Qatar is going to need at least 10,000 litres of water every day for each of its stadium pitches during the World Cup. Based in a region with virtually no access to fresh water, it is going to rely on desalination – the practice of debrining saltwater so it is drinkable.
It seems like an elegant solution – but the problem is that desalination, which is projected to boom by 37% across the Gulf region in the next five years, has huge environmental costs, in terms of the fossil fuels used to carry out the process, and the marine environment. But without it, how can the arid region possibly quench its thirst?
Forty-three per cent of the world’s desalination capacity comes from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Despite the scarcity of water, the GCC are among the highest consumers of it in the world, and heavily dependent on desalination plants.
The United Arab Emirates has one of the highest per capita water consumption rates in the world, with people using roughly 500 litres a day – 50% above the global average.
Yet many GCC countries such as the UAE are still keen to promote water-rich lifestyles through desalination efforts. Manicured lawns and waterparks are commonplace across cities, and at the Dubai fountain show, every half hour throughout the day more than 83,000 litres of water shoot up as high as a 50-storey building.
But with populations rising, the region’s water industry is facing increasing pressure. “These plants essentially have rivers running through them. If you look at the desalination capacity across the GCC as a whole, the volume of water flowing through that is about four times the amount of water flowing down the Thames,” says Will Le Quesne, the Middle East programme director for the UK Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science.
Maryam Rashed Al Shehhi, an assistant professor of civil infrastructure and environmental engineering at Khalifa University in the UAE, says: “Desalination is our main source of fresh water. It’s a very arid region, and annual rainfall has decreased. So, it’s very scary to think about any other sources of water.”