On Monday, 2 August, Kuwait commemorates the 30th anniversary of the vicious invasion of Kuwait in 1990. On this day, the country recalls with horror the trauma and suffering during the seven-month long occupation by Iraqi forces, when random arrests, imprisonment, torture and killing of those opposed to the regime, as well as the plunder and pilferage of the country’s assets, were widespread.

On this day, Kuwait recollects with pride the heroic stance taken by the resistance fighters in Kuwait who valiantly and against all odds confronted the occupiers. The nation also remembers with gratitude and deep sorrow the hundreds of martyrs who paid the ultimate price in the fight against invasion and occupation of Kuwait.

The memory of the martyrs who lost their lives during the invasion and occupation will no doubt live forever in the hearts of their loved ones, and in the minds of the people of this land. These brave men and women fought the tyranny of invasion and breathed their last, so that the country could breathe the air of freedom and liberty and once again hold its flag up high.

This day is also an opportunity for the country to reflect on another lasting legacy of those dark days — the environmental catastrophe unleashed by the Iraqi forces. A ‘scorched earth’ policy implemented by the Iraqi army turned oil fields into searing infernos and transformed large tracts of the pristine Arabian Gulf waters into shimmering slicks of oil, the effects of which are perceptible to this day.

The deliberate and devastating environmental catastrophe vented by the Iraqi dispensation that invaded and occupied the country for seven months, is unprecedented in human history. The willful and petulant action by a vanquished army on the retreat was unparalleled in both, the physical extent of the damage caused and the extended period of its impact on the environment. The wanton burning of oil wells, and the opening of off-shore oil spigots to spew crude oil into the waters of the Arabian Gulf, left a lasting legacy on the desert and marine ecosystem that only time can fully remediate.

Today, as Kuwait commemorates the 30th anniversary of the invasion, the land and marine environment have yet to fully recover from the greatest man-made environmental catastrophe. However, time and natural forces have had an ameliorating effect on the environment, and over the past three decades there have been some improvements in land, sea and air ecosystems in and around Kuwait. Though nature has slowly begun its healing process, a silent invasion of the environment through unbridled use of scarce water resources and harmful greenhouse gas emissions into the air continues in Kuwait.

Incidentally, in a telling demonstration of how even the slow forces of nature act faster than the sluggish pace with which projects and policies are implemented in Kuwait, the country’s upstream oil explorer and producer, Kuwait Oil Company (KOC), announced last week that it had signed contracts aimed at restoring soil contaminated by oil, from oil wells set ablaze more than 30 years ago.

The press release from KOC on 29 July noted that the company had signed the last two contracts designed to treat and remedify soil in the northern and southern areas of the country that had been contaminated by crude oil 30 years ago. Considered the largest environmental rehabilitation project in the world, the two new contracts along with the three contracts signed a week earlier on 14 July for the same purpose in other contaminated zones, will treat and restore over 13 million cubic meters of oil contaminated soil across Kuwait’s extensive oil fields.

In a country with a size of less than 18,000 square kilometers, where protecting and preserving every square meter of the environment should be a prime priority, the authorities have been procrastinating and postponing this major environmental restoration work for over three decades. The inordinate delay in implementation of this crucial project is not only emblematic of the slow pace with which even crucial projects are implemented in the country, it is also an indication of the low priority accorded to environmental issues.

Less than a third of the one percent arable land in Kuwait is suitable for permanent crops, and with even this limited productive space depleting at the rate of one percent per annum, one would think that safeguarding and conserving available land and its environment would be of paramount importance to the authorities. In addition, with no natural water resources and scant annual rainfall, almost all of the cultivated area relies on artificial irrigation by pumping water from groundwater sources or from desalination plants.

According to data from the Ministry of Electricity and Water (MEW) of the total water withdrawn annually from Kuwait’s groundwater supplies, 54 percent is used for agriculture, 44 percent for municipal purposes and 2 percent for industrial purposes. The groundwater withdrawal rate of 255 million m³ per year, is also 12 times the country’s annual groundwater inflow.

This unsustainable water withdrawal has led to decreasing quantity, and deteriorating quality from increasing salinity, of available groundwater. Moreover, since there is no charge for the use of groundwater supplies, unrestrained withdrawals, wasteful practices and misuse of water is rampant.

An earlier study by the global research and non-profit organization, World Resources Institute, placed Kuwait among nine of the highest-ranked countries in the world in terms of facing an ‘extremely high water risk’ by 2040. There is no doubt that with its limited area, arid climate, paltry arable land and lack of natural water resources, environmental protection and preservation is key to survival of the country, especially in a rapidly changing world where lives and livelihoods of people are increasingly being threatened by global climate changes.

A population that is growing rapidly, increasing affluence and changing consumption and lifestyle patterns are adding to the environmental challenges confronting Kuwait, even as a stagnant economy and a lack of political consensus on much-needed economic, financial and administrative reforms, raise questions on the feasibility of achieving sustainable growth and development any time soon.

Despite the exigencies, the gravity of the situation, and the urgency to find efficient solutions to the challenges, appears to have been lost on the government and the public. Though the authorities have in recent years embarked on a few initiatives to mitigate and ameliorate the effects of climate change and other deleterious environmental issues, the robustness of response and its timely implementation have left much to be desired.

Kuwait’s poor water resource management is indicative of some of the huge challenges facing the country. While its per capita natural water availability is among the lowest worldwide, consumption of water in Kuwait is among the highest in the world. The country’s per capita water consumption is around 450 litres per day, while the per capita natural water availability is less than 100 litres per day, and even this availability is steadily reducing. Currently, desalination plants account for over 60 percent of the total water supply in the country, and for 92 percent of the water used for domestic and industrial purposes.

A report from MEW released in 2020 revealed that annual per capita consumption in Kuwait, which is one of the highest in the world, grew from less than 43,000 liters in 1970 to over 477,000 liters in 2020, while the country’s total annual consumption grew to 180 billion imperial gallons. The report also noted that Kuwait, which has the distinction of having the world’s highest per capita production of desalinated water, produced a total of 502 million gallons per day of desalinated water in 2020, while total consumption stood at 494 million gallons.

Although Kuwait currently has sufficient strategic reserve stocks to meet any emergencies, and it remains feasible to continue producing desalinated water to meet needs in the short- to medium-term, it is not a tenable long-term solution. In an environment threatened by climate change, balancing future water supply and demand is likely to become a herculean challenge for the country.

Government policies are currently focused primarily on supply-side management, by increasing the number and capacity of desalination plants and enhancing strategic reserves, to cater to growing demand. This obviously needs to change; it is imperative that equal if not greater emphasis be paid to demand-side management policies that aim to curb and rationalize consumption patterns and wastage among the public and by businesses. But meaningful measures to tackle this aspect of water resource management by the authorities have been negligible.

Attempts by the government to raise awareness through several water conservation campaigns in the past have for the most part failed to create sufficient awareness or elicit desired responses among the public. Lawmakers who discuss and debate endlessly on often frivolous issues apparently have no time for such vital issues. The potential impact of water scarcity on the country’s future is also rarely referred to or tackled in the media. Meanwhile, imprudent and irresponsible water consumption practices continue unabated.

Education campaigns to prompt behavioural change and build greater civic sense among the young is a viable strategy in changing attitudes towards water consumption and conservation over the long term. However, in the near-term there is evidently an urgent need for more effective and efficient strategies to be implemented, including raising prices and removing subsidies on water usage.

While a bill passed by parliament in April 2016, revised and raised water charges to nearly double for businesses and apartments that are generally occupied by foreigners, the bill exempted citizens living in individual homes and villas from any price hikes. The government rationalized the hike in prices as needed to curb consumption by 30 percent, but exempting citizens, who are generally the more profligate users of water from the bill, clearly defeats the intended purpose of the price hike.

A more equitable increase in the price of water would be appropriate in order to curb wanton usage and waste of this precious commodity. With an undiversified economy where income from oil exports is the main source of revenue, continued reliance on energy-intensive, cost-inefficient desalination plants is also clearly an unsustainable policy going into the future.

Unless urgent remedial measures are instituted by the government, a growing population, unsustainable water management policies, and continued unbridled consumption that have led to overexploitation and over-pumping of non-renewable water groundwater reserves and straining of desalination plants, will clearly place the country at serious risk of projected climate change impacts in future.

Other environmental challenges facing the country also emerge from policymakers not doing enough to curb and curtail greenhouse gas emission (GHG). Due to insufficient oversight and inefficient policies by the authorities, power and water generation plants, as well as the oil and transport sectors, along with overflowing landfills and poorly maintained waste recycling plants, continue to remain major sources of carbon discharge. An apparent lack of environmental awareness and a wanting for greater civic sense among both citizens and expatriates, adds to the challenge and hamper efforts by government and voluntary actions by civil society organizations to curb GHG emissions.

A robust framework for proactive response in adapting to and mitigating the impact of climate change threats is crucially needed to spur all stake-holders into action, and to ensure that the country’s water resources and environment are protected and preserved for the future of Kuwait and for generations to come.

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