The Arab world on World Environment Day

By 2025, the water supply in the Arab region will be only 15% of levels in 1960.
Sunday 09/06/2019
An Iraqi man stands on a dry field in an area affected by drought in the Mishkhab region, central Iraq. (AFP)
An Iraqi man stands on a dry field in an area affected by drought in the Mishkhab region, central Iraq. (AFP)

The commemoration June 5 of World Environment Day may not have received the attention it deserved in most of the Arab world. One possible reason could have been that it coincided this year with the first and second days of Eid al-Fitr in the region. However, insufficient environmental awareness in the region is not the problem of any one particular year.

Attaining a level of ecological sensitivity equal to that in advanced parts of the world would need intensive awareness-building efforts on the part of Arab governments, civil society and political parties. The objective would be to create the necessary regional momentum that would help adopt environmentally friendly policies paving the way for balanced and sustainable development in the region.

That kind of momentum would have to include the realisation by active actors in society and the public that the cause of the environment is crucial for the well-being of their respective countries if not for the survival of their way of life.

Amid wars and upheaval, ecological concerns may not seem to meet the requirements of political to military expediency even if dealing with climate issues is needed to address the simmering socio-economic causes of instability and strife in the Arab world.

The region suffers from serious problems regarding air and sea pollution, soil erosion, rising water levels, desertification as well as floods and droughts that are compounded by climate change or caused by it.

The most vital challenge across the region is water scarcity. The problem is a major cause for population exodus from rural areas and for the social upheaval experienced by such countries as Syria and Tunisia in 2010. It is the indirect cause of many of the health epidemics as countries import obesity-causing food products instead of using their original farming yield.

Last April, FAO Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva told a meeting of Arab states in Cairo that improving and better coordinating water management strategies should be urgently addressed.

“This is really an emergency problem now,” Graziano da Silva told Reuters in an interview on the sidelines of the conference.

FAO figures indicate that the per capita ratio of fresh water availability in the region is only 10% of the world average. Farming activities consume more than 85% of the water resources.

Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia and Egypt are among the ten highest “water-stressed countries” of the world. In 2014, only four Arab countries were above water scarcity level.

Water management and coordination were among the key issues addressed by the April conference in Cairo.

Not only coordination in this regard is lacking between Arab countries themselves not to mention the lack of cooperation from non-Arab countries, such as Turkey, Israel and Iran. (In this issue, Thomas Seibert highlights the predicament of Iraq on the receiving end of river flows between Iran and Turkey). In some instances, coordination is lacking between branches of the same Arab government.

“(In Egypt,) they have 32 ministers. Most probably of those 32 ministers, 30 ministers deal with water — water is a problem for them. And they don’t have ways to coordinate very efficiently,” complained the FAO chief.

Adding to the complexity of addressing the region’s water scarcity problem is the mismanagement of hydraulic resources. Graziano da Silva noted, for instance, that Egyptian farmers were using century-old wasteful inundation techniques instead of relying on water-saving techniques such as drip irrigation.

By 2025, the water supply in the Arab region will be only 15% of levels in 1960.

Some Arab countries, with varying degrees of success, have sought desalination as a solution but in the current state of the technology, desalination remains a costly and a potentially polluting procedure for both air and sea.

When unable to sustain their agricultural activities, populations move to already overcrowded and ill-equipped cities. Based on 2015 figures, urban areas held 59% of total populations.

Cities have their own environmental problems. A study by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development stated that the MENA region’s air quality was rapidly deteriorating, with carbon dioxide levels rising as a result of inefficient anti-pollution measures and over-consumption of electricity.

Renewable energy could offer a way out. Solar farms such as the ones in United Arab Emirates and Morocco could be setting an example for sound environment-friendly practices.