The Arab world’s water crisis is not going away

September 18, 2016

Freshwater is pitifully scarce in the Middle East and North Africa. Home to 6% of the world’s population, the region has less than 2% of the planet’s water. Fourteen of the world’s 33 most severely water-stressed countries, to use the technical term that measures competition for surface water with the rate of its depletion, are in the region, according to the World Resources Institute, a non-profit organisation in Washington.
Water will determine the present and the future of most Arab countries, their sense of security, the well-being of their citizens. It could guarantee peace or trigger wars. It is a source of concern after a summer in which temperatures soared to 50 degrees Celsius.
Iraqis protested about power and water cuts and a longer drought than usual parched the West Bank. In North Africa, countries such as Tunisia anxiously discovered the limits of their water resources.
The World Bank said Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Qatar have the lowest renewable freshwater resources per person in the world. Yemen may be the first country to actually run out of water.
This would be a dispiriting rundown anywhere at any time but it is especially bad for a region where populations are expected to double to more than 600 million within 40 years and where climate change will reduce rainfall by 20%. Meanwhile, temperatures will rise to levels that make heat waves ten times more likely than today.
Water scarcity will not just leave the MENA region more thirsty, it will be more fractious, too. It can provoke conflict within countries and tensions between them. The Palestinians, who rely on a mountain aquifer beneath land Israel occupied in 1967, are acutely resentful that Israeli water allocation has not risen in line with population growth.
The UN Conference on Trade and Development, the United Nations’ main development agency, notes that Israel “confiscates 82% of Palestinian groundwater for use inside its borders or in its settlements while Palestinians must import from Israel more than 50% of their water”.
The Syrian uprising, which began in the south of the country, became militarised in the north where drought-hit farmers had surged into cities after years of failed crops.
The result is a conflict (partly sparked and complicated by other factors, too) that has raged for five years, left more than 400,000 dead and displaced nearly 11 million Syrians.
Climate change and ensuing drought are factors that render life more difficult for rural and urban populations alike. They are also possible triggers of social unrest in the Middle East and North Africa.
There is a need for urgent action. Better management of water resources has to be a priority. More efficient irrigation practices, rainwater harvesting and expanding and strengthening water infrastructure will help. New advances are making desalination technologies more cost-efficient. Consumer awareness drives are essential to spread the word about the need to avoid excessive water consumption. Cuts in water price subsidies are probably unavoidable.
Water resources are too precious to squander. The time for action is now.