Is the Drinking Water for Millions in the Persian Gulf At Risk?

| April 27, 2017

USC Viterbi Professor Considers and Tries to Prepare for the ‘Unthinkable’

Is Dubai’s drinking water at risk? Photo credit: Istock

It is estimated that by 2030, over 50 million people in the Persian Gulf region will depend on desalination of the Persian Gulf waters for their daily water supply. A paper by Professor Najm Meshkati in the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at USC Viterbi warns that this water supply could be quite vulnerable without coordinated disaster planning in the region.

In his paper, “An Integrated Systems-Oriented Model for the Inoperability of Multiple Emergency Response Agencies in Large-Scale Disasters: Implications for the Persian Gulf,” in the International Journal Disaster Risk Science, Meshkati urges that the Persian Gulf, which could see an increase of four more new nuclear reactors in the next five years, necessitates the cooperation among countries and the nuclear and oil industries to avoid the long-term impacts of potential natural or manmade disasters.

Meshkati, whose work focuses on what he calls “the unthinkable” by which he means the rare, ‘black swan’ disaster that is not planned for because it is so calamitous and unlikely, cites the Fukishima disaster as an incident whose impacts could have been mitigated had there been a better coordination and planning.

This systems engineering paper, which he co-authored with then doctoral student, Maryam Tabibzadeh explains that the Persian Gulf and residents of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia are particularly at risk not only because of their heavy dependence on the Gulf for drinking water and seafood, but because the region’s known risk of seismic activity could derail nuclear plants on the coast or cause oil leaks in the waterway. Any contamination in this body of water could be particularly dangerous due to the fact that a single water molecule takes 2-5 years to exit the Persian Gulf. Meshkati also considers the human factors—in this case, that the nuclear plants and oil rigs are managed by different countries and industries which further complicates emergency response to any power plant failures or oil spills.

Meshkati cites 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico), and Fukushima as textbook failures in emergency preparedness. One way to mitigate disaster, implies Meshkati, is to prepare coordinated emergency response systems across countries, cultures and the oil/gas and nuclear industries. Meshkati advocates for training, specialized procedures, personal protective equipment and safe shelters as critical parts of any emergency preparedness plans, but also cautions that emergency plans need to be much broader.  He advocates for a “systems-oriented model” of disaster planning that is both ‘intra-economy’ (within nations) and “inter-economy” (between nations). Any working disaster preparedness plan must incorporate what he deems necessary components: the human side –how culture/ language affect disaster communications; organizational elements—the emergency operating procedures that are in place; and third, compatibility of technologies and equipment that can work seamlessly with one another across borders. Meshkati proposes establishing “a regional specialized mechanism to coordinate and oversee cooperation and interoperability between…Persian Gulf countries.”  He considers this as a case of  “Engineering Diplomacy,” a course that he has developed and teaches at USC.

It’s not just the residents of the Persian Gulf nations who stand to benefit from such coordination and disaster preparedness suggest Meshkati and his co-author, Maryam Tabibzadeh. The Persian Gulf is the shipping lane for 60 percent of the area’s oil exports– which supplies Europe with much of its fuel. Thus, safeguarding operations in the Persian Gulf, ensures continuity for the over 700 million people who live in Europe. In addition, suggests Meshkati, similar disaster preparedness approaches could be applied to the countries surrounding the Black Sea.