Water Week

EWN Publishing

Much going wrong with water use in Arabian Gulf: saner counsels need support against unsustainable development

Posted by waterweek on 28 September 2007

In theory, the long established desalination industry on the relatively enclosed seas surrounding the Arabian peninsula should have provided the ideal real world laboratory for examining some of desalination’s environmental impacts, according to the WWF’s Phil Dickie.

Limits to fish tolerance for salt: Continuing work in the Gulf of Aqaba, the most enclosed water body in the area which already hosted significant desalination capacity and had more proposed, could yet provide such data. Researchers had pointed to the possiblity that much of the marine growth and life in seas of already elevated salinity might be near the limits at which any further increases in salinity could be tolerated.

Irresponsible dumping: There had been reports of increased salinity causing fish deaths in the Arabian Gulf, but the main reason for the Gulf’s elevated salinity was low run-off and high evaporation rates. Dumping of saline water, whether as a byproduct of oil production or of extensive desalination works was held less responsible than dam building and irrigation works on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

Current affects intake: One notable feature of the Arabian Gulf is that “a counterclockwise ring-shaped residual water current links all the (desalination) locations and the plants receive their feed water from a water body which is under the influence of the upstream plants”.

Projects assessed – for some things: Thermal pollution from the discharges of joint power station/desalination plants had been raised as a risk factor for increasing the possibility of coral bleaching in the Arabian Gulf. Individual projects underwent various levels of environmental assessment but strategic or cumulative impact assessment was uncommon. In some areas, as the World Bank has noted, “the legal basis and institutional capacity for environmental assessments in general is weak”.

Single causes difficult to assess : However there are many activities that impact on the Arabian Gulf and it would be difficult to isolate the impact of desalination plants and the power plants they are most usually associated with. The level of damage from land reclamation activities is likely to be the largest and most immediate environmental issue in the Arabian Gulf, although the availability of water from desalination undoubtedly facilitates current high levels of unsustainable coastal and island development.

Old traditions being lost: Not surprisingly for such dry countries there is a long tradition of water use restrictions, some of which are supported by religious traditions. However, these useful traditions began to break down under conditions of rapid development which, particularly in agriculture, were underwritten by large scale groundwater abstractions.

Topsy-turvy water use: It is hard not to agree that “given the inefficiency of agricultural production in desert environments, it is anomalous to deplete mainly non-renewable groundwater reserves in the Riyadh and Qaseem Regions so that farms in the forbiddingly arid and hot Najd plateau are irrigated, while desalinated water for household use is piped from hundreds of kilometers away.” A key weakness is the combination of some of the world’s lower water tariffs with its highest water production and distribution costs. These are justified on social grounds.

Conservation efforts need support: There are undoubtedly large potential gains from conservation and efficiency measures but they will need support from the pricing system and some investment in addition to the well used exhortations for Saudis to use water more frugally.

Reference: Phil Dickie, WWF for a living planet, ‘Making Water – Desalination option or distraction for a thirsty world?’, June 2007.

Erisk Net, 23/9/2007

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