Water and energy are interdependent and hold the keys to a sustainable future
Our common future depends on water. We need water to eradicate poverty, promote green growth, and build more equitable societies. But climate change is exacerbating water scarcity and pollution, and this is wreaking havoc on peoples’ lives and on economies.
Just as water is the primary medium through which we feel the impacts of a changing climate, our ability to adapt to climate change and reduce emissions is through greater efficiency across all sectors but mainly through better water resources management.
Water is central to how we manage ecosystems sustainably, is the ultimate connector between sectors—from agriculture, to energy, to industry —and binds our economies into a coherent whole. Availability of water is a necessary condition for reaching universal water and energy access and meeting future energy needs, as almost all energy generation processes require water. Water is therefore at the core of climate policy and action.
The need for comprehensive strategies to address the complex and interconnected relationship between energy, water, and climate change has never been more urgent. This relationship was at the heart of the Global Water, Energy and Climate Change Congress, which met in Bahrain from September 5 to 7, 2023.
The host region’s long history of adaptation to weather extremes, water scarcity, and rich endowment of energy puts Gulf nations in a unique position to shape the dialogue around sustainable energy and water security in the context of climate change.
Water and energy management innovations in the GCC
From the United Arab Emirates’ strategic aquifer recharge to Saudi Arabia’s comprehensive reforms and transformation of the water sector for enhanced water security, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have expertise in innovative approaches to addressing water-energy nexus challenges. In the World Bank report; Advancing Knowledge of the Water-Energy Nexus in the GCC Countries, the region offers three key water and energy management innovations that we can learn from.
First is the reuse of treated wastewater. Wastewater needs to be seen not as a problem but as a valuable resource. The failure to treat wastewater pollutes land and marine ecosystems. Recycling it, however, offers an affordable, green way to augment and diversify water and energy supplies. For example, wastewater reuse can reduce pressure on scarce groundwater resources, while the energy contained in wastewater is enough to meet more than half of the electricity needs of wastewater utilities if fully recovered. Gulf nations can significantly increase their use of treated wastewater to cater for freshwater demand. Other regional experiences suggest the GCC region could recapture up to 90 percent of wastewater for agricultural, industrial, and domestic use. While subject to a range of variables, graywater reuse and wastewater treatment both require a fraction of the energy per cubic meter of water for desalination and can be a relatively inexpensive alternative.
Second is decoupling water production from fossil fuel consumption and investing in renewable energy sources. Almost all freshwater in the GCC region comes from desalinating seawater or pumping deep aquifers. These processes require enormous amounts of energy—overwhelmingly from fossil fuels at present. In a region that is only growing hotter and dryer, securing water and energy for nearly 60 million people grows more expensive each day. More efficient production would both save water for future needs and lower greenhouse gas emissions. GCC nations are pioneering a range of clean, lower-cost options to achieve resource security. For example, Saudi Arabia has invested in what will be the world’s largest solar desalination plant. As renewables become a larger source of energy for the water cycle, both desalination and wastewater reuse will become an economical part of water security.
Third is addressing subsidies and pricing to encourage efficient consumption and to target government assistance to those who most need it. The fastest, cleanest, and most affordable way to increase water or energy capacity is to reduce inefficient and excessive consumption. Low tariffs have contributed to GCC countries having the world’s highest per capita water consumption. To address this, Oman, for example, matched reformed tariffs with targeted subsidies. Significant water and energy savings can also be realized through increased metering, fixing degraded infrastructure, adequate pricing, reallocating groundwater on farms, and complementary policies and technologies to manage demand.
Partnering for impact
A proactive and coordinated approach to sustainable energy and water security is needed. As the largest multilateral financier of water in developing countries, the World Bank is a strategic partner to help countries tackle the water crisis. We are strongly committed to working with Gulf nations, leveraging our partnerships and global expertise to accelerate green, resilient, and inclusive development.
Two initiatives of relevance to the region are our forthcoming global report on decarbonizing water, which will document best practice in reducing the carbon footprint throughout the entire water cycle, and a regional water-energy-climate nexus initiative that promotes integrated and sustainable planning. This regional initiative can also support the establishment of national water-energy-climate platforms to ensure a coordinated approach to these interdependent sectors.
Working together, we can find creative solutions, develop new ways of working more effectively, and leverage new sources of funding to enhance energy and water security.