Dubai Brings Water to the Forefront at This Year’s COP28

6 Dec 2023  |  Christine Ow

As key stakeholders—including government officials, nonprofit managers, and business executives—gathered at the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP), progress on climate change was at the forefront of discussions. While water has come up as a topic of discussion in previous COPs, COP28 was the first time in 28 years that water was a core theme of the conference. 

In a major step forward, last year’s COP27 was the first COP to officially include water in its agenda. This year’s United Arab Emirates (UAE)-based president explicitly identified water as a top priority for COP28, with specific agenda items such as protecting freshwater ecosystems, building urban water resilience, and strengthening water-resilient food systems. Water has been getting its fair share of the limelight this year among multilateral sustainability and climate-related events. The first UN Water Conference in decades was held this March in New York City, and October 2023’s World Food Day focused on the theme: “Water Is Life, Water Is Food. Leave No One behind.”

It’s notable that the host of this year’s COP is Dubai in the UAE, a region that has an intimate understanding of the fundamental threats posed by water scarcity. The UAE is one of six countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which—along with Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia—is one of the most water-stressed regions in the world. By some estimates, the region is heating up at twice the global rate. This, coupled with the region’s rapid demographic shifts (with population projected to increase by 13% between 2020 to 2030), means that GCC water supplies and infrastructure will face immense pressure moving forward. 

Climate change will further accelerate and exacerbate water-related risks in the region. At COP28, with a captive global audience, the UAE used this stage to inspire action and capture opportunity.

The GCC region, plagued by water scarcity, has some of the world’s most ambitious water reuse targets: GCC countries have set ambitious regional targets to increase the use of reclaimed and treated sewage effluent to 90% by 2035 through the GCC Unified Water Strategy. Bluefield forecasts that GCC countries will spend US$57.8 billion on wastewater infrastructure investment from 2020 to 2030. While wastewater management—collection and treatment—is of growing concern in the GCC region, demand for access to reliable water supplies is increasing in parallel. For this, countries are turning to desalination. Saudi Arabia and the UAE alone account for 42% of the global desalination market share and continue to lead in the project pipeline.

The GCC seeks digital transformation for water resilience: GCC countries are acutely aware of the need to build resilience into their water networks and systems, driving an uptick in investment in digital water solutions. Bluefield projects that digital water spend in the GCC will grow at a 9.3% compound annual growth rate, the fastest among major world regions. Large and well-capitalized national multi-utilities in the Gulf (e.g., Dubai Electricity & Water Authority, Qatar General Electricity & Water Corp.) are leaders in digital transformation. Examples of projects include the following:

  • February 2023: The Dubai Electricity & Water Authority (DEWA) announced it will be leveraging ChatGPT to support its work. Currently, ChatGPT powers the customer service chatbot, ‘Rammas,’ available on the DEWA website.
  • September 2023: Siemens was awarded a project to build and automate wastewater treatment plants in Saudi Arabia’s smart city initiative NEOM ENOWA at Gayal.
  • September 2023: DEWA announced it has adopted Microsoft’s Power Platform artificial intelligence (AI)–powered generative AI tool copilot. This will assist DEWA’s software developers in building smart programs and applications to improve the utility’s operational efficiency.

Water utilities attract foreign investment in the GCC: As the GCC seeks to adopt new digital technologies, utilities are looking to private investments and partnerships, particularly with foreign-based companies. For example, in September 2023, Rockwell Automation opened a Digital Center of Excellence in Saudi Arabia to support digital upskilling for the government and local companies. Other Western-based vendors with announced digital water projects in the GCC include Siemens, Microsoft, Electro Scan, and Envirosuite. Increasing engagement with the private sector—particularly, firms based outside of the GCC—is part of a greater strategic economic shift throughout the region. In recent years, Gulf countries have set plans to diversify local economies away from their traditional reliance on oil and gas, with a focus on advancing the digital transformation of government sectors and attracting foreign investment. The water market in the GCC is likely to change increasingly in the next few years as more global competitors look to capitalize on this new market opportunity. 

The water market in the GCC is likely to change increasingly in the next few years as more global competitors look to capitalize on this new market opportunity.

After COP28, will water be more further intertwined with broader mainstream conversations about climate change moving forward? What is undeniable is that water scarcity is not going away, and it must remain at the heart of climate conversations. Investments and prompt policy shifts are vital to secure our water future. For the UAE and the GCC at large, it has always been a challenge that is top of mind, and the foundations to tackle it are being set. As many say, “Water is the new oil,” so will other countries follow the GCC’s lead?

Related The Future of Water Podcast

Breaking Down the Global Desalination Market

The effects of climate change, population growth, and the rise of industrialization have played a significant role in water scarcity and have had a substantial impact on water demand. Podcast host Reese Tisdale and Senior Analyst Isabel Kezman  discuss findings from their recent analysis of large scale global desalination market, project activity, ownership trends, and technology shifts.