Water of the Middle East and North Africa

Water Challenges in Oman

Oman- Wadi Bani Khalid - Water Challenges in Oman

Photo 1: Wadi Bani Khalid, Oman (Source: Travel with the wind, Flickr).

Challenges in Oman’s water sector are numerous.[1] Some of the major ones are: water shortages; energy-intensive desalination; high water consumption in the domestic sector; unsustainable groundwater use in the agricultural sector; misdirected subsidies; and the lack of appreciation of integrated water resources management (IWRM) principles by decision makers.

Water shortages

Groundwater in Oman is overused. Continuous abstraction lowers the water table depth and in some cases deteriorates water quality due to seawater intrusion. For example, the agricultural demand for water increased from 1,152 MCM in 1990 to 1,546 MCM 2011 and, consequently, supply from groundwater aquifers increased from 899 MCM in 1990 to 1,269 MCM in 2011.

Figure 1: Past and projected water demand in million cubic metres (MCM) for the years 1990, 2000 and 2025. [2]

Based on data from the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UN-ESCWA), the following are relevant regarding water demand in Oman over the years 1990, 2000 and 2025.

Figure 2: Water demand in million cubic metres (MCM) for the year 1990.

Figure 3: Water demand in million cubic metres (MCM) for the year 2000.

Figure 4: Water demand in million cubic metres (MCM) for the year 2025.

Omani government data on water demand and supply  is given in the following Figures.

Figure 5: Water Demand (MCM/yr) in Oman for the period 1990-2000-2011.

Figure 6: Water Supply (MCM/yr) in Oman for the period 1990-2000-2011.

High water consumption in the domestic sector

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have the highest per capita water consumption in the world, although Oman has the lowest consumption within the group. The average annual water consumption per household was estimated at 519 m3/yr for the Qurm district in Muscat, for instance, and 440 m3/yr for the Seeb district.

The average per capita consumption was 289 L/cap/day and 173 L/cap/day for Qurm and Seeb respectively, which is far above the international average[3] of 90 L/cap/day. The increase in domestic water demand can be attributed to a lack of conservation measures, the low price of water, misdirected subsidies and a lack of awareness.

Figure 7: Water Deficit (MCM/yr) in Oman for the period 1990-2000-2011.

Unsustainable groundwater use in the agricultural sector

The extraction of groundwater beyond safe yield levels has resulted in the pollution of the existing groundwater aquifers due to the intrusion of seawater and the upconing of brackish and saline water supplies from lower aquifers.

The use of groundwater for irrigation of low-value agricultural crops has resulted in the wastage of both non-renewable and renewable resources, which would be better reserved for present or future high-value uses. Use of treated wastewater in agriculture,[4] a rapid expansion in the number of greenhouses, use of salt-tolerant crops, higher yields and adoption of dry farming are some of the positive developments in Oman’s agricultural sector.

Energy-intensive desalination

The total desalination capacity in Oman in 2010 was nearly 600,000 m3/d. Today (2018), that figure is more than 1.3 MCM/d. Despite the technological advances and successes in reducing energy requirements, mainly in membrane-based processes (which currently dominate the Omani market), desalination remains an energy-intensive process, hence contributing to climate change. Energy-efficient methods for water desalination are increasingly being adopted as the growing number of projects may soon have an impact on energy requirements in the country, according to authorities.

Misdirected subsidies

Several subsidies are available in the water sector that are intended to benefit locals, industries and businesses. This has sometimes resulted in unintended consequences that are environmentally negative. For instance, subsidies have increased per capita consumption of domestic water. Targeted social support is more effective than low tariffs (or the absence of tariffs) to combine investment in water supply and sanitation systems and affordability for poor households.

Lack of appreciation of IWRM principles

Economic efficiency, equity and environmental sustainability, which are the bedrock of integrated water resource management (IWRM), are lacking in the water management of the region, as is the participatory approach. There are various reasons for this, including a lack of trained manpower, reliance on expatriate consultants and professionals, reliance on engineering solutions as funding is relatively abundant and a lack of stakeholder participation in decision making.

Public awareness and education campaigns

The government, NGOs, international organizations located in Oman as well as student groups are at the forefront of public awareness and education campaigns. These include direct communications; symposia and lectures; exhibitions; educational tests; international conferences; school curricula; radio and TV shows; and articles in print and online media.

Climate change mitigation and adaptation

The following policies below have been recommended that will result in a ‘greener’ water sector and help adapt to the likely impacts of climate change on Oman’s water sector.8 The recommendations are divided into three categories: demand side, supply side and others.

Demand side:

i. The water price should reflect the true cost of production.

ii. Subsidies provided to consumers must be targeted to the needy and incentives given for water savings by consumers.

iii. Installation of water-saving devices must be made compulsory for all new residential, commercial and industrial buildings.

iv. Urban water demand management should be given the highest priority as this sector uses the water that is produced and delivered at high cost. Tariff structures should encourage conservation; subsidies for retro-fitting, compulsory installation of water-saving devices in new buildings, leakage detection and education campaigns should be part of a comprehensive water demand management action plan.

v. Groundwater abstraction should be regulated including for farmers. All should pay for such water depending on its use.

Supply side:

i. Managed aquifer recharge should be encouraged, with strict control over the quality of injected water.

ii. Collection and use of treated wastewater should be given high priority. Such use may include not only irrigation but also managed aquifer recharge, industrial use, saline water intrusion control and toilet flushing.


i. The use of renewable energy in the desalination industry should be encouraged. If it is not possible to use alternative sources of energy directly in the desalination industry, then energy use for water production must be compensated by producing the same amount of energy through alternative sources and supplied to the grid.

ii. Maximum overall savings in the water sector will result from improved water use in the agricultural sector. Use of good-quality groundwater for non-economic, high-water-consuming agricultural production is to be avoided. Biosaline agriculture should be encouraged. Use of smart technology (hydroponics, drip irrigation, metering, controlled environment agriculture) should be encouraged and desalinated water for agriculture should be permitted only for high-value crops that make economic sense.

iii. The adoption of water management plans reflecting the IWRM principles should be compulsory. All alternative water resources that are cost effective and environmentally sound should be brought under the integrated management plans.

iv. A national water information system, including a decision support system, should be introduced to better aid water decision makers and monitor the sector’s key performance indicators.

[1] Ahmed, M. et al., 2015. ‘Green challenges and some technological solutions in the water sector of the GCC countries.’ In The Green Economy in the Gulf, Raouf, M. and Luomi, M. (eds.), Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, pp. 123-144.

[2] Available at: http://www.un.org/esa/earthsummit/ecwa-cp.htm. Accessed on 11/4/2019.

[3] Available at: http://www.muscatdaily.com/Archive/Oman/Study-demonstrates-possibility-to-reduce-residential-water-demand-by-increasing-price-4up5. Accessed on 11/4/2018

[4] al-Khamisi, S. and Ahmed, M., 2014. ‘Opportunities and Challenges of Using Treated Wastewater in Agriculture.’ In Environmental Cost and Face of Agriculture in the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries, Shahid, S. and Ahmed, M. (eds.), Springer.