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Solar-powered desalination an imperative for GCC states: WB experts

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Oman and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) peers face steeper costs in securing their potable water needs unless they switch to renewables-powered water desalination, key experts of the World Bank (WB) have stressed.

Issam Abousleiman, World Bank Regional Director for the GCC, and Anders Jagerskog, Senior Water Resources Management Specialist - World Bank Water Global Practice, warned in a joint paper that the water-stressed GCC region must also move away from subsidies to incentivise judicious consumption of water resources.

“Currently, water and energy subsidies deepen each sector’s dependence on oil revenues. In a region that is only growing hotter and dryer, securing water and energy for nearly 60 million people grows more expensive every day,” the exports noted.

They warned i that the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea, along the coasts of which most of the Gulf’s desalination plants are located, are turning saltier due to higher evaporation rates and reduced freshwater inflows. The presence of hundreds of desalination plants along these coasts, they pointed out, results in the massive quantities of hypersaline waste ending up in shallow coastal zones.

“New desalination plant effluent triggers a vicious cycle of unsustainability: The higher the salt concentration in waste emptied near source intakes, the more energy required to remove that salt when new seawater is taken in for desalination. Poor or nonexistent brine abatement is degrading coastal marine life and will eventually impact the prospects for coastal tourism,” the experts cautioned.

The long-term consequences of increased dependence on fossil fuel powered desalination will be disastrous – environmentally and economically - for countries of the GCC, the experts warned.

“Left unchecked, by 2050 this effluent will erode species’ integrity and diversity, hurting fisheries, tourism, and coastal communities. Current policies do not adequately respond to these challenges. The strong reliance on cheap energy for the provision of water security will, in the long run, be unsustainable.”

In this regard, the World Bank experts called for ‘green’ reforms to make water production more sustainable as part of a wider regional pivot to a low-carbon economy. They cited in this regard the example of Saudi Arabia, which is building the world’s largest solar powered desalination plant.

Although not specifically referenced in the paper, Oman too has made modest strides in solar based desalination. Omani firm Sharqiyah Desalination Company, which operates a major Independent Water Project (IWP) at Sur, recently announced that a 17 megawatt-peak (MWp) solar farm will start generating green electricity for the desalination plant from early 2023.

But the experts did laud Oman for restructuring water tariffs with a view to incentivizing rationalization of consumption. “Oman has a good example model of how to ensure fair yet efficient consumption. It combines targeted subsidies for low-income households with tiered rates that raise prices per unit of demand,” they noted.

They also appealed for a mindset change in how the Gulf states view wastewater not as a problem but as a valuable resource. “GCC countries should rethink of wastewater not as a problem but as valuable resource. The failure to treat wastewater pollutes land and marine ecosystems. Recycling it, however, offers an indispensable and affordable, green way to augment and diversify water and energy supplies. Other regional experiences suggest the GCC region could recapture up to 90 per cent of wastewater for agricultural, industrial, and domestic use,” the experts added.

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