No more water in the well

The Arab region now has 11 'water scarce' countries and another five are expected to join the list by 2025. Water conservation has to become a priority.

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By  David Ingham Published  December 3, 2003

The statistics speak volumes. According to the UN, the number of 'water scarce' countries in the Arab region has risen from three in 1955 to 11 by 1990 and another five Arab countries are expected to join the list by 2025. A country is defined as 'water scarce' when the amount of renewable fresh water per person per year falls below an average of 1,000 cubic metres.

The most common solution to water shortage that has been tried in the Middle East so far is desalination, and recycling is also on the rise. One method that has received less attention, but desperately needs to be used more, according to David Heffernan, managing director of Septech Emirates, which specialises in water recycling technologies, is simple water conservation.

In an interview with Arabian Business, he offered the following alarming statistic: average per capita consumption in the UAE is around 500 litres (0.5 cubic meters) per person per day, around two times the rate of America and three times that of the UK.

Furthermore, Heffernan says, ground water is being withdrawn at a rate of 2 billion cubic metres per year greater than the level of natural replenishment in the UAE. Absolute ground resources will be gone in 20-30 years at that rate, but, because of salinity, usable resources will be gone in 10-15 years.

The UAE, he says, must use less water and consumer awareness campaigns are the way to start. "Everyone's talking about water wise campaigns," says Heffernan. "There's certainly a lot of people that are aware of it and they say they are going to adopt a water policy and look at best practices. It will come given time, but time isn't on their side."

Desalination has traditionally been the main way for the region to deal with its water crisis. Heffernan, however, clearly isn't a fan. "The production cost is around Dhs3 per cubic metre, but the actual delivery cost is around Dhs5 per cubic metre," he says.

Although there is no evidence that the region wants to reduce its reliance on desalination, Heffernan argues that it, "cannot go on forever. They need more decentralised waste water treatment plants."

This is where his own company comes in. The UAE's main cities do already recycle most of their waste water and use it for irrigation, but that needs to be extended, Heffernan argues, to outlying areas.

Currently, areas outside the main cities barely recycle any of their water. Instead, it just soaks into the ground where it contributes to the pollution of the underground water table. Septech provides technology that can recycle water to what he describes as "international standards" that are good enough even for human consumption. "There isn't any adverse effect [from recycling water] on the environment whatsoever," says Heffernan. "You can use ultraviolet light instead of using any chemical for disinfection."

All these things can certainly help, but the need to consume less is ultimately paramount, Heffernan says. Factories shouldn't be using tap water in the manufacturing process unless absolute necessary.

Labour camps, adds Heffernan, should be recycling a large portion of their water through on-site treatment facilities. In the case of camps that are located next to factories, 100% of water could be recycled and reused, he argues. "There are many applications where it could be utilised now that aren't using it," says Heffernan. "Again, it's creating awareness and making people understand what they can do with water."

If the UAE is to conserve its water and avoid greater reliance on the expensive desalinated variety in the future, water conservation needs to become a part of people's everyday routine, just as it is in Heffernan's native Australia. "It [per capita consumption] would have to be reduced to about 150-200 litres [per day]," he says. "It is possible, but it's not something that can happen overnight."

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