The GCC countries are situated in one of the most water scarce regions of the world and have one of the lowest per capita share of freshwater resources globally, with values much below the threshold of absolute water scarcity of 500 m3/year. In the last few decades, the GCC countries have witnessed an accelerated socio-economic, agricultural, and industrial development growth, which was associated with substantial increase in water demands. To provide these water demands, the GCC countries have primarily focused their efforts on the development and supply augmentation aspects of water management, manifested by development of groundwater, installation of desalination plants, expansion in reuse of treated wastewater, in addition to dams construction.
To meet increasing domestic water demands, the GCC countries have resorted heavily to desalination. Currently, almost all of the municipal water supply systems rely on desalination in the majority of the GCC countries. However, desalination is associated with substantial financial cost and are energy-intensive affecting both the economies and the environment of the GCC countries. In addition to the challenges of meeting the rapid growth of municipal water demands, rates of per capita domestic water consumption in many GCC countries, which are among the highest in the world, are considered excessive. This is attributed mainly to very heavy blanket non-targeted subsidies, which gives consumers the wrong impression of water abundancy.
To fulfil the requirements of agricultural water demands, the GCC countries have relied on groundwater resources and to a lesser extent on treated municipal wastewater. A major concern is that the majority of groundwater resources in the region are non-renewable and are being extensively mined and rapidly depleted. Furthermore, renewable groundwater resources are being over-exploited beyond their replenishment rates leading to quality degradation due to saltwater intrusion. The loss of groundwater resources assets will have dire consequences on the GCC countries in terms of the loss of a long-term strategic water supply and the cost of the replacement water. Groundwater excessive withdrawal is attributed to many factors, the most important is poor irrigation practices with irrigation efficiencies ranked among the lowest in the world. One of the reasons for such practices is inadequate monitoring of groundwater abstraction and there are no charges for groundwater withdrawal, providing no incentive for water conservation.
Notably, to meet the ever-increasing demand for water, the GCC countries have adopted a supply-side management approach for securing water supplies. This has forced the countries, increasingly, into more expensive and costly investments in water supply sources and infrastructure. The heavy financial, economic and rising environmental costs associated with such approach cannot be over-emphasized. Clearly, such approach cannot be a long-term solution to water scarcity in the GCC countries, and a new conceptual approach in managing the countries’ limited and costly water resources will be required. The GCC countries will need to shift their emphasis from ensuring “sustainability of supply” to ensuring “sustainability of consumption” while achieving economic efficiency and financial sustainability as core objectives.
To achieve such shift, there are basically three types of policy instruments that can be implemented: structural & operational (e.g. metering, retrofitting water saving devices, flow control, recycling, …), sociopolitical (e.g., education and awareness, building codes, appliances labeling, …), and economic (incentives and disincentives). In this regard, economic policies instruments are more effective in achieving economic efficiency and financial sustainability, and can complement and reinforce the use of the other two policy instruments.
In general, economic instruments involve the use of prices and charges to provide incentives to water users to utilize water efficiently and rationally. The purpose of water pricing policies is three-fold: cost reflectivity (signal to users the true scarcity value of water and the cost of service provision as an incentive for more efficient water use); environmental and resource protection (encouraging conservation and efficient use and recognizing environmental co-benefits); and cost recovery (generation of revenues for the efficient operation of the present system, its maintenance, modernization and future expansion). A properly designed water pricing policy will10
direct subsidies towards guaranteeing water as human rights and that pricing is set proportional to volume of usage with heavy water users paying the most to achieve social equity.
On the other hand, one of the main problems threatening the sustainability of the water services in the GCC countries is the low cost recovery. Although water supply utilities in the GCC countries are among the top-ranked service providers in the world, the existing very high rates of subsidies result in very low cost recovery percentages. Moreover, unlike the water supply utilities, the wastewater sector in the majority of the GCC countries has literally zero cost recovery due to the absence of wastewater tariff for collection, treatment and reuse. This creates a heavy financial burden on the countries fiscal budget, and holds the sector captive to government allocations, which are susceptible to oil-prices volatility, eventually influencing the general water services performance.
One of the measures that have been taken towards reducing the cost and alleviating the financial burden is privatization. The majority of the GCC countries have moved to privatizing production where many desalination plants are built as independent water and power projects (IWPP), with desalinated water purchased by the government through a long-term plan. Still, the municipal water sector can benefit from the many advantages privatization can offer in the whole water supply chain, which has not been adequately investigated in the region yet.
Given the above and under the patronage of H.E. the Minister of Environment, Water & Agriculture Eng. Abdulrahman bin Abdulmohsen Al-Fadley, the Water Sciences & Technology Association is glad to announce the launch of the 14th edition of the Gulf Water Conference held from April 5th to 7th 2021 in Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. GWC 2021 will be advocating for a paradigm shift in the management of water resources in the GCC countries to move from the current emphasis on supply sustainability approach to a consumption sustainability approach, with its core objectives of economic efficiency of water uses and financial sustainability of water services. The conference will invite top keynote speakers and experts to share their knowledge and transfer their experience in the field of sustainability of consumption. Moreover, the conference deliberations and results will be the GCC countries contribution to the selected UN Water topic for 2021: “Valuing Water”.
GWC 2021 is organized in collaboration and partnership with the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture, GCC Secretariat General and major water-related governmental and semi-governmental entities within the GCC region and is executed by the Specialist – ExiCon International Group.