The Costs and Benefits of Water Desalination in the Gulf

Desalination has been identified as one technology that could help solve Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries’ water scarcity problem. Desalination is a cost-effective technology that can transform an abundance of salt water into a reliable supply of potable fresh water, which at first glance seems to be a panacea to the region’s water needs. That being said, desalination plants do not come without significant environmental costs. Indeed, for a technology that is sometimes misleadingly pitched as a “post-oil” technology, desalination plants come with worrying environmental consequences, both now and in the future. Are these costs worth the promise of a secure water supply? And who and what are they likely to impact?

It is also worth assessing the role of desalination as an engine of water diplomacy and examining how desalination might impact the GCC’s geopolitics. Often, desalination technologies are viewed through the lens of national security and water independence, ignoring the ways that desalination research and development, construction, and production are wrapped up in the region’s geopolitical relations.

A Global Leader in Desalination

The Gulf Arab states have long been market leaders in desalination investment and development. Experimentation with desalination technologies dates to the 1890s, and was a response to the water needs of pilgrims to Mecca. However, it was not until the 1950s that the first modern desalination plants were established in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. In 1965, Saudi Arabia established a general department for the desalination of salt water within the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture, and the country’s first desalination plants were built in Al Wajh and Duba in 1969, followed by Jeddah in 1970 and Khobar in 1973.

The history of water and oil in the region are intimately entwined.

The history of water and oil in the region are intimately entwined. In Saudi Arabia, it was while searching for a reliable water supply for Jeddah that oil was first discovered in the kingdom. It was oil again, and especially the 1973 oil crisis and accompanying price spike, that funded the building of the country’s desalination plants. And it is oil that continues to power the region’s desalination energy demands, with Saudi Arabia using approximately 300,000 barrels of oil per day on desalination.

GCC countries account for some 60 percent of global water desalination capacity, producing around 40 percent of the total desalinated water in the world using over 400 desalination plants across the region. Today the majority of GCC countries are dependent upon desalination plants for their water needs. Approximately 42 percent of the United Arab Emirates’ drinking water comes from desalination plants, while in Kuwait it is 90 percent, in Oman 86 percent, and in Saudi Arabia 70 percent. In terms of quantity of water produced, it is Saudi Arabia that leads; in 2020 it was reported that the country would invest around $80 billion into desalination over the next decade and that its desalination capacity is expected to reach 8.5 million cubic meters per day by 2025.

Powering Desalination in GCC States

Energy inputs for desalination vary depending on what process and what scale are being used, as well as on efficiency. Reverse osmosis membrane-based technologies are more energy efficient than thermal desalination, and countries are therefore moving toward using such technologies, which now account for 60 percent of capacity in Oman and about half of capacity in Saudi Arabia.

Encouragingly, technological improvements are steadily decreasing the energy requirements of desalination plants, and in 2021 Saudi Arabia’s Saline Water Conversion Corporation set a new record for the lowest energy desalination plant in the world, using 2.27 kWh per cubic meter of treated water. That being said, when compared to other water recycling technologies, desalination remains relatively energy intensive. In comparison, large wastewater treatment plants currently require, on average, 0.13­–0.79 kWh per cubic meter of treated water.

Moreover, there are few signs that GCC countries are willing to be more frugal in their water consumption. Generous state subsidies keep water prices low, but demand has increased in the domestic, industrial, and agricultural sectors so that today the annual per capital water use in GCC countries is 560 liters per day, compared with a global average of 180. Saudi Arabia is now the third largest per capita water consumer in the world after the United States and Canada. And the region’s nations certainly have a taste for water-intensive megaprojects. For example, it was estimated that during the 2022 World Cup in Qatar each football pitch required 10,000 liters of desalinated water per day.

A potential solution to desalination’s energy requirements is to tie desalination plants to renewable energy resources. This strategy has been pursued by NEOM, a planned “smart city” initiative in Saudi Arabia, which in June 2022 announced a project with French energy company Veolia and Japanese trading company Itochu that will develop a reverse osmosis desalination facility entirely powered by renewable energy. Expected to be completed in 2025, the plant will produce 500,000 cubic meters of water a day, meeting 30 percent of NEOM’s anticipated water demand. Other solar powered desalination plants in the region include the Al-Khafji Desalination Solar Facility, also in Saudi Arabia, as well as solar powered desalination projects in the UAE and Oman.

Desalination’s Ecological Impacts

The waters of the Gulf are now believed to be 25 percent saltier than typical seawater. In part, this is a result of the Gulf containing naturally saltier waters than other seas. However, brine water discharge from desalination plants is contributing to changing the ecology of the Gulf, which is now considered one of the most anthropogenically affected regions in the world. It is estimated that around 55 percent of the world’s brine is produced by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar. Desalination plants dump brine water, which is heavily loaded with salt particles, often discharged at high temperatures, and contains other trace chemicals and heavy metals, into the Gulf. The situation is further compounded by the oil and gas sector, which also disposes of brine during the extraction process.

The effect of desalination activities on ecosystems remains under studied, and some recent research has suggested that the effects of brine water on the environment may have been overstated. But there is growing evidence that desalination waste products reduce water’s oxygen content, inhibit the growth of aquatic organisms, and decrease biodiversity. In the Arabian Gulf, with its fragile shallow-water marine ecosystems, desalination has the potential to destroy the last remnants of its ecologically significant mosaic of tidal mangroves, mudflats, and sabkhas (flat depressions covered with salt crust).

Aware of the ecological impacts of brine discharge, in 2020 UAE national initiative Sandooq Al Watan launched the “Rethink Brine” challenge which rewards innovative uses for brine discharge. And in 2021, the UAE’s National Pavilion at the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale won an award for an exhibition titled Wetland, which showcased a cement that uses waste brine, reducing the ecological footprint of both water desalination and concrete manufacturing.

Desalination Diplomacy

As other states across the Arab world and further afield look to desalination as a solution to their water needs, there are signs that desalination diplomacy may become an important political tool, with GCC countries able to take advantage of their position as first movers in the sector, exporting technology, know-how, and even water to other states in the region. For example, the annual MENA Desalination Projects Forum has become an important event for regional and international stakeholders to showcase the latest developments in desalination technology.

Desalination negates some of the key drivers of water conflict. Most obviously, when relying on sea water rather than river water, it reduces the tensions that can develop between upstream and downstream riparian states, such as have occurred between Egypt and Ethiopia over the latter’s construction of a new dam. In recognition of the potential peace-building promise of desalination, the Middle East Desalination Research Center was established in Muscat in 1996 as part of the post-Gulf War Middle East peace process. The center seeks “to address significant regional or transboundary environmental challenges” via the cross-border sharing of scientific and technological expertise, and has been described as the “crowning glory” of the entire peace process.

When relying on sea water rather than river water, desalination reduces the tensions that can develop between upstream and downstream riparian states.

That being said, desalination may also become the locus of political conflict and produce its own geopolitical dynamics. For example, Gulf states must contend with their reliance on the same body of water for their potable water needs. As has been noted, the Gulf’s waters have become a water security concern. Dotted with offshore oil rigs and plied by the world’s largest oil tankers, an oil spill there would have the potential to disrupt the water supply of multiple Gulf countries. Moreover, security analysts have pointed to the potential threat of an attack targeting a country’s desalination infrastructure, noting that their coastal locations make them particularly vulnerable. The First Gulf War offers a clue as to how desalination infrastructure might be targeted during a conflict. In 1991, as the Iraqi Army retreated from Kuwait, former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein destroyed the country’s desalination plant and then released Kuwaiti oil into the Gulf, creating a large oil slick and disrupting the wider region’s desalination plants. There are concerns that a potential cross-Gulf conflict with Iran could again see water infrastructure targeted during wartime.

Prospects for a Green Desalination Future?

Despite these precarious vulnerabilities and security concerns, desalination technologies appear “locked in” and will define the water politics of the region in the near future. Desalination was top of the agenda at the United Nations’ 2023 water conference; Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan foregrounds desalination technologies; and it is estimated that by 2030 desalination capacity across the MENA region will have doubled. It is therefore important to develop strategies to reduce the carbon footprint of desalination. With this in mind, it is possible to identify three key interventions that would “green” each stage of the desalination process, reducing its energy inputs and waste outputs.

First, desalination must be fundamentally decoupled from its historic reliance on hydrocarbons. It is encouraging that new desalination plants are being linked to solar energy sources, but this needs to occur faster and more comprehensively if desalination is to become a truly green technology. Second, desalination should be located within a holistic, whole-of-system approach to water infrastructure. GCC countries have been slower to establish water reuse infrastructure and wastewater treatment plants. They would therefore do well to look for inspiration to Singapore, a state that has successfully implemented effective water recycling technologies and water saving policies through its “four taps” policy. Third, further research and development should be targeted at how brine might be incorporated into the circular economy. As the “Rethink Brine” challenge has demonstrated, it is possible to design innovative solutions for desalination waste products, reducing the amount of brine that is released into the region’s ecosystems. With the environmental costs of desalination adding up, GCC countries must act now to reshape the industry for the future.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Stanislav71