Water, energy and food security key to MENA stability
LONDON – The Middle East region is struggling to ensure adequate water, energy and food security as resources deplete and demand increases due to population growth and climate change.
According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), access to water, energy and food security (WEF) are linked throughout the world and play an important role in sustainable development, poverty reduction and human well-being. Achieving a balance between the sectors is important to maintaining stability in the wake of demand increase and resource decline that is linked to climate change, land use and human demographics.
With a finite amount of water meeting the needs of a growing world population, ensuring a reliable supply through proper resource management is critical to human survival. The most commonly used energy production methods are fossil fuel, biofuel production and fracking, the process of shale gas extraction. All of these are highly water intensive and unsustainable in the long term. As a result, there is a growing need for the development of wind and hydropower, renewable sources of energy that require far less water. Geothermal power is another alternative that does not consume water, produces little to no greenhouse gas as a byproduct and can serve as a climate-independent, long-term resource.
Agriculture, however, is the source of even more water usage, accounting for 69% of annual water withdrawal. Households account for 12%, while the industrial sector accounts for 19%, according to the FAO’s AQUASTAT.
As the world’s population grows, demand for food expands with it. The UN has also theorised that more global wealth has caused diets to shift from largely starch-based products to more water-intensive dairy and meat products. To save water, the organisation suggested more energy-efficient measures such as precision irrigation that tracks water providers’ data.
Nowhere are these changes more needed than in the MENA region, where many nations are suffering from limited energy resources and forced to import basic food as production drops.
These insecurities are triggering knock on effects in all parts of life, sometimes leading to social and political instability in vulnerable countries.
In Yemen, for instance, years of civil war that have rattled the country’s industry and economy have left it with no option but to import basic food products.
In Syria, as well, drought and displacement have damaged the water-energy-food nexus that is critical to human flourishing.
Water resources are critically low throughout much of the MENA region, with major aquifers being overutilised and left nearly empty.
The only available water supply to most rural communities, springs, have also been rapidly depleting over the last 20 years as a result of agricultural irrigation in Oman, Jordan and, to a greater extent, Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces.
The latter was the world’s sixth largest wheat exporter until the turn of the century, but it was forced to abandon these groundwater resource-dependent plans after it exhausted its aquifers.
Similarly, Oman had no option but to shift from foodstuffs to Khat and to high usage irrigation methods from their long tradition of terraced agriculture.
Triggering a positive feedback loop, MENA’s water insecurity drove migration to urban areas, stressing already unstable public infrastructure.
While it is difficult for MENA nations to divert themselves from water-intense practices, renewable options are the only sustainable path forward for the region.
What are the alternatives?
Going forward, MENA countries should look to reduce demand and dependence on water-intensive sectors. Rising global temperatures will make the task more difficult, but also more important.
Restructuring energy systems is one way to proceed. However, investing in new technologies, such as wind and solar photovoltaic, will come at a high cost for already financially strained countries – an estimated $1 trillion by 2050, according to a 2019 World Bank Group study.
But there are economic benefits too that would come from lower dependence on water. The use of water recycling and desalination, for instance, provide a high degree of value. And the MENA region currently accounts for half of the world’s desalination capacity and is set to increase, according to a 2017 World Bank study.
The World Bank estimated that the MENA region would need to increase its supplies by 68 million cubic meters of water, or 60%, by 2050, while implementing moderate improvements in agricultural productivity and land use.
But to achieve water security and meet the region’s ever increasing water demands, the water supply portfolio must also have water recycling integration. Approximately 80% of the wastewater in MENA is simply discharged and not reused, although countries like Tunisia and Jordan have made positive steps towards recycling wastewater for irrigation use. If wastewater is able to be treated to high standards, recycling should be viewed as an important section of the management strategy.
If allowed to continue, insecurity in the water-food-energy nexus will lead to political unrest, displacement and instability. Researchers have theorised that these developments have already been set into motion as the region largely resists adopting new agricultural practices or investment in new technologies.