Water, source of life, but also source of trouble?

Alexis Tessaro
02 August 2018

Water security in the Middle East and North Africa

 

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are inexorably heading towards a situation of water scarcity. A situation that could further destabilise a region already suffering from political and economic insecurity. What are the causes and what the solutions?

A region at risk

Water covers 70% of our planet, but fresh water only accounts for 2.5% of this amount. What is more, fresh water is unevenly distributed across the different continents. While Latin America and South-East Asia have abundant water resources, the Middle East and North Africa – an arid or semi-arid zone that stretches from Morocco in the west to Iran in the east, encompassing all the countries of the Middle East and North Africa - are inexorably heading towards a situation of water scarcity. At the most recent World Economic Forum, experts and leaders from the MENA region were categorical: water security is without doubt the most serious threat to the region.

It is a fact that water resources are scarcer in the Middle East and North Africa than anywhere else. More than 60% of the population live in areas where water stress is high or very high. Moreover, more than 70% of the region's GDP is created in these areas. The countries of the region overexploit their water capital, abstracting quantities of water which are much higher than the available renewable resources, and preventing natural recharge in the process. This excessive water consumption risks causing degradation and depletion of surface and groundwater, and could jeopardise any future development prospects in the region. In addition, these unsustainable consumption patterns also result in a deterioration of the water quality, and they absorb between 0.5 and 2.5% of GDP each year.

World map representing the freshwater availability

 

Multiple causes

Although the MENA region has the world's scarcest water resources, it consumes vast quantities of water. Almost 80% of water consumption is accounted for by agriculture. However, this activity has the lowest economic yields of water, due, inter alia, to water-intensive agricultural methods - irrigation in particular - and the lack of modern infrastructure. Moreover, at the consumption stage, food waste reaches 32%.

This distribution of water resources in favour of agriculture goes hand in hand with a growing incompatibility with population growth of 2% and a high rate of urbanisation in the region. By 2050, the urban population will have doubled to 400 million inhabitants, or 68% of the region's population, creating an increase in living standards, energy needs and industrial activity, which are also dependent on water resources.

The waste of water is not only due to the transport of enormous amounts of water, but also to deficiencies in water supply and treatment services. In order to keep this phenomenon in check and increase water availability, the countries of the MENA region must develop techniques and technologies for recycling and reusing wastewater. Currently, more than 50% of wastewater is discharged into the environment untreated. This means not only a  waste of resources, but also entails significant health risks. These countries are consequently foregoing the opportunity to provide respite for their natural water capital, even if countries like Saudi Arabia or Jordan plan to make significant investments for the treatment, sanitation and recycling of their wastewater in the future.

 

Share of collected wastewater that is untreated, treated, and reused

 

The reason for this waste and for the lack of development of these practices is largely related to poor governance. Besides the lack of political commitment and investment, policies to under-price water pose also a problem. In order for water supply and treatment services to function optimally, the price of water needs to be the same as or higher than its production cost. However, the price of water in Arab countries is around 35% of its cost (1). The States heavily subsidise this resource and devote around 2% of GDP to it. The result is a total lack of responsibility on the part of the population and, consequently, excessive consumption. The prices applied do not reflect the scarcity of water in the area, nor the cost of transporting it. In addition, the fact that costs are not recouped threatens the viability of water services and their ability to treat wastewater. In reality, the political sphere fears that a reduction in subsidies will exacerbate social tensions and erode their legitimacy.

Tensions have increased in recent years, especially in Syria and Libya. The descent into civil war heavily impacted the region. The destruction of military or industrial sites has caused mass pollution, which, by releasing harmful substances into the air or soil, contaminates water resources. When infrastructure such as irrigation systems or dams are destroyed, the food chain is compromised, health risks intensify and famine spreads. As a result, mass flows of refugees - there are currently 3 million refugees and 4.8 million internally displaced persons in the region - force States to pump more of their water resources, intensifying water stress and reinforcing social tensions between migrants and host populations.

In addition to these various factors, climate change has added to the problem, and is now the main risk factor for water scarcity in the region. As temperatures rise, the region will experience a decrease in rainfall and an increase in evaporation. Global warming will also contribute to rising sea levels and may result in the flooding and salinisation of deltas and coastal aquifers. The resulting soil degradation will have consequences on declining crop yields and agricultural production. Finally, it will impact local populations who are deprived of water resources and consequently forced to migrate to cities or refugee camps. This will all increase water stress in cities where the availability and quality of water are already a problem, and it will amplify the tensions and conflicts related to the exploitation of scarce water resources in the region.

The States heavily subsidise this resource and devote around 2% of GDP to it. The result is a total lack of responsibility on the part of the population and, consequently, excessive consumption.

People at the helm

Although the first part of this article is rather defeatist, there is also reason to be optimistic. Because even if there are multiple causes of water scarcity in the region, solutions do not lack. Apart from the environmental factor, over which civil society and political decision-makers will have less control, the anthropogenic, structural and political factors depend essentially on the will of the people. Aware of the problem facing them, the time has come for Middle Eastern and North African countries to take the helm.

1) Clearly, since the extracted and carried water is largely diverted to agriculture, it is not only necessary to raise awareness among farmers of the need to choose the most suitable crops and the most profitable and sustainable methods, but also to provide them with the essential infrastructure so that they can develop other, more modern practices, such as sprinklers or drip-based watering systems.

2) Another solution would involve importing virtual water. Instead of using water resources to irrigate crops which require large amounts of water, the State can reallocate them to another more profitable sector, to boost the economy. However, this measure implies an increase in food imports, and consequently also a high dependence on global food markets.

Water from the Euphrates river feeding an irrigation system in Syrie
© Shutterstock

3) While foreign-based solutions have their limits - cost, dependence -, domestic solutions offer more possibilities but above all stem from the will of the political decision-makers in place and their ability to ease tensions and conflicts in the region, and to collaborate. The quality of water services needs to be improved through investments in infrastructures (transport pipes to prevent leakage, supply) and technology (treatment and recycling systems, grey water reuse (2)) to better manage water. Such measures have already been implemented by certain countries including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel, which treats 86% of its domestic wastewater, and recycle it for agricultural purposes. However, these developments struggle to take off in the region, due in particular to the under-pricing water policy which prevails there. Getting the public to use water responsibly requires incentives to restrict its use - such as price increases according to the level of scarcity, and smart meters. Apart from a lack of awareness, the second element which can explain why these projects have not been implemented is intrinsically linked to the resurgence of conflicts in the area, which rule out any prospects of construction.

Sustainability of water withdrawal in the Middle East and North Africa
 

 

4) Moreover, the countries of the Middle East and North Africa still have other trump cards. To compensate for the lack of fresh water, the Gulf States and Israel have constructed desalination plants. However, the installation and operating costs of these are relatively high, as is their energy consumption. In addition, desalination releases a considerable amount of brine into the oceans. Despite these drawbacks, these plants are the future, especially if they can be run on renewable energies.

5) Water security must involve a diversification of conventional and non-conventional water resources, the use of surface and groundwater, but also rainwater capture, and wastewater and grey water recycling. To achieve this, the States are increasingly turning to storage to ensure greater flexibility and prevent sudden shortages, without being forced to import water at exorbitant prices.

6) Finally, politicians and diplomats must unequivocally reaffirm their commitment as regards water management policies, both nationally and internationally. In effect, around 60% of the region's surface water spans several countries. As such, there is a need to work together and forge constructive, transparent and equitable relations with neighbouring countries. Security and peace in the MENA region depends entirely on the ability of governments to find consensus, work together and share water resources impartially.

And, as surprising as it may seem in such a divided region, the problem of water security has prompted the States to cooperate closely. Proof that water is not only the source of life or trouble, but also a source of openness and sharing.

Water security in the Middle East and North Africa represents a huge challenge. Hampered by conflicts and a slowing economy, more concerned about religious and political tensions, caught between population growth and the consequences of global warming, the region does not appear to be capable of responding constructively. However, the water crisis is fundamentally a crisis of society and government. It is the responsibility of national governments to bring about change in agricultural practices and domestic habits. To achieve this, it is essential that investments in technology and infrastructure, policies and the management of institutions are in line not only at the regional level, but also worldwide. And, as surprising as it may seem in such a divided region, the problem of water security has prompted the States to cooperate closely. Proof that water is not only the source of life or trouble, but also a source of openness and sharing.

 

(1) In Saudi Arabia, for example, water was sold at USD 0.08/m3 in 2015, whereas it costs about USD 1.09/m3 to produce: https://bit.ly/2ugwYRP

(2) Grey water is domestic waste water that is slightly polluted (e.g. water from a shower or sink) and can be used for tasks that do not require perfectly clean water, e.g. flushing away excrement or washing vehicles: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greywater

Main sources

 World Bank. 2017. Beyond Scarcity: Water Security in the Middle East and North Africa.

Food and water security in the Middle East and North Africa, Special Report, Maria Martens.

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