Technology

Game-changing solutions to MENA’s water woes

 By Criselda Diala-McBride

One of the most pressing concerns facing countries across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is water scarcity…

Exacerbated by a growing population, rapid urbanization, poor water management, and climate change, the region’s depleting water resources could have a profound impact not only on economic development, but also on food production, social welfare and even national security.
According to the World Resources Institute, 15 of the 36 most water-stressed countries in the world are located in MENA. The region has a lot to lose economically from climate-related water scarcity–at about 6% to 14% of GDP by 2050, the World Bank estimates. What lies ahead is a grim forecast: per-capita water availability will be halved by 2050 as the region’s population expands and the impact of climate change takes hold.
Adding pressure to the water woes is the region’s unpredictable surface freshwater availability – in the form of rainfall – which varies dramatically from year to year and can deviate by as much as 75% from the annual means. Such an occurrence can lead to multi-year droughts and catastrophic flooding that threaten agricultural lands, according to a recent World Bank report.
In turn, this increases the risk of food insecurity in the region, where already more than 60% of the population has little or no access to drinkable water, compared to about 35% for the rest of the world.

Aid from technology

To narrow the gap between water supply and demand, MENA governments have implemented reforms to increase water efficiency, such as promoting vertical farming, reducing water subsidies, recycling wastewater and managing groundwater resources.
As well as government policies, innovative technologies developed by the private sector are also paving the way for MENA’s water shortage solutions. Among these innovations is Veragon’s Air-to-Water technology, which is capable of producing up to 1,000 liters of water per day at a cost of just one US cent per liter.

Veragon Technology: How It Works

Working with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and private companies, the UK-based company has set its sights on water-scarce regions like the Middle East, where its technology can harness humidity from the air. Collected water vapor is then filtered and sanitized using ozone and UV light, before minerals are added to it and chilled for consumption.
Extracting water from thin air is also the concept behind Source Hydropanel, a technology developed by US-based start-up Zero Mass Water and rolled out in Jordan. Source is an off-grid solar panel that converts sunlight into energy to create condensation. The trapped moisture is collected in a 30-liter reservoir, filtered, mineralized and pumped directly to household taps as pure drinking water.

Zero mass water's Source Hydropanel (zeromasswater.com)

Conserving water through greater efficiency has become vital in water-stressed countries like the UAE and Morocco, where Japan-based Tottori Resource Recycling introduced its Porous Alpha soil amendment solution. Porous Alpha is a foamed material made from glass and seashells, which is added to soil as a conditioning agent to improve water retention and aeration capacity. Aside from saving approximately 50% of water consumption in agricultural farms, the solution is reportedly also able to increase crop yield by 20%.
In Algeria, Goutra is a start-up that has developed a Smart Faucet solution, which utilizes sensors and data-processing technology to control water flow and prevent excessive consumption.

Goutra water saving system

Desalination

Meanwhile, across the MENA region, especially in oil-rich countries comprising the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), desalination has been an important source of drinking water. Desalination capacity in the GCC is estimated at more than 80%, which is the highest in the world.
However, desalination is an expensive and energy-intensive approach to water treatment, as it uses thermal energy to separate water and salt. To address this, regional governments are investing heavily in desalination plants that run on renewable energy.
Saudi Arabia, for example, has announced plans to build the world’s largest solar-powered desalination plant with a capacity of treating 60,000 cubic meters of seawater per day. Qatar is also investing in a desalination project using wind and solar energy, while Dubai aims to build its first desalination plant powered by solar and capable of producing 120 million gallons of drinkable water per day by 2024.

World’s largest solar powered seawater desalination plant

Cleaning the solar panels

While photovoltaic arrays may be more cost effective than thermal energy plants, they do need to be maintained regularly to ensure they operate at full potential. This is crucial as pollutants and dust build-up due to harsh weather conditions like sandstorms could reduce the solar panels’ power-generating capacity by as much as 60%.
Cleaning solar panels traditionally require a pool of workers and liters of water, which is a major concern in water-starved desert landscape. But a Saudi-based start-up came up with an alternative solution.
NOMADD, a start-up funded by the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), developed a patented robotic PV cleaning system that does not need water. NOMADD’s Desert Solar Solutions is a mechanism comprising a three-to-five-meter-long tube with an angled brush that removes dust. Fully automated, the system can be controlled and monitored remotely via a smartphone, laptop or tablet.

technological-solutions-MENA-water-scarcity
NOMADD's Desert Solar Solutions is a mechanism comprising a three-to-five-meter-long tube with an angled brush that removes dust (nomaddesertsolar.com)

Water shortage is indeed a clear and present danger in the MENA region, and tackling this issue demands fresh thinking from both the governments and the private sector.

READ MORE: The power of rain by Jim McClelland

about the author
Criselda Diala-McBride
Dubai-based journalist with 20 years of experience writing and editing finance, aviation, tourism, retail, technology, property and oil and gas articles for a range of print and online publications.