Water scarcity has always been a major challenge in the mostly arid MENA region. However, overdrawing of groundwater compounded with climate change, high rates of population growth and the effects of conflicts and forced displacement have jeopardised the region’s stability and the livelihood of generations to come.
A World Bank report titled “Beyond Scarcity: Water Security in the Middle East and North Africa” highlighted the exacerbating challenges, stressing, however, that limited water resources “need not restrict the region’s future” and that a “combination of technology, policy and management can convert scarcity into security.”
“Over the past decade, the water situation for most countries (in MENA) has become more challenging,” said Steven Schonberger, practice manager at the World Bank’s Water Department for MENA region. “While the amount of freshwater available has not changed, its reliability and the pressures on the resources are growing with particular impact on groundwater, which serves as the ‘water savings account’ for difficult years and future generations.”
Climate change is expected to have the greatest effect on water resources in the region and could cause economic losses of 6-14% of GDP by 2050, Schonberger cautioned. That would happen “unless major efforts are made in terms of building resilience and undertaking significant reallocations of diminishing water resources to higher value uses,” he said.
Smart water management in terms of the policies, technologies and management systems for water in urban and agricultural settings has become an urgent priority for a region where 60% of the population lives in areas with high or very high water stress.
Despite being the most water-scarce region in the world, the region has the lowest productivity of water use in terms of economic production, the world’s lowest water tariffs and, by far, the highest level of subsidies (2% of GDP). Also, the effects of degradation of water quality are often overlooked though they represent a major cost to the region, estimated at 0.5-2.5% of GDP yearly, in terms of health and other effects, the report stated.
“Clearly there is a need to rethink how water is being managed in the region, starting with a general recognition of its value and a commitment to use water for the greatest good of society,” Schonberger said.
Many Arab countries, especially in the Gulf area, rely largely on desalination to compensate for limited water resources. Desalination should be part of the solution in the region, which accounts for almost half of all desalination capacity worldwide.
“You cannot ‘desal’ your way out of the problem,” Schonberger said. “Desalination has to be part of an overall strategy of more efficient use through demand management, leakage reduction, recycling of water and more sustainable management of groundwater where that is available in the Gulf.”
The World Bank report stated that the solutions to water saving in MENA should focus on rationalising water use and making it more efficient in the agriculture sector, which accounts for about 80% of water usage across the region.
It is a common challenge for all Arab countries but the differences lie in the role of technology, the report said. More water abundant countries, such as Lebanon and Syria, should meet their needs through better management of existing resources. The more extremely water scarce places, such as Jordan, the Palestinian territories, the Gulf countries and Yemen would need to integrate “non-conventional water” from desalination and recycling on a larger scale.
Solutions may include policies that create incentives for water conservation and water use efficiency, such as fees, fines and pricing, as well as wastewater recycling and reuse. Engaging and educating civil society by raising public awareness about water value and conservation through schools, the media and government campaigns are also crucial.
While water is often pointed to as a potential source of conflict, it has more frequently been the source of cooperation, even between antagonists, Schonberger noted, citing the example of Vietnam and Thailand, which cooperated on sharing the Mekong River’s waters despite being on different sides of an armed conflict.
“We see similar examples of cooperation in the MENA region, such as the Yarmuk and Jordan rivers (Syria, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories) and the Disi Aquifer (Jordan and Saudi Arabia). However, it is important to ensure that an effective technical cooperation is in place for exchange of information,” Schonberger said.
“We firmly believe that regional cooperation around management of water resources, combined with technological and management innovations, which can emerge from a better valuation of water in the region, can lead to both a more peaceful as well as a more prosperous Middle East.”
Samar Kadi is the Arab Weekly society and travel section editor.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.