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Water scarcity a looming threat to Kuwait’s future
July 15, 2017, 2:17 pm

Years of inefficient water management, inadequate regulations, rapid population growth, unsustainable consumption and the growing impact of climate change are likely to exacerbate the significantly depleted and already weak water system in Kuwait.

According to the World Resources Institute, Kuwait will be among the top ten countries that could become ‘extremely-highly water stressed’ by 2040; others listed include all the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, as well as Israel, Lebanon and Palestine. Reiterating the regional water scarcity, the United Nations Environment Programmne (UNEP) warns that the Middle East, with less than 1,200 cubic meters of water per person per year, is already the most water stressed region in the world. The UNEP criteria for labeling a country or region as water stressed is when annual water supplies drop below 1,700 cubic meters per person per year.

With average rainfall of less than 110mm per annum and a hot, sandy desert environment that leads to high evaporation rates and poor retention of soil moisture, Kuwait has little or no natural surface or underground water resources. What little brackish ground water the country receives annually, is being depleted in quantity and lowered in quality by unsustainable over-pumping.

Kuwait extracts over 250 million cubic meters of brackish groundwater annually, which is more than 12 times the 20 million cubic meters of water that Kuwait receives annually as replenishment through lateral underground flows from Saudi Arabia.

Since there is no charge for the use of groundwater supplies, this leads to wasteful practices in agriculture and misuse of this highly scarce commodity that not only reduces available water supply but also increases its salinity. It is estimated that of total water withdrawn annually, 54 percent is used for agriculture, 44 percent for municipal purposes and 2 percent for industrial purposes.

Meanwhile, Kuwait’s natural freshwater resources are limited to a couple of groundwater wells in Al-Rawdatain and Umm-Al-Aish to the north of Kuwait City, which are also in precarious condition. Oil seepage from the burning of oilfields during the 1990 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait has contaminated the Umm-Al-Aish freshwater supplies and made them practically unusable. The second freshwater source at Al-Rawdatain, which has been extracted and bottled by the Al-Rawdatain Natural Mineral Water Bottling Company since 1980, is also beginning to show signs of over-withdrawal.

Increased affluence, a rapidly growing population, unsustainable water extraction and unbridled water consumption patterns have led to a per capita water consumption of over 487 liters per day — one of the highest water consumption rates in the world. It is projected that at this rate water consumption in the country will increase from the current 1.95 million cubic meters per day to 3.5 million cubic meters per day by 2020.

Kuwait depends on scarce groundwater, treated municipal wastewater and sea-water desalination plants to meet its increasing residential, agricultural and industrial needs. Currently, desalination plants provide 92 percent of the freshwater used for drinking and domestic needs, as well as 60 percent of water used for industrial purposes.    

Kuwait currently operates seven desalination plants with a total maximum daily production capacity of 2.4 million cubic meters. There are as many as eight new water desalination plants being commissioned by the government, at least two of which will be constructed by way of public-private partnership in the Integrated Water and Power Plants (IWPP) format. Among the projects on the anvil are the Al-Zour North IWPP (capacity: 1.1 million cubic meters/day), Al-Zour South Plant (capacity:  659,000 cubic meters/day), and Al Khiran IWPP (capacity: 568,000 cubic meters/day).

However, seawater desalinization is an expensive process — it requires huge capital investment and high operation and maintenance costs, and is highly dependent on hydrocarbon resources for fuel— and cannot be expected to cope with increased demands from Kuwait’s growing population.

Experts point out that in the coming years, continued reliance on desalination plants will place an unbearable strain on the country’s economy and its water production capabilities. They warn that increasing the supply side through larger and more desalination plants is not a long-term solution, or a viable option, given Kuwait’s over-reliance on oil to fuel both its economy and its desalination plants. It is high time the authorities institute more efficient demand side water management policies, not only to optimize the utilization of water resources but also to ensure sustainable future development of the country.


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