October 01, 2017

The region’s water crisis

The World Bank report, “Beyond Scarcity: Water Security in the Middle East and North Africa,” is a timely reminder of the water crisis in the region.

Unless strategic and stringent action is taken, the MENA region, the most water-scarce in the world, will become drier and more parched. It may literally thirst for water by 2050, when its population will have doubled to 600 million.

All is not lost, however. The situation is dire but a combination of technology, policy and manage­ment can convert water scarcity into security, the report said. The time to start is now.

Consider the regional state of affairs with respect to water: More than 60% of the population lives in areas with high or very high surface water stress, compared with a global average of about 35%. More than 70% of the region’s economic value is generated in water-stressed areas, compared with a global average of 22%.

Rather than recycle wastewater, more than half of that collected in the region is returned to the environment untreated. Regional food supply chains cause more freshwater losses than almost anywhere else in the world. Many countries in the region draw unsustainable amounts of water from rivers and aquifers, degrading an irreplaceable resource base.

Add to that the world’s lowest water tariffs and the doleful picture is complete.

High water subsidies make for unregulated usage. Infrastructural inadequacies — leaky pipes and broken water mains — mean a lot of water literally goes down the drain. The failure to create a culture of conservation as well as to incentivise efficient use means that people don’t realise the true value of a dwindling resource.

Ignoring the issue is not an option. The inherent danger of the situation goes beyond lengthening droughts and increased desertification. Water supplies could become a weapon of war. Feuding countries and feuding regions within countries could deploy the threat to turn off water flows. Just recently, officials in southern Libya threat­ened Tripoli with exactly that.

All is not lost, however, as the World Bank report makes clear. The region has had successes. In Jordan and Tunisia, wastewater is being safely recycled for irrigation and for managed aquifer recharge. The region has clocked up, as the report said, “one of the best performances globally in terms of increasing access to improved water supply and sanitation since 1990” though conflict has reversed progress in many countries.

With new technologies, new policies and, most of all, a new commitment to water security, the region can chart a sustainable course. It will, however, require strategic action.

The World Bank suggested three crucial strands of activity. Building political will by tapping existing regional networks of public officials such as the programmes and councils supported by the League of Arab States and the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation; creating private-public partnerships and participating in regional exchanges such as the Arab Countries Water Utility Association; and, finally, harnessing civil society to raise awareness and spread the word.

The water wars can yet be won.