Water scarcity, low precipitation, drought, and arid climates due to excess evaporation, as well as river runoff, impact freshwater influx into the Gulf waterway. The restricted water flows from this semi-enclosed waterway into the open ocean leads to the formation of a saline dense water mass (Gulf Deep Water) that reverses estuary circulation through the Strait of Hormuz. Dense water formation, confined mostly to the southern side of the Gulf, reaches a peak in the winter along the northern end of the waterway. The warmer southern and western coast waters of the Gulf separate its Deep Water from the Indian Ocean Surface Water, contributing to more salinity in the Gulf. When high-salinity water finally flows into the Sea of Oman, it impacts the Indian Ocean’s oxygen-rich water. More critically, high-salinity water means there is limited availability of freshwater in the Gulf, leaving the region face-to-face with acute water deficits. This reality pushes the Gulf countries to build more desalination plants and implement ambitious water diversion projects at a rapid pace. The following sections examine a number of these projects and their implications and challenges for the Gulf countries.
Desalination in the Gulf region
The history of desalination projects in the Gulf goes back to the discovery of oil after the Second World War, when foreign investments led to rapid migration to the region and the need for more water. Prior to this period, the region’s native population lived mainly on groundwater resources, made available by digging shallow wells. By the 1980s, the practice of removing salt and other minerals from water led to numerous desalination projects. Desalination processes were divided into two main categories: thermal and membrane. The former evaporates out the water and recondenses it, while the latter uses reverse osmosis to force feed water through a membrane to block out particulates and ions. Other electrical and solar-powered, as well as pressure methods, have been used since then in desalination processes, but the thermal option mostly used in the Gulf in the early days is a cheap option in terms of energy use and can be used for seawater and brackish capacity.
It is estimated that more than 50% of world desalination currently takes place in the Gulf – which is also home to the largest number of desalination plants – while projected water demands are expected to rise by another 50% by 2050. Saudi Arabia has the largest desalination capacity in the region, followed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Kuwait. Desalination enables these countries and many other Gulf states to offer subsidized water and electricity rates, which can lead to over-consumption, although countries are introducing national plans for water conservation and updating aging water distribution systems.
Potable water demands in the GCC (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman) are mostly met through desalination. Major cities in which water shortages are acute will also depend on seawater desalination, such as Basra in Iraq, which commissioned a major desalination plant in 2014. Meanwhile, dozens of water desalination plants have been built across Iraq to meet the rising demand for potable water and several more have been commissioned for the Basra region. In Iran, once a water-rich country that now faces unprecedented levels of drought, desalination is a relatively new field. Tehran insists that it must build hybrid desalination plants, in addition to the two plants it has at the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, to catch up with the GCC states that combined have dozens of desalination plants and withdraw more than 30 billion cubic meters (bcm) of water every year.
Major desalination plants operate at maximum capacity in the Gulf region, producing highly saline brines (water saturated or nearly saturated by salt) that increase salt concentration in the waterway and make future desalination projects costlier. Additionally, the chemicals required for desalination may also increase water pollution. Inland brackish water (freshwater that mixes with salty seawater) desalination projects face similar challenges in disposing brine discharges in a safe manner without incurring major economic and environmental costs.
The emerging environmental challenges of these desalination projects are potentially huge and difficult to calculate partly because the hypersaline conditions in the Gulf are, to a degree, due to rapid water evaporation resulting from extreme heat. But other available technologies for desalination are being introduced to the region to address some of these challenges, including innovative hybrid technologies. Iraq utilizes some of these new hybrid technologies, using its hydrocarbon resources for export purposes, but the country also uses electricity for desalination, which leads to higher energy costs. Thus, a shift to using solar power becomes imperative to reduce these costs.
In Iraq, some desalination occurs using river water, but soil and water salinity inland gets worse in coastal areas along the Gulf as freshwater river flow rates decline and lead to seawater encroachment, requiring new projects to desalinate river water flows from the Shatt al Arab. Despite environmental concerns, including heightened pollution levels in Gulf waters and river flows, Iran plans to push forward with its new desalination projects, thereby contributing to the waterway’s salinity levels that are one and a half times higher than 15 years ago and disrupting its biological and ecological balance.
Groundwater, dams, and canals in the Gulf
Freshwater scarcity is a development constraint across the Gulf region. For example, Iran continues to lose some 30% of its groundwater resources every year due to excessive digging of wells, inability to harness fresh river water resources, and the stresses caused by climate change.
While shallow groundwater aquifers are a renewable water resource, deep aquifers contain non-renewable supplies of fossil water and have a finite life. For Instance, Saudi Arabia’s once rich groundwater resources in aquifers, which remained mostly undisturbed until the early 1980s, could run dry rapidly. According to the National Geographic, the country has already depleted four-fifths of its fossil aquifer for unsustainable agriculture. Groundwater pollution due to over-pumping of wells, seawater intrusion, ecologically irresponsible irrigation patterns, use of chemicals, and high evaporation make accurate estimates of Saudi Arabia’s usable underground water reserves difficult. Groundwater quality levels are also deteriorating in other GCC states due to excessive consumption and seawater intrusion.
Water shortages, if left unaddressed, could lead to the next major conflict between Iran and Iraq. The two countries have embarked on a dam building spree to divert cross-border waterflows, which is harming local livelihoods along the borders between them. In Iraq, the depletion of water resources in once running river flows, marshlands and streams is killing local agriculture, and digging wells nowadays yields salty water not suitable for farming. Dam construction in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria is also impacting the Shatt al Arab River – formed by the confluence of the Euphrates, Tigris and Karun rivers that serve as a main source of freshwater – and has led to political conflicts over the issue among the regional states.
Other wasteful water-intensive irrigation patterns in Iran and Iraq – two countries that have yet to work out mutual sustainable agricultural patterns along their shared borders – are drying up local water resources. In general, the supply of water, driven by large agricultural projects to build food self-sufficiency during conflict in the case of Iraq, and sanctions in the case of Iran, are rapidly depleting their shared water resources. Agriculture also remains a prime consumer of water across the Gulf.
Iran’s new water diversion project, dubbed the Hope Transfer Line, diverts water from the Gulf waterway through canals to rural and urban areas in so-called Red Zones that face severe water scarcity. The Line, developed in response to the operation of thousands of illegal wells that depleted aquifers, is designed to help provide desalinated water for potable purposes, agriculture, and industrial production. In 2022, the Iranian parliament approved the water diversion plan from the Sea of Oman to feed inland projects. Meanwhile, both Oman’s and Iran’s traditional and ancient natural water tunnels, called respectively alfaj and qanat, are drying up, adding demands on local government to feed the tunnels using other sources of water.
A number of canal projects have also been undertaken in GCC states. In 2018, Saudi Arabia entertained plans for the Salwa Canal along its borders with Qatar, with a view to creating new port cities by diverting seawater to accommodate cargo and passenger ships. The design of Sea City in Kuwait includes an artificial waterway to bring the sea inland, while the Dubai Water Canal in the UAE is linked back to the sea to create a new waterway to Business Bay as a creative vision to promote human welfare.
Additionally, the GCC states are starting major dam projects. In 2022, Saudi Arabia invited bids for four water dams in the southern region in order to conserve water as well as support plans for amusement activities. Other dams are also being constructed to provide drinking water and support groundwater resources in Saudi Arabia. According to the Saudi Gazette, the country plans to go on a spree to construct 1,000 new dams in different regions, bringing the total number of dams to 1,564. Oman, which has far fewer dams, has been awarding contracts for the construction of flood protection dams to intercept flood waters. During 2020, the designed capacity of dams in the GCC region was about 2.8 bcm for the year, significantly lower than its desalination capacity.
Future of water preservation plans in the Gulf region
Water saving patterns are beginning to emerge across the Gulf region. Concepts such as virtual water – the amount of water needed to create agricultural products – can help outsource water intensive agricultural practices to parts of the world that have more water sources. The GCC states, along with Iran, are aiming to take advantage of these agricultural business practices through cooperation with countries in Africa and the Americas, which have abundant land for the cultivation of major products.
National institutions for water resource management are gaining attention as well, but their attempts to formulate policies and build cooperation is overburdened by the political challenges that frequently guide relations between the regional states. Consequently, the water policies and practices of the Gulf states are not always aligned, and this encourages countries to instead seek lucrative business opportunities to catch up with desalination projects or other water diversion trends shaping in the Gulf, despite environmental hazards.
In the GCC, additional taxes and tariffs have been introduced to raise consumption pattern awareness, but government water subsidies across the Gulf are not rationally aligned with the real higher cost of water consumption patterns, thereby impacting water preservation plans. Yet, more countries have opportunities to build local capacity to improve water resource management through cooperation at the regional level, as well as internationally, and by empowering their private sector to get involved with plans to enforce strict oversight over consumption patterns across industries and practices, in a manner that leads to increased sustainable growth. Finally, water pricing and harvesting should be rationalized in accordance with the rate at which climate change, urbanization, modernization, and desertification are negatively impacting water resources.
The good news is that freshwater influxes to replenish depleted water resources will continue if smart and sustainable water management policies are rapidly enforced to fight climate change. Many Gulf states are aiming to uphold policies and international recommendations to reverse climate change patterns, but more can be done. For example, the use of treated sewage effluent is a sustainable form of agriculture but is underutilized due to inadequate wastewater management and recycling. Agricultural practices can also be better adapted to saline water conditions. For example, saline water can be used for the terrestrial cultivation of salt tolerant crops and plants that are known to produce useful commodities such as firewood, oil seeds, fresh vegetables, medicinal herbs, and forages for livestock. Such cultivation can also protect against the frequent dust and sandstorms across the Gulf.
Environmental diplomacy and a new regional Green Deal in the Gulf could encourage improved coastal management planning and disaster buffering; water regeneration policies; ecological stabilization in drought-prone regions; urban and rural resilience to climate change; water consumption patterns; and stability of water systems. Groundwater consumption, which often leads to over-pumping and eventually depletion of aquifers, should be re-addressed through studies and policies that get to the root causes of water depletion in different localities. Through improved data collection and analysis, water tables can be rebuilt, and with modern architecture and renewable energies, water can be preserved. However, governments must remain open to the fact that water scarcity will alter livelihoods and employment patterns if, for example, it triggers internal population displacements and new migration patterns, for which diversified responses will be required.
The regional offices of the UN Development Program (UNDP) and UN Environmental Program (UNEP) can support Gulf government initiatives in these areas and help attract global expertise and funding to implement them. Additionally, the Regional Organization for the Protection of Marine Environment – which is based in Kuwait and tasked with coordinating efforts among all the GCC countries as well as Iran and Iraq – can be further strengthened with the support of Gulf states to help it better address the growing challenges associated with water scarcity.
 Mohamed A. Raouf, “Water Issues in the Gulf: Time for Action,” The Middle East Institute Policy Brief, No. 22 (January 2009), http://bitly.ws/y5KD; Stephen A. Swift and Amy S. Bower, “Formation and Circulation of Dense Water in the Persian/Arabian Gulf,” Journal of Geophysical Research 108, Issue C1 (January 2003): 4-1—4-21, https://doi.org/10.1029/2002JC001360.
 Omar Saif, “The Future Outlook of Desalination in the Gulf: Challenges & Opportunities Faced By Qatar & the UAE,” December 18, 2012, United Nations University, http://bitly.ws/y5Lf; Najmedin Meshkati, “Gulf Escalation Threatens Drinking Water,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, June 26, 2019, http://bitly.ws/y5Lr; Rajavi, “Water Desalination in the Middle East.”
 Saif, “The Future Outlook of Desalination in the Gulf”; Rajavi, “Water Desalination in the Middle East.”
 Banafsheh Keynoush, “With the Hope Line, Iran Aims to Boost Seawater Transfer to Fight Growing Drought,” Middle East Institute, June 9, 2021, http://bitly.ws/y5LF; “What is the Plan to Transfer Persian Gulf Water to Iran Central Plateau?” BBC Farsi, November 9, 2020, http://bitly.ws/y5LQ.
 Raouf, “Water Issues in the Gulf.”
 Ronald Smith, Anton Purnama, and H. H. Al-Barwani, “Sensitivity of Hypersaline Arabian Gulf to Seawater Desalination Plants,” Science Direct 31, no. 10 (2007): 2347-2354, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apm.2006.09.010.
 Saif, “The Future Outlook of Desalination in the Gulf.”
 Tollast, “Iraq and the Desalination Revolution.”
 Keynoush, “With the Hope Line.”
 Raouf, “Water Issues in the Gulf”.
 Sajjad Ahmad Siddiqi, Abdullah al-Mamun, Mahad Said Baawain, and Ahmad Sana, “Groundwater Contamination in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Countries: A Review,” Environmental Science and Pollution Research 28 (2021), https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-021-13111-5.
 Keynoush, “With the Hope Line.”
 J. Jed Brown, Probir Das, and Mohammad Al-Saidi, “Sustainable Agriculture in the Arabian/Persian Gulf Region Utilizing Marginal Water Resources: Making the Best of a Bad Situation,” Sustainability 10, no. 5 (2018), https://doi.org/10.3390/su10051364.
 To read more about these ideas in the context of Iran’s battle with water scarcity, see Cornelius Adebahr and Olivia Lazard, “How the EU Can Help Iran Tackle Water Scarcity,” Carnegie Europe, July 7, 2022, http://bitly.ws/y5Q4.
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