Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment and Development magazine

Water Label Besides Energy Label

When shopping for any electrical device, we find a label specifying energy efficiency, usually from best to worse, in classes from A to G. Most countries also classify cars and vehicles into categories, according to fuel efficiency and carbon emissions. Likewise, products we buy from the supermarket carry labels that contain information that goes beyond the production and expiration dates, besides country of origin, to list the ingredients in milligrams, and whether they are natural or artificial. This reflects a major development in the outlook on resource management, as well as in holding individuals personally responsible for guarding the health of people and the planet.
It is true that the information on these labels is not always accurate, and some consumers do not even care to check them. But the role of regulatory bodies is steadily strengthening, as is the case in several Arab countries, to impose strict standards and check the accuracy of information. Consumers are getting more accustomed to checking the contents of the products they buy, if not to protect the environment and resources, then to protect their health regarding food and save money in terms of energy.
To understand the development taking place in this field, it is worth noting that, less than 25 years ago, most automotive companies in the Arab region did not publish figures on fuel consumption of the cars they sold, whether in advertisements or printed brochures- before the age of the internet. This was because local laws did not require stating the level of consumption, let alone emissions, as if they were encouraging waste. Today, most Arab countries have adopted energy efficiency programs, among the most successful of which are those implemented in Saudi Arabia, the components of which include specifying consumption rates for electrical appliances, cars and machinery.
With increasing interest in the interconnection between water, energy and food nexus, water must not remain a missing link on efficiency labels, as in the list of ingredients. This is not limited to the content in the final product, but rather addresses the amount of water used at all stages, from the farm and factory to the consumer’s/user’s table, home and office. The concept of “virtual water”, which is important for the world as a whole, holds special importance in Arab countries, which are already suffering from an increasing freshwater scarcity that has reached the point of existential threat, because most of these countries are already dry.
When the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) issued its first annual report on the State of Arab Environment in 2008, the average per capita share of renewable water in the 21 Arab countries was 900 cubic meters; this has dropped to less than 500 cubic meters in AFED last report. For comparison, anything below 1,700 cubic meters is considered “water stress”, below 1,000 cubic meters “water scarcity”, while anything below 500 cubic meters is considered “absolute water scarcity.” However, the general average hides what is worse and more dangerous, as 14 Arab countries are among the 18 water-poorest countries in the world, and the poorest Arab country in renewable fresh water has an annual per capita share of less than five cubic meters. If desalination is the primary source of bridging the deficit, is it possible to continue desalinating seawater with no limits?
Here are some numbers to help understand the virtual water content, from source to consumer, in products we use daily: Producing one liter of cow’s milk requires a thousand liters of water, starting from growing fodder to raising cows and collecting, manufacturing, packaging, distributing and storing the milk. Producing a kilogram of rice consumes 3,400 liters of water, producing a kilogram of beef consumes 15,000 liters, and a pair of jeans 11,000 liters. If the production of some of these materials is necessary for the livelihood of the local population, then exporting them from countries already suffering from water scarcity is tantamount to exporting their virtual water content. I remember that, years ago, when I presented a list of the virtual water content of a number of products to an Arab minister of water, he asked me to accompany him to present it to the minister of agriculture, to urge him to impose limits on some agricultural products with high water footprint, to ease pressure on scarce water resources, mainly groundwater. This is not limited to agriculture, but also applies to controlling water consumption in industry, tourism and municipal services.
However, this does not mean that we are facing a dead end in the face of a hopeless water situation. Desalinating seawater, within balanced environmental controls, is capable of filling a large part of the deficit. This does not only apply to countries rich in oil and gas, because the energy needed by desalination plants can be obtained from the sun, in all Arab countries. Salts and minerals resulting from the waste of the desalination processes can also be used in multiple industries, including energy storage in batteries. This contributes to reducing the costs of renewable energy, which faces the obstacle of storage of electricity in peak periods, for use when the sun sets or the wind dies down. Rain enhancement, or cloud seeding programs, which stimulate rainfall by spraying chemicals into clouds, may open another window, especially to support afforestation programs in dry areas. While Saudi Arabia and the UAE are leading major programs in these two fields, other countries, including Egypt, have begun exporting desalination plant refuse. However, these artificial technologies have their limitations and environmental impacts, and cannot be considered a magic solution eternally available without limits.
Managing the world’s water resources will be presented in a United Nations report entitled “Water for Peace and Prosperity”, to be launched at UNESCO headquarters in Paris on World Water Day on 22 March. The report emphasizes that addressing the critical water situation requires international cooperation based on enhancing efficiency and justice. This is a reminder that technology alone cannot solve all energy, water and food problems in the absence of efficiency.
The prime task remains to control consumption and manage demand, instead of simply increasing production and supply, which entail depleting limited resources and polluting the environment with waste. In face of these challenges, it is high time to introduce a mandatory water label, besides the energy label, to identify efficiency and virtual water content of any product. Consumers must share responsibility by making the right choices.