits and all things in due season”.

Parts of eastern Arabia remained important areas of food production well into the 20th century. To this day, date plantations and vegetable farms thrive on the north and west coasts of the main island of Bahrain. But rapid population growth in recent decades and a drive in the region for self-sufficiency in food has put a tremendous strain on the Gulf’s groundwater reserves. Between 1980 and 1992, wheat production in Saudi Arabia grew more than 29 times to reach 4.1 million tonnes a year.

Encouraged by hefty subsidies, farmers depleted the kingdom’s water resources at an alarming rate. In the 1980s and 1990s, Saudi Arabia consumed 300 billion cubic metres of water, according to the Agriculture Ministry. That is the equivalent to the flow of the Nile over six years. And, while agriculture consumes about 80 per cent of the Gulf states’ water resources – despite contributing less than 2 per cent of regional gross domestic product (GDP) – rapid urban and industrial growth are making increasing demands on resources, too.

The toll on water resources has been considerable. “Depletion of the water tables is now beginning to compromise the sustainability of agriculture in the region and will further increase dependency on food imports in the coming years,” says a report issued in December last year by NCB Capital, an arm of National Commercial Bank of Saudi Arabia.

“Depletion of the water tables is now beginning to compromise the sustainability of [the region’s] agriculture”

Report by NCB Capital

At the height of its farming push, in the early 1990s, as much as 90 per cent of water used in Saudi Arabia came from effectively non-renewable aquifers – resources that can only be replaced over centuries through groundwater seepage. Riyadh’s decision to invest in wheat production for domestic consumption was eventually reversed in 2008, when the government opted to phase out the growing of wheat by 2020 because the toll it took on the aquifers was deemed to be too great. The Agriculture Ministry says that, since the decision, it has already recorded an improvement in groundwater levels in the Eastern Province, home to the country’s main aquifers.

Groundwater levels have dropped dramatically across the Gulf. Many middle-aged Bahrainis remember swimming as children in the freshwater pools at Adhari, where islanders built shrines to venerate the springs more than 4,000 years ago. The pools are now gone and the springs have dried up, replaced by a municipal water park.

The loss of water resources is about more than the loss of heritage, however. In many parts of the Arab world, water scarcity has been pushed to crisis point. Summer water shortages have become the norm in many Saudi cities.

In 2008, authorities were forced to draft in two floating desalination plants to supply 50,000 cubic metres a day of emergency water to Jeddah, a city of 3.4 million people on the Red Sea coast. The emergency barges were diverted last year to the southern region of Asir, which also faces severe water shortages in the summer months.

According to the UN’s Water Poverty Index, a country suffers from a shortage of water if its average per capita share of renewable resources falls below 1,000 cubic metres a year. On this basis, more than half the 22 Arab states are judged to be in a critical situation, with conditions at their worst in the Arab Gulf states, where the annual share of renewable resources ranges between 35 and 550 cubic metres per capita. Water availability is expected to be halved again on average by 2030, when the Gulf’s population reaches an estimated 52 million.

Profligate consumption

Given this extreme water scarcity, it is ironic that the Gulf states have some of the most profligate water consumption patterns in the world. Water demand in the six GCC countries has increased from 17 billion cubic metres in 1992 to 25.6 billion cubic metres in 2007.

Saudi Arabiais classified as facing “absolute water scarcity”, meaning it will not be able to meet its water needs by 2025, according to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, a group of public and private sector investors. Yet its domestic water usage is one of the highest in the world, at 286 litres per person a day.

Western consumption patterns are partly to blame. Many critics single out the lavish use of water by cities such as Dubai, home to dozens of golf courses and landscaped parks. The UAE uses nearly 1,000 cubic metres of water per person a year, and is fast approaching US levels of 1,648 cubic metres, according to the Food & Agriculture Organisation, a UN body.

The rapid growth of urban populations is partly to blame. The aggregate population of the GCC has grown at a compound annual rate of about 3 per cent in the past decade, reaching 40 million in 2008. Municipal water use in Bahrain and Qatar already outstrips that of the US, and is exceeded only by Canada – which has the benefit of more than 89,000 cubic metres of annual renewable water resources available per citizen. The chief culprit, however, is still agriculture. Saudi Arabia continues to top the list of water consumers in the Gulf, thanks to its extensive farming and food industry.

“Initiatives to manage water resources will determine the viability of diversification plans of the GCC nations”

Report by NCB Capital

Gulf governments are beginning to make sacrifices, scaling back agricultural land use in recent years. Oman, for example, has put curbs on the construction of new wells and legislated against the expansion of irrigated land.

It is not only wasteful consumption patterns that are to blame. According to the World Bank, about 35 per cent of all water produced in Saudi Arabia is lost in transit, thanks to its ageing water network and high levels of evaporation. Similarly high levels of leakage can be seen across the Arab world. This is partly due to the arid climate, but inadequate investment is also to blame. Growth of investment in public infrastructure has fallen well behind the growth of many cities.

NCB Capital estimates the Saudi government needs to spend some $33bn just to ensure all its citizens are covered by water and sewerage services.

This will in turn put further pressure on resources. Municipal water demand in the six GCC states has been growing at an average annual rate of 5.8 per cent since 1990, according to the NCB report.

“Initiatives to manage the water resources available to industries, partly through wastewater re-use, will critically determine the viability of the ambitious diversification plans of the GCC nations,” it says.

Waste has also been encouraged by heavy subsidies. Water tariffs in the Gulf are among the lowest in the world – Qatari citizens receive their water for free, for example, although expatriates are now charged a token sum. Water tariffs in Saudi Arabia are equivalent to about 0.03 per cent of GDP, roughly a 10th of tariff levels in England and Wales, for example.

Higher tariffs

In a region where complex systems of patronage help support the ruling classes, governments maintain a sense of legitimacy through the provision of universal and heavily subsidised public services. Some have begun to tackle the problem, however. Oman, perhaps the most enlightened country when it comes to water conservation, has raised its block tariffs for high usage to $1.75 per cubic metre, compared with just $0.50 in Saudi Arabia.

Reluctant to tackle the issue of water demand, other governments have instead concentrated on trying to boost supplies. For the most part this means building new desalination plants. GCC states already account for nearly a half of global desalination capacity, and more is on the way. Saudi Arabia alone is building some SR12bn ($3.2bn) of new plants to meet projected demand by 2015. Since last year, for example, the newly expanded Shuaibah independent water and power project has been pumping 350,000 cubic metres of fresh water into Jeddah every day.

To some extent, this is a false economy. The water lost in leakages in Saudi Arabia – estimated at about 1.1 million cubic metres a day by the World Bank – is equivalent to the entire output of the Jeddah Reverse Osmosis (RO) 1, Jeddah 2, Jeddah 3, Yanbu 1, Asir, Jubail 1, Jubail RO and Khobar 2 desalination plants together.

Increasing desalination capacity puts an indirect strain on the economy. Desalination plants are highly energy-intensive and, while greater efficiencies can be achieved by combining water and power production in the same facilities, they are also putting a strain on the region’s limited supplies of natural gas, which are heavily in demand from such industries as petrochemicals and metals productions. Ultimately, availability of water will set a natural limit on how far and how fast the economies of the Gulf can grow.