'Going down the drain': World needs rethink of how we use water, expert says

Climate security expert says everyone can play a role in conserving precious supplies

Climate change means reuse and recycling of water will be crucial in the Middle East and North Africa, experts say. AFP
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A climate expert who works for the Arab Water Council has called for a radical rethink of how we use water.

Dr Martina Jaskolski, also a climate security consultant with the United Nations, said perfectly good water was being thrown “down the drain”.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Arab Water Convention in Dubai on Tuesday, Dr Jaskolski said the practice was not sustainable and more water needed to be reused as climate change, surging populations and depletion of freshwater has put huge pressure on supplies in the region.

“There is no extra water coming,” said Dr Jaskolski. “The population is growing. Economies are growing and there isn’t any more water.

“Climate change is making it worse: making droughts worse and disrupting rainfall patterns. We have to reuse what we have.”

Dried up fields in eastern Iraq. The Middle East is facing huge pressure on water supplies. AFP

Reused or recycled water is known in technical parlance as “non-conventional water resources” and refers mainly to treated waste water and desalination — basically anything that doesn’t come from groundwater or rivers.

The issue was in sharp focus at the two-day event that attracted ministers including UAE Minister of Energy and Infrastructure Suhail Al Mazrouei, officials and experts from more than 20 countries to address water scarcity.

Mena region worst affected by water scarcity

The statistics are clear. According to the UN, the Middle East and North Africa are among the most water-scarce regions in the world. Out of the 17 most water-stressed countries in the world, 11 are in the region. Conflict in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Sudan, urbanisation, population growth, poor management, deficient infrastructure, lack of finance and bad governance exacerbate the problem.

The UN has also reported that very low proportions of waste water are recycled or reused in the region. Many countries in the Gulf, for example, have looked to desalination plants to solve the water question but these can be costly and come with a large carbon footprint. Research is pouring into solar desalination but, according to Dr Jaskolski, this is “not the golden solution yet”.

“From my perspective I can see a lot of sustainability issues with desalination. Maybe in five or 10 years that will look different but they are very energy intensive. So it has to be a combination,” she said, referring to using desalination and reuse of existing supplies.

“We are throwing really good water down the drain. It goes into a sewer and it doesn't have to. Even in the household, the water from your shower or kitchen isn’t all that dirty, so why is it going in the sewer?”

This water could be used to irrigate crops or in gardens, she said, adding that in some countries there are cultural considerations regarding the reuse of waste that need to be overcome.

Water sector to be hit hard by climate change

Recycling water is also an important part of the climate change conversation. Known as “adaptation”, reuse is one of the ways people can “adapt” or deal with aspects of climate change that can no longer be prevented. Using heat-tolerant crops is another.

Adaptation figured centrally at the UN climate talks, Cop27, in Egypt last November. Cop28 takes place in Dubai this year and adaptation is expected to again feature prominently.

“Climate change is really going to be felt in the water sector,” said Dr Jaskolski. “Water sources will decrease. There will be more drought, more heat and more evaporation meaning less water. So developing non-conventional water resources is clearly an adaptation strategy to the climate change impacts we are expecting in the region.”

What can be done to boost the amount of water we all recycle?

Governments can establish robust rules and encourage research, said Dr Jaskolksi. More education is also vital but she said solutions can be as simple as installing a device that separates run-off tap water in your home, for example, into a separate tank. This could then be used to irrigate a garden.

Every house can look into water consumption,” she said. “There is a big focus on [reuse] in the region … because it is clear this is the future. But it has to happen a lot more.”

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Updated: February 22, 2023, 9:14 AM