Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
Watering The Middle East

Via Project Syndicate, commentary on MENA’s water challenges:

The United Nations World Water Development Report confirms what many already know: hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) – especially in Algeria, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen – have faced the worst water shortages in decades in 2016. This is the last thing the region needs, as it works toward economic growth and diversification.

Multiple factors have contributed to the current situation, including climate change, desertification, water pollution, and misuse of natural resources. Inadequate information, education, and communication exacerbate many of these challenges, as it reinforces a lack of awareness of – much less commitment to – environmentally friendly practices. Add to that inadequate disaster-risk reduction and management by governments – many of which are dealing with other conflicts and crises – and the situation has become truly dire.

Algeria, for example, has been experiencing its worst drought in five decades. With much of the country’s agriculture relying heavily on rainfall, owing to underdeveloped infrastructure, cereal yields are down 40% this year. Despite its vast oil and gas wealth, Algeria has failed to ensure sufficient affordable water resources for its population, not to mention adequate employment opportunities. As a result, the country is now being rocked by popular protests.

Libya has faced even greater instability, wrought by years of internal conflict. The resultant power cuts and fuel scarcity undermined water distribution in the country. Last summer, the UN had to procure some five million liters of water from neighboring countries to meet the country’s needs.

In Jordan, water shortages occur with devastating frequency, particularly in larger cities like Amman. Jordan is estimated to have enough water reserves to support two million people. Yet its population is more than six million, not including the 1.5 million Syrian refugees who currently reside in the country.

In times of shortage, it is the refugees who are likely to be among the first to feel the effects. Water supplies in many refugee camps, in both Jordan and Lebanon, have been cut to a minimum – a decision that affects millions of people who are already enduring scorching temperatures. At Rukban, a refugee camp on Jordan’s joint border with Syria and Iraq, more than 85,500 residents each receive barely five liters per day for cooking, drinking, and washing.

The situation in Yemen is similarly grim. Racked by sectarian violence and civil war, the country has no functioning government to manage water resources. The capital, Sanaa, could run dry in ten years. And, with half of Yemen’s population lacking access to clean water, crops are failing and disease is spreading. The UN estimates that 14,000 children under the age of five die of malnutrition and diarrhea each year. Meanwhile, farmers are drilling deeper than ever for water – some wells are 500 meters deep – without any regulation.

Effective government intervention may be a long way off in Yemen, but it is feasible – indeed, imperative – in other MENA countries. For starters, national governments must work to modernize agricultural practices, including by training farmers and introducing more efficient irrigation tools. Reducing farmers’ dependence on rainfall is essential.

Some countries – namely, Morocco and Jordan – have already taken some important steps in this direction. Morocco’s government, in particular, has made substantial efforts to develop its water resources, including through dam-building.

But there is a still a long way to go. Water-distribution efficiency in Morocco remains low – just 60% for irrigation. For a country that has experienced more than 20 droughts in 35 years, that is a serious problem. The good news is that the African Development Bank recently approved a loan of more than €88 million ($98.7 million) to fund a project aimed at improving the quality of water distribution.

This points to a crucial insight: no one country can do it alone. Regional and international cooperation is badly needed. MENA countries must support one another in implementing programs modeled on what has worked elsewhere.

Moreover, additional investment – financed from domestic and international sources – should be allocated to repairing aging water infrastructure, as well as new projects, such as well-designed dams and water reservoirs. And stronger efforts must be made to safeguard existing water resources.

Here, the public has an important role to play. But citizens first must be made aware not only of how to use water more sensibly, but also of how to protect against climate-related disaster risk.

For the private sector and NGOs, upgrading water management in the MENA region presents a major opportunity to invest in water-services delivery and related technology. The regional market for enhanced local sanitation and water-related services is estimated to be worth over $200 billion. Projects aimed at meeting this demand are a smart investment.

But it is up to governments to take the first steps. If they do not take action to preserve water reserves and standardize supply, the most defenseless populations will continue to suffer, a situation that can easily lead to unrest – or worse. Indeed, if nothing is done to address the water challenges facing the MENA region, those challenges may fuel future wars.

At the next meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, to be held in Morocco in November, water should be at the top of the agenda. Given that more than 80% of the national contributions to the fight against climate change from the countries of the global South focus on water challenges, coordinated action by governments and international actors can no longer be postponed.

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