Finding Water In The Desert: Water Security In The Middle East

Via The Cipher Brief, a look at water security in the Middle East / North Africa region:

In 1979, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat said that “the only matter which could take Egypt to war again is water.” That war may not have come yet, but the truth behind Sadat’s warning remains just as relevant today, and not just in Egypt. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is one of the most water insecure regions on the globe, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI). What’s more, observes Stimson Center Fellow and Cipher Brief expert Amit Pandya, “roughly two thirds of the Arab World’s surface water supplies originate outside the region” or require extensive cooperation between regional countries to manage.

Aggravated by climate change, ballooning populations, and widespread conflict, these factors combine to create a deep, yet often overlooked, source of instability in the region. As MENA water needs continue to outstrip supply, what can be done to slake the region’s thirst and prevent future conflicts?

One of the most difficult hurdles to addressing water insecurity lies in building interstate cooperation over the use and management of MENA water resources. The example of Egypt and the Nile underlines the type of conflict that can arise over this cooperation – or rather, lack of cooperation. The waters of the Nile River Basin are shared by eleven countries yet, under a 1959 agreement, Egypt is entitled to roughly two thirds of the river’s flow.

Even so, population growth and years of mismanagement have left Egyptians in a state of “water poverty” at under 700 cubic meters per person per year – roughly the amount of water in a 25-meter swimming pool. The Nile also powers Egypt’s High Aswan Dam, which provides 10 percent of the country’s electricity.

Accordingly, any upstream threat to Egypt’s share of the river’s flow is perceived as existential, and the country has threatened war over it several times in the past. In 2013, for instance, a hot mic moment caught military advisors to former President Mohammad Morsi talking about bombing Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam, widely seen as a threat to Egyptian water security.

Decades of talks to redistribute water rights under the Nile Basin Initiative – composed of all the Nile Basin countries – came to an inconclusive end in 2010, and the issue remains hotly contested.

When cooperation at the international level falters, the ground level effects of water scarcity continue to stack up, affecting the security of all the countries involved. This is especially true when considering the victims of water scarcity. Often, these people are the most vulnerable members of society. Poor, displaced by conflict, or reliant on a water-based industry, climate events quickly become a matter of life and death in these populations, which can lead to political instability and conflict.

The beginning of the Syrian civil war presents an excellent example of this phenomenon. Of course, a variety of different factors led to the outbreak of “Arab Spring” revolts in Syria. However, few were as important, or as little understood, as the most severe drought in modern Syrian history. Between 2006 and 2011, this drought affected 60 percent of the country, devastated the crops of 75 percent of Syrian farmers, and internally displaced over 1.5 million people. As Peter Jacques, Professor at the University of Central Florida and Cipher Brief expert, explains, these farmers “abandoned their lands for the cities. Not long afterward, social crisis in these cities ensued, and then revolution.”

At the same time, chronic government mismanagement of water resources across the region only sharpens this kind of political unrest. This is especially damaging in countries with little access to renewable water resources like flowing rivers. These countries – Yemen, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, amongst others –  often rely on groundwater or fuel-hungry desalination plants for their water supply. However, many of the region’s aquifers are non-renewable fossil aquifers, and all are being drained at a dangerous rate. As Amit Pandya notes, “annual withdrawals exceed 350 percent of renewable resources in Egypt, 800 percent in Libya, and 954 percent in Egypt.”

To make matters worse, a large portion of these resources are channeled – intentionally or otherwise – to water intensive agricultural projects, wasteful personal use, or simply lost through inefficient distribution systems. The countries of the Arab Gulf, for instance, have some of the highest water use per capita numbers in the world despite possessing few renewable water sources. Similarly, in Yemen, almost 14 million people have limited access to safe drinking water but, as Peter Jacques points out, 90 percent of the country’s diminishing groundwater supplies are used for agriculture “and half of that water is used for an amphetamine crop called Qat, despite the severe malnutrition of Yemen’s population.”

Meanwhile, the persistent drumbeat of global climate change adds a sense of inevitability to the prospect of water crisis in the Middle East. Average summer temperatures in MENA countries have increased more than twice as fast as the world average and, according to researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany, parts of the region may becomeuninhabitable by the middle of this century.

But despite the scale of these challenges, they are not insurmountable. Technological advances in desalinization technology and water consumption management techniques offer one path for improvement. International financial and technical assistance can also provide resources and help improve water management techniques in the region. Awareness and regional cooperation through organizations like the Arab Integrated Water Resources Management System (AWARENET) are also key. By increasing awareness of water scarcity as a shared problem, and providing tools to react, this kind of regional system can help overcome the difficulties of international arbitration over water issues.

However, as Amit Pandya observes, perhaps the most important first step will be to “avoid wringing our hands at the impossibility of reversing large scale natural processes and understand water as a resource that is, has been, and should be managed.” Achieving water security in the Middle East will be difficult, but it is not impossible. 

This entry was posted on Thursday, August 18th, 2016 at 10:26 pm and is filed under News.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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