Nadine Hawa reports on how companies including Almarai, NAAAS, Majid Al Futtaim Group and the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority are leading a shift to lower water consumption and more sustainable alternatives to thermal desalination

The Gulf is a hot and arid region where water has always been in short supply. The region is home to 6% of the world population, but contains less than 1.5% of its renewable freshwater resources.

In recent years, however, rapid population and economic growth, shared water sources, and the effects of climate change – including frequent droughts, declining rainfalls and high evaporation rates – have turned water security into an increasingly urgent challenge.

According to the World Bank, the region faces estimated losses of up to 14% of GDP by 2050 from climate-related water scarcity, the greatest economic hit in the world. And with water being withdrawn faster than it can be replenished, the importance for companies to work towards being "water-positive" is not just a precursor to economic success, but to their very survival.

Agriculture is by far the biggest water consumer. It claims up to 75% of water usage, as traditional irrigation methods soak up hundreds of millions of litres each day. Changes to the ways this industry uses the commodity have great potential to tackle waste and free up large quantities of water.

The installation of water-saving devices are estimated to reduce groundwater consumption by 14% over the next five years

Gulf conglomerates with a hand in agriculture are putting water conservation at the top of their environmental agendas. These efforts tend to begin by setting water management targets, followed by adopting sustainable water usage methods, and implementing water efficiency devices.

In 2019 Almarai, a Saudi multinational specialising in food and beverage manufacturing, formed a water steering committee to set water-management goals and boost water efficiency across operations. The installation of water-saving devices that optimise cleaning processes and a new water reuse system for dairy and juice operations, are estimated to reduce groundwater consumption by 14% over the next five years.

For its dairy farming, Almarai’s approach is focused on maximising milk yield per cow (a happy cow produces more milk). This approach reduces the number of cattle required to meet demand. Focusing on yield reduces the total water requirements for animal drinking water and for growing animal feed for cattle.

Agriculture and farming in the Gulf takes up to 75% of water use. (Credit: Sainuddeen Alanthi/Shutterstock)

In Qatar in August, Qatari holding company NAAAS signed an agreement with China's Ningxia University to bring digital water-saving irrigation technology to the country. The new system, which includes wind-solar powered water extraction technologies and a control software system operated on smartphones, aims to save water in uncultivated areas and remedy “blind” irrigation, which can result in overwatering and wasteful runoff. Where used, the system has been proven to save over 22% of water and 26% of energy while irrigating industrial crops.

In neighbouring UAE, which has one of the highest per capita water consumption rates in the world (550 liters per day), the Majid Al Futtaim Group, an Emirati holding company based in Dubai, that owns and operates shopping malls, retail, and leisure establishments, is taking matters a step further. It is the first company in the Middle East to commit to becoming net positive for both carbon and water by 2040.

“In practice, this means that by 2040, our group will be producing more clean water than it uses,” says Ibrahim Al-Zu'bi, chief sustainability officer at Majid Al Futtaim, which was recently awarded the prestigious Green Globe certification throughout its entire hotel portfolio across the Middle East.

By investing in water-efficient technologies, we have noticed significant reductions in our water consumption

“Since 2010, we have been working on reducing the water impact of our operations through water-efficient landscaping, water-saving fixtures, and reusing grey water. By investing in water-efficient technologies, we have noticed significant reductions in our water consumption.”

Here, moving beyond one's own operations is key. “We realised that the biggest part of our water impact lies in our upstream value chain, especially in the agricultural supply chain. Obtaining this data has helped us prioritise our actions and focus our approach on what we can most directly impact: our operational footprint,” he explains.

One breakthrough came in the form of hydroponic farming, a process that uses 90% less water than traditional soil agriculture. Majid Al Futtaim Group has introduced several in-store hydroponic farms in UAE supermarkets through its Carrefour business. These grow more than 35 unique leafy green herbs and vegetables, which are sold to customers as “zero km” products.

Ibrahim Al-Zu'bi is chief sustainability officer at  Majid Al Futtaim Group. (Credit: Twitter)

The adoption of innovative water solutions is undoubtedly paving the way to water efficiency for Gulf companies. But we cannot speak of a sustainable water transition in the region without addressing desalination, the backbone of business activity in the Gulf.

With 96.5% of water on the planet undrinkable because it lies in highly saline seas and oceans, there are more than 17,000 desalination plants in the world in some 150 countries. Nearly half of them are located in the region covered by the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, where they meet more than 90% of inhabitants’ daily water requirements.

Though vital for the region, desalination has a mixed reputation, particularly among conservationists.

Countries surrounding the Gulf are increasingly concerned about the threat to marine life and the ecosystem from hyper-saline brine

An energy-intensive process, desalination uses fossil fuels to generate heat to evaporate and condense water to a purified form. It also creates a by-product, a hyper-saline brine, which is harmful to marine life once released back into the sea. “The regional impact of water discharged from thermal desalination plants has not been studied in depth,” says Javier Mateo Sagasta, project leader for ReWaterMENA at the International Water Management Institute. “But countries surrounding the small, enclosed Arabian Gulf are increasingly concerned about the threat to marine life and damage to the fragile marine ecosystem.”

A 2018 UN study says unconventional water resources, such as desalination, are key to support Sustainable Development Goal 6 (to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all) in water-scarce areas, however, it said more sustainable processes, using less electricity and generating less brine, must be sought.

And that transition is under way, albeit slowly, with greater use of reverse osmosis (RO), a process that forces seawater through semi-permeable membranes to remove salt, using 3.5 times less energy than thermal desalination processes, according to Mateo Sagasta.

The world’s largest reverse osmosis desalination plant in Ras al-Khair, Saudi Arabia. (Credit: Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters)

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), a third of desalination plants in the region currently rely on membrane processes, while the majority still use fossil-fuel based thermal desalination.

The use of solar energy, in which Gulf countries have a comparative advantage, is also gaining popularity. The first large-scale solar-powered desalination plant in the region is set to come online next year. The IEA estimates that by 2040, over 41% of seawater desalination in the region will come from solar.

Last year, the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) announced it had set a target to power 100% of its desalination plants using solar power, and generate 305 million gallons per day by 2030. By using lower cost renewable energy to power the plants, the utility company will save $13bn over the next decade.

Similarly, Abu Dhabi is teaming up with Spanish company Abengoa to build the world’s largest solar-powered reverse osmosis desalination plant, which will aim to provide fresh water to 4.5 million people – or half the population of London.

By seeing brine not as a waste product but as a resource, makes the desalination process itself more efficient

“The cost of solar photovoltaic technology continues to decline,” says Mateo Sagasta. “The same is happening with energy requirements and costs of RO. As of 2019, large RO plants can deliver water consuming an average of 3 kWh/m³ compared with thermal’s 17 kWh/m³. This is making solar technology more attractive to replace fossil fuels as an energy source for RO. A trend which is likely to continue."

The overall sustainability of these latest adoptions cannot overlook the environmental burden of brine; and Gulf states are beginning to address it. In November 2019, the Saline Water Conversion Corporation, the Saudi state-run company overseeing much of the country’s desalination, signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Japan’s Toyobo to test technology that efficiently reuses concentrated brine discharged by desalination plants.

By seeing brine not as a waste product but as a resource, one approach uses brine to produce sodium hydroxide, which can in turn be used to pre-treat seawater going into the desalination plant, makes the desalination process itself more efficient.

The continued proactive adoption of innovative solutions and renewables, such as solar and membrane processes, will no doubt support the sustainable transition of the Gulf’s water industry… and perhaps give desalination a cleaner name.

Nadine Hawa is a former CNBC business news presenter and producer. She has also been a sustainability consultant, working on projects with organisations including the UNEP and RSPO. She has been a regular contributor to Ethical Corporation magazine since 2012.

Main picture credit: Afzal Khan Maheen/Shutterstock

On 23/11/2020 this article was amended to correct the name of the Majid Al Futtaim Group and to conform to Reuters style in referring to Gulf. 

water scarcity  desalination  hydroponics  agriculture  Arabian Gulf  Almarai  Al-Futtaim Group  Ibrahim Al-Zu'bi  ReWaterMENA  reverse osmosis 

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