Maturing Gulf economies will help avoid water stress


Another month, another gloomy report highlighting the threat posed to the future of world cities by water stress – the increasing imbalance between the demand for, and the supply of, a fluid more precious than oil.

Commissioned by Nestpick, an international apartment-rental company, the Climate Change City Index draws on a large body of credible research. The company says its findings will help those looking to relocate “make informed decisions about how climate change may impact their chosen city.” But the implication that rising water stress may render Dubai a less attractive destination between now and 2040 overlooks a new reality – that after half a century of reliance on foreign labor, the maturing United Arab Emirates could finally be approaching “Peak Expat.”

The index takes no account of a moderation in Dubai’s growth rate. This might be difficult to discern against a background of seemingly perpetual development but it can be detected in the one statistic that really counts when it comes to water scarcity: population numbers.

Dubai finds itself at No 9 on the list of 10 cities with the greatest predicted increase in water stress over the next two decades. Unlike the other nine, which are plagued by diminishing supplies of water, Dubai’s problem is runaway demand.

The UAE and the other arid Gulf oil states have never had enough water to support the vast cities that have sprung up so quickly. They are reliant on desalination, powered by gas and oil. As Dubai has imported more and more expatriates, so each year the demand for water has increased, along with the environmental and financial cost of producing it.

Governments are aware that this escalation is insupportable. In 2017 the UAE unveiled its Water Security Strategy, aiming to ensure “sustainable access to water … by reducing average consumption per capita by half … by 2036.” It’s a tall order. In the UAE, water consumption is at 550 liters per person per day – 80% higher than the global average.

Reducing demand is doubtless the solution, yet much time and energy is still being expended on efforts to increase supply that can never hope to match even a fraction of rising demand. Last month, for example, the UAE’s National Center of Meteorology revealed it was continuing research into cloud seeding. The UAE has been experimenting with cloud seeding since the 1990s without any significant success.

Likewise, incremental improvements in the efficiency of traditional desalination can offer no long-term solution. Saudi Arabia produced almost 2 billion cubic meters of water in 2018, quenching a growing thirst that by 2030 will be consuming an estimated 50% of the country’s oil and gas output.

It will be demographics, not technology, that saves the day.

Cities do not and cannot continue to develop at the exponential rates seen on the western shores of the Persian Gulf. In time, the rapid expansion of Dubai will slow, allowing the city to settle into an increasingly sustainable equilibrium that balances continuing but perhaps more modestly ambitious economic success with more realistic demands upon resources.

And that time could come sooner than many might imagine. A clue is to be found in the World Bank’s global population statistics. The data for the UAE show that, while its population has climbed dramatically since 1970, its growth faltered slightly but perceptibly during the global recession of 2007-2009 and has continued at a more modest rate ever since. What it needs to do now is to flatline and then start to decline.

Over the past 50 years, countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia have seen rampant population growth that may have facilitated rapid development but has also created the resource problems they now face. Between 1970 and 2018, Saudi Arabia’s population increased from under 6 million to more than 33 million. The UAE’s population expanded from just 234,000 to 9.6 million, most of them expats.

In 1996, 24% of the UAE population was Emirati. By 2006 it was 15% and today it is little more than 10%. The largest single element of the population (27%) is from India, followed by Pakistan (12.6%) and the Philippines (5.5%), with the rest from the nearly 200 other nations whose citizens live and work in the country.

As the economies of the UAE and the other Gulf states mature, so the number of expats will fall – a trend that is being encouraged by the active Emiratization and Saudization programs under way, for example.

In 2011, the UAE announced a population strategy aiming to balance the demographic mix by 2021. With Emiratis still accounting for only 10% of the population, that clearly isn’t going to happen. It hasn’t helped that the fertility rate among Emiratis has fallen dramatically, from a population-boosting 6.6 births per woman in the early 1970s to just 1.8 by 2015.

The 2018 UAE Human Development Report attributes that trend to a range of positive factors, including increased education and employment opportunities for women. Those same factors will also play a part in Emiratis gradually displacing expats. It will be driven not by recession, but by factors including inevitable developmental consolidation, a determination to train more Emiratis to occupy key roles and the official embrace of new technologies, from artificial intelligence to automation, that will see many expat jobs disappear.

That is the key to the sustainability of Dubai and its escape from the threat of water stress. Turn the key and the Dubai of tomorrow will be a leaner, more sustainable and far less thirsty place than it is today.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

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