How drinking water has become a major conflict deterrence factor in the Gulf region

How drinking water has become a major conflict deterrence factor in the Gulf region
Large parts of the population in Gulf countries are dependent on desalination for their drinking water, but high tensions in the region openly threatens the availability of potable water.
8 min read
21 August, 2019
Nearly all GCC countries fall in the category of acute water scarcity [Getty]
The Persian Gulf is one of the most water-scarce regions of the world, where large part of the population is heavily dependent on desalination for their drinking water.

Recent Houthi attack on a desalination plant in Saudi Arabia along with high tensions in the region between Iran, the US and Saudi Arabia, seriously threaten water security of these states.

Since the Gulf countries do not have safety stock storage capacity for the precious liquid that would last beyond a few days, any conflict could turn into a humanitarian catastrophe in no time, threatening the lives of millions of people in the region.

In fact, even a limited military action or relatively minor incidents may cause massive spills of crude oil or even worse radioactive material causing long-lasting contamination. 

It is not surprising that participants of the latest World Economic Forum's 2019 annual meeting in Davos ranked the threat of a water crisis as the biggest single risk facing North Africa and the Middle East

Looming water crisis in the region

It is not surprising that participants of the latest World Economic Forum's 2019 annual meeting in Davos ranked the threat of a water crisis as the biggest single risk facing North Africa and the Middle East. 

Previously, a UN report showed that all GCC countries, except Oman, fall in the category of "acute scarcity", while World Recourse Institute's study, for example, finds that all of the GCC states fall in the extreme high baseline water stress category, with the least available water per capita, by a recent ranking of 164 countries. 

The situation across the Gulf is no better either. Senior Iranian officials have expressed great concerns about diminishing water availability and changes in climate, though they usually blamed their neighbours and foreign powers for their growing environmental problems.

However, poor management and failure to diversify the agricultural sector has almost brought the country to the verge of water bankruptcy', losing water completely in Lake Urmia and the Zayandeh River.

Experts note that 'within the past 50 years, Iran has been using 70 percent of its groundwater supply to support agriculture'.

Water and environmental problems were also among key reasons behind the latest anti-government protests across Iran in last December and early January.

Although both sides face huge water security challenges, it seems that Gulf countries are more exposed, due to heavy dependence on desalination. 

The greatest amount of desalinated water is produced in the Gulf region, where some countries are 90 percent reliant on desalinated water for domestic use.  

There are over 100 major desalination plants in the GCC – there are 30 major plants in KSA and 70 plants in the UAE.  

Water facilities under threat

A high vulnerability of key resource opens the question of whether these facilities would become one of the targets in the case of open conflict with Iran and its proxies?

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According to Charles Dunne, a former diplomat with the US foreign service and non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, "Attacks on these plants, which could cause a major humanitarian crisis, would likely be a political loser for the Iranians and subject Iran to harsh retaliation against valuable economic targets of its own."

Dr Mohammad Al-Saidi, a research assistant professor at the Qatar University's Center for Sustainable Development also does not believe in a high possibility of this scenario as an attack on water supply installations would be against international law.

He calls on the Geneva convention (Protocol I Article 54, paragraph 2) which in short reads that: "It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as… drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works… whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive."

While this is indisputably true, the recent history unfortunately teaches us that wars are becoming dirtier than ever and the state as well as non-state actors too often avoid or ignore international law, including the Geneva convention.

The case of Syria confirms this. Even those, who like to consider themselves as a moral authority and guardians of international norms and human rights have, in fact, a long record of flagrant violations of the very same.

During the 1999 US lead NATO aggression on FR Yugoslavia/Serbia, NATO was heavily targeting civilian infrastructure such as hospitalsmaternity hospitals, electric and other civilian facilities.

Moreover, the usage of so-called "dirty" depleted uranium bombs is, according to many experts, in strong correlation with a rapid increase in the number of cases of malignant and autoimmune diseases, especially among the children, which some describe as ecocide.   

Therefore, it would be just too risky for any country in the region to just simply rely on international humanitarian norms.

While any state that would directly and deliberately be involved in such attacks would face a great international pressure and even legal consequences, Al-Saidi assumes it is more likely that non-state actors (terrorists or state sponsored cyber attacks etc), could attempt such an action.  

However, Lewis Tallon, geopolitical analyst and editor of Encyclopedia Geopolitica is convinced that Iran, which has long been a master of asymmetric warfare, will seek out any "pressure points" that would balance the conflict between the modern and well-funded Gulf militaries and their older, but more battle-hardened units.

Beside military incidents, high exposure of desalination infrastructure by non-hostile acts such as oil spills and nuclear disasters in the region cannot be overlooked. 

Tallon's last year report on the topic, refers to an almost a decade old leaked diplomatic cable revealing a great concern of both Saudi and US diplomats over an Iranian nuclear power plant being built at Bushehr; less than 300 kilometres from key elements of the Saudi desalination infrastructure network.

According to the US Embassy in Saudi Arabia, in the event of a nuclear incident or a hostile act against the kingdom's water infrastructure at Jubail, "Riyadh would have to evacuate within a week… the current structure of the Saudi government could not exist without the Jubail Desalinisation Plant," writes Tallon.

Other studies and analysis suggest that in the case of a radiation leak, clouds of radioactive material will drift to the GCC states in just 15 hours.

In the case of a radiation leak, clouds of radioactive material will drift to the GCC states in just 15 hours

Water facilities are heavily defended but still highly vulnerable

The infrastructure that provides public utilities in Arab Gulf states is heavily fortified and well defended by anti-missile systems.

Dr Hussein Amery, director of the humanities, arts and social sciences division at Colorado School of Mines and expert in water and food security in the Middle East told us that the security services in the Arab Gulf states have learned valuable lessons from past cyberattacks, and from a 2004 attempted al-Qaeda attack on the ARAMCO facilities.  

But even though, desalination plants and their related infrastructure are safer than ever before, he thinks that the probability of "success" favor terrorists (attackers).   

On the other hand, Tallon suggests that Iran would likely employ a "swarm" strategy, and simply overwhelm these defences with massed missile and gunboat attacks. 

"Given the repeated examples of single, domestically-produced Houthi missiles having penetrated Saudi missile defences, a massed volley of more advanced Iranian systems would almost certainly result in successful strikes," he told The New Arab.

Costly alternatives

High dependent on desalination and limited storage capacities leave Gulf states with very few alternatives.

Yet, according to Amery, Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states have been working feverishly to build massive fresh water tanks that could be used in times of emergencies.

Also, concerns about water security in Saudi Arabia have forced the central government to start treating groundwater as a strategic resource, hence it has stopped subsidising the cultivation of water-thirsty crops like wheat and fodder.

Because underground aquifers are a harder military target than above-ground coastal infrastructure, Amery thinks that they can make a positive difference in case desalination plants are attacked.  

The greatest threat to Saudi water supplies is not Iran but overuse

However, Dunne, points out that the greatest threat to Saudi water supplies is not Iran but overuse. Once estimated to have 120 cubic miles of "fossil" water in its underground aquifers, these supplies have been pumped at a staggering rate: experts estimate that about 4/5 of Saudi aquifers have been used up. 

Just recently we could read alarming reports which forecasts that the kingdom's groundwater will run out in the next 13 years, as a consequence of wasteful patterns in the consumption of water.

So, in the worst-case scenario, emergency imports could be increased to meet a bare minimum of requirements, but according to Tallon, this would likely not be sufficient to meet the needs of the civilian population and would potentially see the need for large-scale evacuations. 

On the other hand, Dunne noted that besides owning the rights to sufficient quantities of water, suppliers must also have access to properly designed tankers and receiving countries require certain technology and facilities to offload and distribute the water. 

"Because of all this, a bulk shipment of water internationally in sufficient quantities to meet significant demand in a country such as Saudi Arabia is astronomically expensive and impractical at this point, but something could likely be managed in a crisis," he told The New Arab.

No winners in the case of war

Thus, in Amery's opinion, while the likelihood of success of well-coordinated attacks on a mega desalination plants is very low, their social, economic and political impacts would be catastrophic. 

Tallon added that losses would likely be heavy on both sides of the Gulf, "however while Iran would likely be able to recover from destroyed industrial infrastructure along its southern coast, the Gulf States could face a potentially existential threat from the loss of critical desalination infrastructure."

As Najmedin Meshkati, a research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs observes, "The source of water and their safety and security are interdependent with the state of relations between the Arab Gulf states and their northern neighbour Iran." 

Thus, the high vulnerability of drinking water facilities could be one factor of deterrence that could prevent the conflict in the Gulf.

The current high tensions and catastrophic consequences of any open conflict desperately calls for diplomatic solutions as in the worst-case scenario there will be no winners but only losers.


Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, terrorism and defence.