If there's one topic that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) cannot ignore, it's the issue of water scarcity. Much of the time the subject is overshadowed by political wrangling or even, in the last two years, the daily announcements of some of the world's most ambitious tourism, residential and industrial projects. As new cities rise from the desert, thousands of people are heading to warmer climes to set up new lives in the region. As a result, the water issue remains very much on the backburner, as it has done for much of the last 30 years.
The World Bank has previously stressed just how serious the problem has become. Agriculture accounts for between 5-25 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in MENA countries, yet 90 per cent of all water goes into this sector. The Middle East makes up 5 per cent of the world's population, yet only has access to 1 per cent of fresh water - even then, availability of water as a whole has declined since 1985 and is now lower than in Africa. Each individual's share of water in the Arab world is around 1,200 cubic metres a year (cm/y), a figure that is just over the minimum set by the UN of 1,000 cm/y. However, Yemen is already 50 per cent below that at 500 cm/y. The rate of growth also suggests a doubling of the population in the next 30 years, meaning that a careful strategy to conserve and distribute water urgently needs to be put in place. One company at the forefront of this strategy is Metito. 'The Middle East has a problem,' says Fady Juez, managing director of Metito. 'It's either semi-arid or arid. The only source we have is seawater, so you have to desalinate and learn that instead of throwing this water away and creating an environmental hazard, you need to reuse it and turn it into an asset.' Around the world Metito has become one of the main regional contractors in the water field to step into the fold. Since 1958, when the company was established in Beirut, it has positioned itself as a key player in the design and supply of water and wastewater treatment and water desalination. After the onset of the civil war in 1976, the utilities firm moved to Wimbledon in London, while also creating a manufacturing and research base in Houston, Texas. By 1990, it had established regional headquarters in South-East Asia in Jakarta. Finally, in 1997, it returned closer to home to tap into the Middle East market, by setting up its main operations base in Sharjah in the UAE. As a consequence, Metito asserts that this international flavour has made it one of the main authorities on water treatment in the Middle East. That expertise has seen it introduce some of the newest techniques to the region, including reverse osmosis (RO). 'We have our own technology and develop it in-house, but at the start there is a base product,' says Juez. 'There is no secret to the sewage technology, it is just the art of applying and designingthe technology to make it easier to use. You have to ensure you have the right control and design each project on its own and conceptualise it.' Regionally, it has set up offices in Egypt, Libya, Iran and throughout the Gulf. Its Jordan office now looks after the company's operations in Iraq, where it has been working on two power plants for Bechtel. Its clients range from large international contractors such as Japan's Mitsubishi to local municipalities and ministries. With the UAE now acting as Metito's headquarters, it is also well positioned to tap into the Gulf country's burgeoning project market. 'As early as the 1990s we realised that the market was in desperate need of supply for utility services, mainly for the new infrastructure projects coming up in the private sector,' says Juez. With more than 800 staff, its project scope has also widened. From a relatively small company picking up $1 million-3 million subcontracts, Meti