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What Does the Future Hold for Water in Bahrain?

Photo1: Bahrain. (Source: Anton Rogozin, Flickr)

Despite the progress on various fronts in the water sector, Bahrain’s current water management system is facing major challenges. These are expected to increase with time under business-as-usual conditions. The system’s associated costs (financial, economic and environmental) are considered high and are expected to increase due to many internal and external factors such as rapid population growth and urbanization rates, inefficient consumption patterns in the various consuming sectors, relatively large water losses, low water use efficiency and inadequate water recycling and reuse. Moreover, it is expected that climate change will increase the water sector’s vulnerability and exacerbate the water resources management situation and challenges by placing additional pressure on the system, further driving up costs. These conditions necessitate major water policy reform.

Until recently, Bahrain pursued a policy of supply augmentation and maximization to reduce the gap between available water sources and escalating demand in the municipal water sector. This was done by expanding desalination plants, an approach that is associated with high financial, economic and environmental costs as well as other externalities related to the wastewater sector. In 2016, Bahrain reformed its pricing policy for municipal water supply. Moreover, major progress has been made in addressing non-revenue water, defined as water that is pumped or produced but lost to leaks, theft and other causes and is not billed to customers.

Although wastewater has not yet been fully utilized, there are plans to expand its reuse to cover the majority of agricultural areas. However, with the expected increasing volumes of wastewater, it is anticipated that treated wastewater reuse in the agricultural sector will reach its limits. Therefore, planning for the reuse of future surplus volumes is important to enhance the efficiency of the reuse process. For example, treated wastewater can be used 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). Managed aquifer recharge (through soil aquifer treatment or aquifer storage and recovery schemes, or a combination of both depending on the quality of the treated wastewater) could be utilized to store surplus treated wastewater in groundwater as well as enhance groundwater storage.

Privatization has been an essential part of Bahrain’s economic policy and is a major component of its economic reforms and restructuring, which started in 2002. These include both the services and production sectors, with the objective of increasing the participation of the private sector, enabling cost recovery and cost reduction and enhancing the efficiency of services and production. In the water sector specifically, desalinated water production has been privatized, with the government buying the produced desalinated water (and electricity), while transmission distribution and charges collection remain the responsibility of the Electricity and Water Authority. Recently, the wastewater treatment sector has also started relying on a public-private partnership for a new wastewater treatment plant in Muharraq. Although privatization has many advantages in terms of efficiency, reduction of service costs and involvement of the private sector, it will need both a strong regulatory body and trained individuals if it is to deliver these advantages in the long term. Therefore, it is necessary to improve the capacity of the water sector to perform in this new role and function, i.e. moving from a service provider to a service regulator.

Finally, Bahrain’s water challenges could be significantly alleviated if social change instruments are applied to encourage a water-oriented society, where conservation, rationalization and involvement become a societal norm. Social change instruments include education, training and awareness raising as the most important tools in building water knowledge and arriving at a shared vision. Within this process, the command-and-order approach would be gradually replaced with a more participatory approach, requiring more involvement by civil society, particularly water and environment NGOs.