Sustainable Development and Water: Desalination in the Arab World

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It is common knowledge that we are unsustainable consumers of water resources. Agricultural, household and industrial use deplete the Earth’s freshwater and experts state that water shortages will cause the next wars. One of the most water sensitive regions of the world is the Middle East. Rich in fossil fuels, but water-poor, the Arab world is already facing the cruel reality of insufficient water resources from unsustainable use and losses due to old and broken water infrastructure.

These concerns were extensively discussed during the World Water Forum 6. Experts shared their views on water and energy limitations in the future of the Middle East. Living in a water abundant country like Greece, I never believed that desalination could be a viable solution to water scarcity. I was very surprised to learn during the Forum that almost 40% of the water used in the Arab countries comes from desalination. The Arab countries are global leaders in desalination technologies.

I was very curious about facts concerning the application and the economic and energy cost of desalination. I was very lucky to have the unique opportunity to talk with Mr. Mohammad Abdelqader El Ramahi, Head of the Utilities and Assets Management of Masdar Power in Abu Dhabi.

I started with the most popular argument that people have against desalination. I asked Mr. El Ramahi how could he believe that desalination is a sustainable solution against water supply constraints in Middle East, since it is a very capital and energy intensive process. Thus, while it may solve party the problem of water unavailability, desalination’s high energy needs will simultaneously cause  higher stress on fossil fuel resources. Although he agreed that desalination has high costs and energy inputs, he stated that the “magic” solution can be found in the use of renewable energy resources. He informed me that the United Arab Emirates and especially Abu Dhabi have traditionally been technology leaders and exporters towards the rest of the globe. Mr El Ramahi emphasized that although the Arab oil reserves are getting depleted very fast, the Middle East has a huge potential hidden in wind and solar power that can be used for satisfying the energy needs of Arab countries and existing and future desalination plants. He added that according to research that Masdar has conducted, renewable energy allows for desalination plants to be located either close to urban centers or in small villages and land fields, reducing both the infrastructure needed and potential water losses in transportation.

I asked him about the cost of desalination, which makes it unappealing to both enterprises and states. Mr El Ramahi addressed my concern very confidently by declaring that much of the Arab World has enough wealth to lead the evolution in this sector and be a global innovator in the field of renewable energy resources. He underlined that Abu Dhabi and Masdar are not willing to wait until the cost of renewable energy and desalination drops, but they are determined to be pioneers and leaders in this field, in order to avoid any crucial water and energy disruptions. He acknowledged that in the first place these initiatives will be costly, but the sustainable technologies that Masdar and its partners are developing will decrease the cost effectively by reducing the amount of kWh consumed.

I was amazed by all the information that I did not know about the initiatives of the privates sector in the field of energy and water resources management in the Middle East!

My next question to Mr. El Ramahi was if Masdar keeps its actions local or if it is open for inter-regional and international  cooperation and collaboration. Mr. El Ramahi stated that in a globalized world, where so many different regions face the same problems, we all have the common duty to save and protect the Earth. Moreover, he added that in Masdar, people believe that a better future can be achieved only through cooperation and knowledge sharing.

“Egoism does not leave any space for innovation and progress. And, as I said, we want to be pioneers, not followers,” he said. He continued to say that he is very proud to be with Masdar, due to the fact that it is a very ambitious company that exports its knowledge and technology and has partnerships on renewable energy production around the world.

Finally, I asked from Mr. El Ramahi to give me a message for students and people who will read this blog post. He thought about it and said that we must all keep in mind that our actions can contribute to changing this world into a better place. He emphasized that young people have to realize that there will be no water availability without sustainable and thoughtful use. He continued that sustainability requires facing the tough reality of resources depletion and switching to renewable energy. Last but not least, he called for collaboration, comprehension, knowledge and expertise sharing, for making this transition to sustainable resource use as fast and as efficiently as we can.

His final thought is an encouraging one: “I believe in people, I strongly believe that we can make it. The time is now!”


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