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Getting the water equation right

In Kuwait, most of us have come to take for granted that water will always be available when we turn on the taps. In the minds of many, including those in policy-making circles, the thought of water taps running dry one day are as far-fetched as the idea that oil will no longer fund the country’s economy. But both scenarios are not as improbable, or as distant as many would imagine — with the odds being in favor of water taps running dry before the oil spigots do.

A time when Kuwait could find it challenging to sustain the supply of potable water is a prospect that everyone needs to be wary of, and an issue for which policy- and decision-makers have to urgently develop mitigating and adaptive strategies. We had a foretaste of what it would be like to wake up without water in our taps last August, when at the peak of summer season and scorching heat, faucets ran dry in many places.

Data from the Ministry of Electricity, Water and Renewable Energy (MEW) for two consecutive days in the first week of August last year, reveals that water consumption exceeded production by 29 million imperial gallons, or 0.13 million cubic meters (MCM). Daily water production on the related days was estimated at 477.8 million imperial gallons (2.17 MCM), while consumption topped 506.8 million gallons (2.30 MCM) per day. Although the deficit was met by dipping into the ample strategic reserves, that did not prevent water supply breakdowns in many areas.

Uncharacteristically high summer temperatures driven by global changes in climate and weather patterns, have been wreaking havoc on power and water supplies in many countries. In Kuwait, besides the high summer temperatures, unbridled consumption, growing population, and rapid urbanization and industrialization, have all contributed to exacerbating an already  precarious water situation.

An arid climate, scant rainfall, no natural surface water resources, and a mostly saline and dwindling groundwater resource, means that nearly all potable water in Kuwait comes from eight desalination plants located along the country’s coastline. But overwhelming dependence on desalination plants to provide potable water for the country is fraught with its own share of hazards.

While increasing summer temperatures remain a potential threat to future water supplies in Kuwait, a more imminent threat to freshwater availability arises from increasing salinity of the Arabian Gulf waters. Despite built-in redundancies to overcome potable water exigencies, including multiple desalination plants and huge strategic water reserves of around 17.13 MCM, all the water needed to operate Kuwait’s desalination plants comes from the Gulf.

Any untoward natural or anthropocentric event that impinges on the availability and quality of intake waters could affect efficient functioning of the desalination plants and have a devastating impact on living and economic conditions in the country. Academics and hydrological studies have for long been highlighting the risks of increasing salinity in Gulf waters, but effective mitigating measures and remedial strategies from the authorities are still awaited.

The latest warning on rising salinity of Gulf waters came last week in a media statement by Dr. Badr Al-Enezi, the vice dean for scientific, research, and higher education affairs at Kuwait’s College of Life Sciences. Pointing out that currently there are 157 desalination plants in the region, Al-Enezi revealed that over the past two decades there has been a steady increase in the salinity of the Gulf waters that posed a risk to these plants.

While temporal and spatial variations exist, studies show that salinity-levels along Kuwait’s coastline ranges from 45 to 50 parts per thousand (ppt). Warning that any increase in salinity over 55 ppt could be a threat to desalination plants Dr. Al-Enezi added that unless mitigating measures are implemented, salinity could reach close to 60 ppt in the near future, making the desalination process economically and operationally quite challenging.

Detailing one of the factors that could be increasing the salinity of waters in the Gulf region, Al-Enezi said that the traditional desalination process is in itself a cause for rising salinity. He called for finding alternatives to outdated desalination technologies that produce hypersaline, chemically polluted hyperoxic brine as a byproduct, which is then pumped back into the Gulf waters resulting in a negative impact on all marine life forms, including fish production in the area.

In addition to harmful desalination discharges, climatic factors such as meager annual precipitation, high surface water temperatures in summer, low humidity, and increased evaporation have increased the salinity of Gulf waters. Meanwhile, untreated urban water runoffs and chemical pollutants discharged from industries have also steadily decreased the quality of waters along Kuwait’s coastline.

Freshwater inflows into the Gulf could help reduce the salinity of the water, but aside from the minimal annual precipitation, the only other source of freshwater inflow to the northern Arabian Gulf is from the Shatt-al-Arab waterway. However, freshwater in the Shatt-al-Arab —  formed from the confluence of the Eupharates and Tigris Rivers in upper Iraq — has diminished considerably in recent years due to intensive development of dams and irrigation infrastructure in upstream areas.

Agricultural and industrial pollutant discharges from riparian states have also contributed to lowering the quality and quantity of freshwater flowing down the Shatt al Arab into the Arabian Gulf. Decreased freshwater inflow has in turn increased salinity of intake water at desalination plants. Substantial increase in salinity means more salt needs to be filtered out, increasing operational costs and impacting the economic viability of freshwater production through desalination.

Any decrease in desalinated water production could have a direct bearing on life and livelihoods in Kuwait, where average freshwater consumption at 447 liters per person per day is among the highest in the world. There are several mitigating and adaptive measures that the country could incorporate to strengthen water security and ensure sustainable development going forward.

On the supply side, newer less polluting desalination processes and technologies should be promoted, even as more use of recycled water is introduced. Studies show that about 84 percent of all wastewater collected in the region is treated to safe levels, but only 44 percent of this water is then reused. Harnessing this wastewater would generate a new source of clean water for Kuwait and the region.

On the demand side, we clearly need to reduce our wanton water usage habits. Innovative public awareness campaigns, incentivizing water conservation policies, and introducing sustainable agriculture techniques and technologies that use less water help reduce water usage. But more importantly, the authorities need to recalibrate the present water subsidies that provide water at unrealistically low prices, which encourages unrestrained use of water.

In a bid to enhance food and water security in the country, the government, in August 2022, established the ‘Supreme National Committee for Strengthening the Food and Water Security System’. The committee was tasked to draw up and implement a ‘road map’ to develop a comprehensive, integrated and sustainable work program to achieve water and food security to meet the short and long term needs of Kuwait.

However political upheavals since then have led to repeated changes in government, snap general elections, and new parliaments, with the result that currently it is not clear whether, or how far, the road map on food and water security has progressed. The new government and parliament taking charge after elections on 4 April needs to draw up coherent water policies and implementable strategies that ensure the long-term sustainable water security of the country.

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