Dornadula Chandrasekharam
Former Chair Professor I I T Bombay, India

Water Conflicts

The conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia escalated in recent times due to the construction of the Renaissance Dam (RD) over the Blue Nile. Whether instigated by external forces or forces within, the TPLF (Tigray Peoples Liberation Front) is trying to destabilize the present government in Ethiopia. The conflict between TPLF and the government is not new. It is going on for several decades. But this has come as a shot in the arm for the forces to work out a solution to stall the progress of the RD. But then the White Nile is being shared by 11 countries! Will similar within conflicts emerge in case these countries demand their share of White Nile water? One has to wait and watch the strategy that will be adopted by Egypt.

In the case of Gulf countries, the Saq Ram aquifer is shared between Saudi Arabia and Jordan; the Ummer Raduma Eocene aquifer is shared between Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman. These are trans-boundary aquifers that were formed millions of years ago and have poor or nil recharge due to poor rainfall in the Gulf countries. In the case of the Nile, both Egypt and Ethiopia can see the quantity of water being shared from the Blue Nile between these countries. Similarly, the quantity of water shared by the 11 countries from the White Nile is also known. In the case of the Gulf countries, it is difficult to estimate the quantity of water withdrawn by sharing countries from the same aquifer. During our lifetime, we will see that the aquifers will deplete drastically exerting tremendous pressure on countries sharing the trans-boundary aquifer. Due to a severe shortage of freshwater, these countries have to depend on food imports. As on today, nearly 70 million tones worth of food grains are imported by these countries and the number is growing with the exponential growth of population. According to the World Commission on Water, the global demand for freshwater will increase by 50% over the next 30 years from the present consumption.

Besides the domestic and agricultural sectors, the energy sector also needs fresh water. For example, the world energy sector in 2010 consumed 583 billion cubic meters of water. According to the report published by the International Energy Agency, this consumption is expected to rise by 85% in 2030. Apparently, there will be water crowding in the world and political conflicts since many aquifers and surface water bodies in the Gulf and MENA countries are trans-boundary in nature. These countries cannot wage war against each other.  Each country found a way to come out of this water conflict. Several Gulf and MENA countries have put in place desalination plants to meet freshwater demand for domestic and irrigation purposes. But utilizing fossil fuel-based energy for desalination is not a viable and economic solution. Freshwater cost generated by desalination using fossil fuels is very expensive and the common man cannot afford to purchase it. Further, this process emits large CO2 that is detrimental to the world. In fact, countries are fighting for stabilizing CO2 in the atmosphere. A viable technology has to be developed to generate freshwater from the seawater through desalination using energy that is cost-effective and renewable and green. Solar pv based energy source is being advocated by certain gulf countries but solar pv is also not green. Solar pv cell in its lifetime emits large quantities of  CO2 (Chandrasekharam, D. and Ranjith Pathegama, G. 2020. CO2 emissions from renewables: Solar pv, hydrothermal and EGS sources. J. Geomecha. Geophys. Geoenergy Georesour. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40948-019-00135-y(0123456789().,-volV()0123458697().,-volV). Using solar pv sourced desalination plants is not economical to support the domestic and agricultural sectors.At present,>33 desalination plants are in operation in Saudi Arabia and more than this umber is operating in the Gulf countries around the Persian Gulf.  With the government subsidy, the cost of desalinated water is 3 US cents/ cubic metre which is far less than the average cost levied by the countries in the world which is 6 US$/cubic meter. If the government subsidy is removed, then the cost will be double the world average.

Freshwater is required for fossil fuel-based power plants and nuclear-powered plants as well. Further water is required to irrigate crops to support bio-fuels based power plants. Solar photovoltaic (solar pv) panels also need water for cleaning and to maintain efficiency, especially in countries like Saudi Arabia. Desalination plants in many countries are working on solar-based power, at 20% efficiency (maximum)  and generating about 5000 cubic meters/day of freshwater. In Gulf countries, the most important support system that water resources can give to the country is in the agricultural sector. The country needs water for agricultural activities, especially for growing staple food wheat and barley, and be food secured and reduce food imports.  The average per-capita consumption of wheat bread in Saudi Arabia is 241 g per day. This will be the case with other gulf countries also.  Saudi Arabia’s wheat consumption in MY 2017-2018 was > 5.25 million metric tones. Due to a shortage of freshwater for irrigation, the Govt. has banned wheat cultivation now and the imports have gone up to over 3 million metric tones from 1.9 million metric tones. This is disastrous to any country that puts its food security outside its boundary. The gulf countries have sufficiently large geothermal resources. They can be developed and utilized for generating fresh water from the sea. For example, the bottom hole temperatures recorded in certain oil wells along the Red Sea coast and Suez Gulf varies from 120 to 260 °C. The Red Sea is currently is an active spreading ridge. Hence sufficient heat is available to support power generation.

Besides the hydrothermal systems, the Arabian shield region hosts large volumes of high heat generating granites and the estimated power that can be generated from these granites using EGS technology is about 120 x 106 terawatt hour. This geothermal heat can be utilized for the membrane distillation process (MD) while other desalination methods like multi-effect distillation (MED), multi-stage flash. Electrodialysis reversal (EDR) and vapor compression can utilize power generated from the geothermal resources along the Red Sea. The process involves the circulation of hot water (temperature of about 60 °C) through a heat exchanger to heat seawater and decrease pressure to vaporize the water in a multi stage chamber. To generate a large volume of desalinated water, the heated hot water is circulated to heat several chambers containing seawater through a method known as MED-MSF. In the case of geothermal systems where the temperatures are > 150 °C, power can be generated through binary technology that can be utilized by the desalination companies. About 80m3/h of fresh water can be generated through this process and 470 kWh of electricity can also be cogenerated. The advantage is here is to use multiple desalination methods to using geothermal power and the electricity cogenerated from this process.  The estimated cost of desalinated water is about 1.5 euro/m3. The gulf countries have a solution to avoid water wars amongst themselves. Egypt and Ethiopia also have enormous geothermal resources. Ethiopia’s geothermal energy generation capacity is much greater relative to Egypt. But then Egypt has oil!! Instead of creating civil disturbances within the countries, both countries should explore the options. Geothermal technology is matured and EGS will be within the reach of all countries very soon.

About the Author
I am a Retired chair professor from Indian Institute of Technology Bombay and currently teach at IIT Hyderabad. I have 200 publications in the above fields and have supervised 25 Ph D students.
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