“Doha has just three days’ supply”: are water shortages the biggest threat to the Middle East?

Date farms at Liwa Oasis, United Arab Emirates. Image: Google.

Those who visit the Middle East and North Africa from more temperate climates are often struck with how hot and dry the region is, and how scarce its rainfall. Some wonder why cities became established here, and how they continue to exist despite the lack of renewable freshwater.

These concerns are not entirely groundless. Yet these cities’ existence is not in any way miraculous: it’s merely an example of how one can strike an unsustainable balance between growth and limited resources.

The cities in this region may appear unusual today, but like most around the world, most of them grew out of settlements that had access to enough water to sustain life. This is not to say the region’s cities only grew around water sources: have other favourable geographical characteristics, too.

A brief gazetteer

Many of the region’s cities benefited – still benefit – from proximity to a water body that moderates their temperature. Quite a few benefited from a geography that allows natural ports: these include Alexandria, Jeddah, Aden, Haifa, Acre, Byblos, Casablanca,Tunis, Muscat, and Manama. Others – Doha, Dubai, Kuwait – began life as small pearling ports.

The region’s cities are where they are because of water, not despite the lack of it.

Some regional cities benefited from proximity to land trade routes (Aleppo, Marrakesh, Sana’a); others grew near large navigable rivers (Cairo, Baghdad, Basrah). In some cases, cities grew in locations where the climate was more temperate due to altitude (Amman, Aleppo, Sana’a, Taif). In at least two cases – Jerusalem and Mecca – it was spiritual significance that drove city growth.

One factor remains constant in the development of all these cities, though: none of them would have been possible without access to fresh water, be that ground water, surface water (rivers), or direct rainfall. The region’s cities are where they are because of water, not despite the lack of it.

An oasis along a seasonal stream in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Calflier001.

In more temperate parts of the region, where the terrain and climate permitted, cities emerged around small local rivers and aquifers recharged by precipitation on nearby mountains. This is generally the case in both the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Palestine) and the Maghreb (Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco).

By way of example, Damascus grew around the Barada river, which originated in the Anti-Lebanon mountains, less than 20 miles away. Marrakesh grew above an aquifer that gets recharged by snow melt from the Atlas mountains, 30 miles away.


In drier parts of the region, such as the Gulf (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE), water scarcity made city growth more challenging. Abu Dhabi, for example, was settled after one freshwater well was discovered on the island. The well was so precious that it was protected by a fort.

Doha and Medina both emerged around a number of wells. Riyadh and its  predecessor Der’eyah grew on the east bank of Wadi Hanifa stream; theit supported a population of almost 30,000 before the discovery of oil.

Jeddah and Muscat grew rather differently. Both cities emerged on a narrow flat strip between a mountain range and the sea, making the most of the seasonal stormwater drains, at the cost of occasional flooding.

Then there are the Egyptian, Iraqi, and eastern Syrian cities, which grew on the banks of large trans-national rivers that originate in plateaus outside of the region. The Nile, the Tigris, and the Euphrates each provided enough water for the cities on their banks to overcome occasional droughts, and have ensured continuous civilisation since antiquity (longer, indeed, than anywhere else in the world). They also provided enough mud deposits for agriculture: here, too, the cost has been regular flooding.

Burning oil to make water to make oil

With the exception of the cities along these three large rivers, water has remained a limited resource, and the region could only sustain a limited population size. So as its population grew, and their standard of living increased, demand for water in the cities of the Middle East rose – and natural water resources were no longer sufficient to meet demand.

In the 20th century, population growth accelerated at such a rate that regional cities could no longer live within their sustainable environmental boundaries and additional water sources had to be found. In just 50 years the population of the region more than tripled, rising from 97m in 1960 to 351m in 2010.

Growth of groundwater-based centre pivot irrigation in Saudi Arabia between 2000-2010 before being scaled back. Image: Google.

With limited rainfall and ground water, and newly found oil wealth, the Gulf subregion turned towards desalination to keep up with demand. Rapid population growth in cities such as Riyadh – now 190 times larger than it was before the discovery of oil – may have justified a decision across the oil rich region to use some the oil to “manufacture” potable water.

Saudi Arabia alone burns 1.5m barrels of oil every day to desalinate water, an amount equivalent to the daily oil consumption of Italy

It’s also possible to argue that it was desalination, and the availability of “easy water”, that made such population growth possible: that in turn created a need for more desalination. The result was a demand cycle that’s really hard to break.

Either way, desalination remains a major component of water supply in the region. It is currently estimated that 70 per cent of the world’s desalination capacity is in the Gulf states. The region is generally considered to have spearheaded advances in desalination technology.

This focus on desalination came despite its high energy costs. The International Energy Agency estimates that desalination in the Gulf represents approximately 12 per cent of the region’s total energy use. Saudi Arabia alone burns 1.5m barrels of oil every day to desalinate water, an amount equivalent to the daily oil consumption of Italy. Similarly, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi uses over half of its domestic energy to make potable water.

Ironically, given the water needs of the oil industry, many of the Gulf states find themselves in a situation where they need to burn oil to make water, which they then use to extract more oil. 

The Gulf countries have also tapped into their ground water reservoirs. These are non-renewable fossil aquifers and, soon enough, this approach proved unsustainable.

Ground water withdrawal over the last 30 years in the UAE has caused the fresh water table to drop by a meter, a rate which risks the complete depletion of UAE ground water within the next half a century. Similarly, after its ground water withdrawal reached alarming levels, Saudi Arabia recently had to scale back its wheat self-sufficiency program; by 2016 it’ll rely on importing 100 per cent of its food.

Watching the aquifer fall

Other subregions have decided to live within their means – but only relatively. They’ve largely accepted that per capita water resource will inevitably dwindle as their populations growth, but still occasionally tap into their non-renewable ground water.

The Yemeni capital is expected to be the first city in the world to run out of economically viable water supplies

The most extreme case of such tapping is Sana’a where a mix of rapid population growth and excessive ground water use saw its water table dropping by 2 meters a year. The Yemeni capital is expected to be the first city in the world to run out of economically viable water supplies, potentially by 2017.

Even Egyptian and Iraqi cities, which have historically enjoyed abundant water, are facing challenges. Egyptian per capita water availability is expected to reach severe scarcity levels (that is, 500m3 per capita per year) by 2025. Despite access to half of the Nile’s water, Egyptian cities’ demand for water currently outstrips supply by 27 per cent, and population growth is expected to trigger shortages.

Iraqi cities, on the other hand, appear less at risk, as they are only expected to reach water stress levels (1500m3 per capita per year) by 2025. But things are worse than they seem: this 25 per cent reduction of per capita water availability represents the steepest drop in the region.

Considering all the different water sources on offer, the region’s overall supplies remain quite low: they average just 1076m3 per capita per year, just over the 1,000 m3 scarcity threshold which identifies where a country’s water availability represents a barrier to development. In fact, most of the region’s countries have water availability below the scarcity level. The world average is 8,500m3 per capita per year.

Despite this scarcity, and the high cost of water desalination, water in the Middle East remains relatively cheap. As a result of heavy government subsidies, the final consumer – be that industry, agriculture, or households – is unaware of the true cost of water: something that’s disincentised the introduction of water efficiency measures across most of the region. The region has the second lowest water productivity levels globally, generating less than $7 of GDP for every cubic meter of water used.

The elephant in the room here is the 1.5m km2 of agricultural land which represent the region’s agriculture sector. That represents 7 per cent of the region’s landmass; but it accounts for 85 per cent of water consumed, compared to 70 per cent globally.

This disparity can partly be attributed to the sector’s reliance on inefficient irrigation techniques: it makes heavy use of flooding and furrow irrigation, while neglecting micro irrigation techniques such as drip irrigation. With the exception of Israel and Jordan, most of the region’s states have failed to shift their agricultural systems towards water efficient irrigation techniques.

Where now?

The situation is challenging, but the region’s cities are not necessarily doomed to an unsustainable future. To meet growing demand, they’ll have to work on both securing sustainable water supplies and on managing demand. But they’ll need to do this in the context of population growth, conflicts and climate change.

Given the region’s population growth rate, per capita water availability is expected to fall by half by 2050. In addition, climate change is expected to shift rain fall patterns: total rainfall is expected to drop by 20-30 per cent by 2070.

Desalination also comes with significant risks, and the cities of the Gulf are particularly vulnerable to supply shocks. Doha, for example, is estimated to have just three days' water supply; it’s currently building a strategic reservoir that will raise this to a week.

The desalination process is causing environmental damage, too. It is thought that desalination has increased the salinity of the water in the Gulf itself by 2 per cent over the last 20 years. What's more, an average of 75 per cent of the region’s surface water originates outside it. That leaves it vulnerable to future resource conflicts.

One way to achieve sustainability and water security in the region would be to fully embrace solar desalination. That would allow cities to leverage solar energy, the region’s most abundant renewable energy source.

This option would require significant infrastructure investment – an investment that many cities may feel uneasy about. But if the long term future hangs in the balance, such investment may be the difference between an abandoned oasis and a sustainable one.

Karim Elgendy is a sustainability consultant based in London. He is also the Founder and Coordinator of Carboun, an advocacy initiative promoting sustainability in Middle East cities.

He tweets at @CarbounCities.

 
 
 
 

Which pairs of capital cities are the closest together?

Vienna, which is quite close to Bratislava, but not quite close enough. Image: Thomas Ledl

It doesn't take long to get from Paris to Brussels. An hour and a half on a comfortable Thalys train will get you there. 

Which raises an intriguing question, if you like that sort of thing: wich capital cities of neighbouring countries are the closest together? And which are the furthest away? 

There are some that one might think would be quite close, which are actually much further part. 

Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital, sits on one side of the estuary of the Río de la Plata, while Montevideo, Uruguay's capital lies on the other side. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But at 207km apart, they're not really that close at all. 

Similarly, Singapore – capital of, er, Singapore – always sticks in the mind as 'that bit on the end of the Malaysian sticky-out bit'. But it's actually pretty far away from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital. A whole 319km away, in fact:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Thinking of 'countries that cause problems by being close together', you inevitably think of South Korea and North Korea. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And while Pyongyang in the North and Seoul in the South are pretty close together, 181km just isn't going to cut it. 

Time to do some Seoul-searching to find the real answer here.

(Sorry.)

(Okay, not that sorry.)

Another place where countries being close together tends to cause problems is the Middle East. Damascus, the capital of Syria, really isn't that far from Beirut, in Lebanon. Just 76km:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Seeing as Lebanon is currently host to millions of refugees fleeing the horrors of Syria's never-ending civil war and the atrocities of Daesh, or Isis, this is presumably something that authorities in Beirut have given a certain amount of thought to.

Most of the time, finding nearby capitals is a game of searching out which bits of the world have lots of small countries, and then rooting around. So you'd think Central America would be ripe for close-together capital fun. 

And yet the best option is Guatemala and El Salvador – where the imaginatively named Guatemala City is a whole 179km away from the also imaginatively named San Salvador.  

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Another obvious place with lots of small-ish countries is Europe – the site of the pair of capitals that drove me to write this nonsense in the first place. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And in fairness, Vienna and Bratislava do make a pretty good showing of it. Austria's capital sits on the Danube; drift downstream, and you swiftly get to Slovakia's capital. As the crow flies, it's 56km – though as the man swims, it's a little longer. 

There are more surprising entries – particularly if you're willing to bend the rules a little bit. Bahrain and Qatar aren't really adjacent in the traditional sense, as they have no land border, but let's just go with it. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Manama, Bahrain's capital, is 140km away from Doha, the centre of the world's thriving local connecting-flight-industry which moonlights as Qatar's capital. 

Sticking with the maritime theme, Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago is 152km from St George's, Grenada. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Good, but not good enough. 

Castries, the capital of the Carribbean country of St Lucia, is 102km north of Kingstown, the capital of St Vincent and the Grenadines. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Better, but still not good enough. 

Basseterre, the capital of St Kitts and Nevis, inches ahead at 100km away from St John's, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But, enough teasing: it's time to get down to the big beasts.

If you ask Google Maps to tell you the distance between the capital of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it comes up with a rather suspect 20km. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

A short distance, but considering the only thing separating the two is the River Congo, something's up: Google places the centre of Brazzaville a little north of where it should be, and the centre of Kinshasa many many miles south of where it should be, in some sort of suburb.


So, in true CityMetric style, we turn to train stations. 

Though such transport hubs may not always perfectly mark the centre of a city – just ask London Oxford Airport or London Paddington – in this case it seems about right. 

Kinshasa's main train station is helpfully called 'Gare Centrale', and is almost slap-bang in the middle of the area Google marks as 'Centre Ville'. On the other side of the river, 'Gare de Brazzaville' is in the middle of lots of densely-packed buildings, and is right next to a Basilica, which is always a good sign. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And when marking that distance, you get a more realistic 4.8km. If you want to be really keen, the ferry between them travels 3.99km, and the closest point I could find between actual buildings was 1.74km, though admittedly that's in a more suburban area. 

Pretty close, though. 

But! I can hear the inevitable cries clamouring for an end to this. So, time to give the people what they want. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you ask Google Maps to tell you how far away the Holy See, capital of the Vatican, is from Rome, capital of Rome, it says 3.5km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you set the centre of Rome to be the Palatine Hill, the ancient marking point for roads leading out of Rome, that narrows to 2.6km.

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Fiddle a bit and put the centre of the Vatican as, well, the middle bit of the roughly-circular Vatican, that opens up a smidge to 2.75km.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Mark the centre of point of the Vatican as the approximate location of St Peter's Tomb within St Peter's Basilica, which is after all the main reason the Vatican is a thing and not just a quirky suburb of Rome, and 2.67km is your answer. 

Though obviously in practice Rome and the Vatican are as far away as one single step over the railings at the entrance of St Peter's Square, which fairly blatantly makes them the closest capital cities in the world. 

But that would have been a very boring thing to come out and say at the start. 

Oh, and if you hadn't worked it out already, the longest distance between a capital city and the capital of a country it shares a land border with is 6,395km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

I know it's tough for you, Vladimir and Kim. Long-distance relationships are a real struggle sometimes.

I can't make a pun work on either Moscow or Pyongyang here, but readers' submissions more than welcome. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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