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Water Challenges in Bahrain

Bu Maher Fort, Bahrain
Photo 1: Bu Maher Fort, Bahrain (Source: ZAKARiYA Abbas, Flickr)

Municipal water sector

While Bahrain has been able to meet rising municipal water demand by expanding the capacity of desalination plants, this has been at enormous cost. This is manifested in the required energy (natural gas) for desalinated water production (including its opportunity cost and in situ value) and the financial and energy/electricity cost of every stage in the operation of the water supply system (i.e. production, transmission, distribution, wastewater collection, treatment and reuse). Furthermore, brine discharge by desalination plants affects the surrounding coastal and marine environment, while burning fossil fuels results in air pollution and gas emissions, which can have a harmful impact on public health. Moreover, the latter contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, which Bahrain has pledged to decrease through its nationally determined contributions under the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.[1]

In addition to these financial, economic and environmental costs, there are other externalities and costs related to municipal water consumption, the most important of which are those related to the volumes of generated municipal wastewater. These are manifested in the financial and energy costs of the wastewater collection and treatment process (especially the fact that the sanitation service is totally subsidized and treated wastewater reuse is provided free of charge), and the environmental costs when hydraulic loading occurs, impacting treatment efficiency and increasing carryover volumes to the marine environment. Moreover, the full potential of tertiary treated wastewater, as well as that of the generated sludge, has not been captured yet, representing a major lost opportunity under the prevailing water scarcity conditions.

In the past decade, the water supply authorities’ plan to cope with increasing water demand has focused on increasing desalination capacity. Meanwhile, the sanitation authorities are planning to enhance the wastewater treatment capacity to handle the generated wastewater volumes.

However, this supply-driven approach is considered unsustainable. To address this, the water supply authorities more recently established a number of programmes to increase water efficiency and control demand. These include revising the tariff of the municipal water supply, establishing programmes to detect and control leaks in the distribution network, installing smart metring, conducting water awareness campaigns and issuing legislation for the use of water-saving devices and building codes.

The wastewater authorities have also embarked on a number of programmes that would alleviate the current treatment problems and reduce costs, including decentralizing wastewater treatment, rehabilitating the collection network to reduce infiltration rates and expanding the treatment capacity of the main treatment plant, in addition to upgrading its minor satellite treatment plants and increasing the efficiency of the numerous components of the wastewater collection system. It is expected that these measures, when implemented, will improve the performance of the wastewater treatment subsector considerably.

With the expected increasing volumes of wastewater, it is anticipated that treated wastewater reuse in the agricultural sector will be saturated (due to limited agricultural lands and their transfer to urban areas), which will lead to large surplus volumes of wastewater. Hence, careful and proper planning for the reuse of these surplus volumes is important to enhance the efficiency of the reuse process. In this regard, after fulfilling the agricultural and landscaping sectors, treated wastewater can be utilized in the industrial sector for purposes that do not require high-grade water (e.g. cooling, enhanced oil recovery by steam injection, sand washing, concrete batching). As a last resort, surplus treated wastewater could be stored in groundwater through soil aquifer treatment or aquifer storage and recovery schemes, or a combination of both depending on the quality of the treated wastewater. The latter options of artificial groundwater recharge will require health risk assessment studies prior to their implementation.

Agricultural sector

Inefficient water use in the agricultural sector represents the main water challenge in Bahrain. Irrigation methods, dominated by flood irrigation, as well as the cultivation of water-intensive crops and the increasing salinity of groundwater requiring frequent soil washing, have led to over-irrigation. In the past ten years, there has been notable progress in the adoption of modern irrigation and agricultural methods. The Ministry of Works, Municipalities Affairs and Urban Planning has launched a number of programmes to rationalize groundwater use while maintaining agricultural lands and increasing agricultural production. These programmes include the introduction of modern irrigation methods, modification of cropping patterns, expanded use of treated wastewater, artificial groundwater recharge by tertiary treated wastewater and storm runoff to enhance groundwater storage and, more recently (2017), the promotion of modern agricultural systems (e.g. soilless farming).

The use of protected, soilless culture systems (e.g. hydroponics, substrate) is being researched and experimented with extensively. The results of these experiments have been very encouraging in terms of irrigation efficiency and water and area productivity, as compared to both traditional and protected agriculture. In addition, such agricultural systems are more suitable to Bahrain compared to traditional agricultural systems. Currently, three large agricultural companies and seven farmers have successfully adopted these modern systems. In this vein, the government established two projects in 2017: the Horat Aali agricultural land-leasing project and the agricultural incubators project.

The Horat Aali agricultural land-leasing project, which rents land for agricultural production to Bahraini investors, has a total area of about 100 ha. Land is leased for a nominal annual fee per square metre to investors who satisfy a number of conditions, among which are producing a feasibility study, cultivating a product that serves Bahrain’s food security and providing proof of financial capability. The agricultural incubators project was established to provide adequate services to agricultural entrepreneurs to enable them to develop innovative agricultural ideas into high-tech and rewarding production projects. It is expected that these two projects will considerably enhance the sector’s productivity and water conservation efforts as well as the current food self-sufficiency ratio in vegetables (10% in 2015).

Climate change mitigation and adaptation

Climate change impacts on the municipal water management system, as evidenced by the increase in demand due to rising temperatures, was assessed by al-Zubari et al. in 2018.[2]  The study outlines a number of future scenarios for the period 2012-2030 where the impact of rising temperatures on demand is quantified and the associated costs are calculated using three indicators (financial: production, conveyance and distribution costs; economic: natural gas asset consumption by desalination plants; and environmental: CO2 emissions by desalination plants). The study evaluates a number of management intervention scenarios as adaptation measures, including reducing the leakage percentage in the municipal water distribution network, and reducing per capita water consumption by raising water awareness among consumers and installing water-saving devices in residential units. The evaluation indicates significant potential for reducing municipal water demand and its associated costs, especially when interventions are combined. If implemented by 2030, it is estimated that the cumulative financial saving would be about $2.9 billion, the cumulative reduction in CO2 emissions would be about 19.7 million tons and the preservation of the kingdom’s limited natural gas reserves would be about 4 billion cubic metres. In addition, a major reduction in desalination brine discharge to the marine environment and a reduction of generated wastewater and its associated collection and treatment costs could be achieved.