Water Scarcity in the Arab World

Via Geopolitical Futures, a report on the Arab World’s water challenges:


Many prosperous ancient civilizations in the Arab world had at least one thing in common: an abundance of water. Today, however, the Arab region in West Asia and North Africa could become the most water-scarce area in the world. Demand is rising, driven by the region’s rapidly growing population, which totaled 400 million in 2016 and is projected to reach 670 million by 2050. Its many political crises are fueled by the region’s unresolved water disputes, including over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Israel’s diversion of the tributaries of the Jordan River, and Turkey’s siphoning off of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. For Arab countries, it’s a problem with no solution in sight.

Magnitude of the Crisis

Although the Arab region comprises 10 percent of the world’s area, it contains less than 1 percent of the world’s surface runoff and about 2 percent of total rainfall. According to the United Nations, water scarcity exists where annual supplies drop below 1,000 cubic meters per capita. Some 16 of 22 Arab countries have a per capita average below 500 cubic meters, considered to be the mark at which a population faces “absolute scarcity.” Part of the problem is the region’s location in arid and semi-arid areas. Thirty percent of its arable lands could face desertification due to acute water scarcity. Climate change has also complicated the issue: According to one report, Arab countries could see economic losses of up to 14 percent of gross domestic product from water scarcity related to climate change.

Renewable Freshwater Per Capita in Arab Countries

Water shortages are particularly concerning in Egypt, whose growing population, which will exceed 175 million by 2050, depends almost entirely on the Nile for its water needs. The country is already feeling the effects of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which will shrink Egypt’s share of Nile water by at least 20 billion cubic meters annually. Rising temperatures will exacerbate the situation, causing water supplies to evaporate and reducing precipitation along the northern coast.

The growing difficulties in producing food staples (wheat, cooking oil, legumes and meat) have forced Arab countries to rely more on imports. But rising prices for foodstuffs, driven in part by the use of some grains for fuel production, puts these imports out of reach for many Arab consumers. Agricultural expansion is the only way out, but this places an even heavier burden on water supplies.

In many countries, the shortages are related to deficiencies in fuel. In Lebanon, more than four million people face severe water shortages due to the country’s ongoing fuel crisis. Neighboring Syria is suffering similar effects from its own energy shortfall. And like Lebanon, the problem in water-rich Sudan is distribution, especially for household use, due to a serious shortage of diesel to operate pumping stations.

Algeria, meanwhile, is suffering from a three-year drought. The Ministry of Water Resources has admitted to a crisis in the supply of potable water in several states in the central and northern regions of the country. The government established an emergency plan to address the crisis by building new seawater desalination plants, fixing broken ones and digging wells. In Morocco, where annual water supplies dropped below 600 cubic meters per capita, the government decided to stop providing financial support to farmers of watermelon, avocado and citrus fruits – crops that consume a lot of water. Facing the most severe drought in four decades, the government also plans to address water waste and indiscriminate exploitation. These measures are unlikely to solve the problem, however. A long-term solution would involve constructing water desalination plants, but the country lacks the funds.

Over-irrigation is the most important cause of water waste in the Arab region, where the agricultural sector accounts for 84 percent of water consumption. Because of waste and mismanagement, just 50 percent of the region’s water resources, amounting to about 340 billion cubic meters, are being exploited. Thus, policies that promote water use efficiency and explore new sources will become increasingly important in solving the region’s water scarcity problem.

Transboundary Resources

A third of the renewable water available to Arab countries comes through rivers from outside the region. Perhaps the most notable is the Nile, which originates from Lake Victoria in Uganda and Lake Tana in the Ethiopian plateau. Located on the Nile, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has been a source of tension here for years. The project reduced Egypt’s share of water from the Nile River from 55.5 billion cubic meters annually to less than 40 billion cubic meters. Ethiopia insists that the Nile Water Sharing Agreements of 1929 and 1959 need to be updated and are no longer a basis for negotiation, since they were signed during the colonial era and failed to allot a fair share of the supply to the upstream state.

Two other sources that originate outside the Arab region are the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Both rivers flow down through the Anatolian plateau and have become a growing source of friction between Turkey and its two neighbors Syria and Iraq, both of which accuse Ankara of ignoring their access rights. The rivers feature prominently in Turkey’s massive development scheme called the Southeastern Anatolia Project, which aims to construct 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power plants and irrigate 1.7 million hectares of land for agricultural use.

In Iraq, the Tigris and Euphrates supply most of the country’s water stations and agricultural production, which has been declining over the past three decades due to water shortages and Iran’s flooding of the Iraqi market with cheap produce. The flow of water from Turkey through the two rivers into Iraq declined in 2021 by 50 percent, while Iran diverted its Tigris tributaries to build dams. Ankara officially acknowledged reducing the Euphrates’ water flow into Iraq and Syria from 500 cubic meters per second to 200 cubic meters per second – though officials from the Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria say the real amount is 125 cubic meters per second. The drastic reduction put hydroelectric turbines out of commission, creating problems for crop irrigation.

Water Management

One of the most water-scarce countries in the world is Jordan, which faces an annual water deficit of about 15 million cubic meters. Jordan’s dams currently contain 80 million cubic meters of water in reserves less than in 2020. The Jordan River and the Yarmouk Basin are the country’s most critical water sources, but their flows have fluctuated due to the effects of climate change. Estimates suggest that the Jordan River loses 85 percent of its water through evaporation due to high temperatures. In 2021, Jordan saw a 60 percent decline in rainfall compared to the previous year. It also suffers from receding groundwater and surface water levels. Renewable supplies meet only half of the kingdom’s needs.

In 2013, Jordan signed a preliminary agreement with Israel and the Palestinian Authority to connect the Red Sea with the Dead Sea through a water canal and to establish a desalination complex north of the Jordanian city of Aqaba. The three signatories will desalinate and share water from the Red Sea. The deal is part of Jordan’s plan to transport 150 million cubic meters of desalinated water from Aqaba to Amman and increase the water capacity of its dams to 400 million cubic meters. Israel also agreed to provide Jordan with an additional 50 million cubic meters of water from the Sea of Galilee, but a feasibility study is ongoing so the future of this part of the deal is still unclear.

Most Arab countries use groundwater to alleviate severe shortages. As a non-renewable resource, groundwater can’t be a long-term solution to the problem, but it can play an important role in a broader strategy to meet the growing demand. The Arab world has three groundwater basins, including the world’s largest, the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System, covering a large swathe of Egyptian, Sudanese, and Libyan territory. This system contains 150,000 cubic kilometers of fossil water. Libya extracts 2.3 cubic kilometers annually via the Great Man-Made River project for drinking and irrigation. There’s also the Northern Sahara Aquifer system in Algeria and southern Tunisia – which, in addition to the coastal aquifers, is the primary source of water for domestic use and agriculture. Saudi Arabia actively exploits the al-Disi Aquifer, spanning from the country’s north to southern Jordan, making it a potential future source of conflict between the two countries. Notably, in 2019, Arab countries also imported about 344 billion cubic meters of virtual water as agricultural commodities.

In the Gulf region, Arab countries rely on desalinated seawater, which represents more than 75 percent of their water consumption. About 35 percent of the world’s desalination plants are in the Arab region, especially in the Arabian Peninsula. Last year, Saudi Arabia alone desalinated 2.2 billion cubic meters of water, representing 20 percent of global desalinated water. Oman, a country with extreme water shortages, treats 100 percent of its wastewater and reuses 78 percent of it. Other Gulf Cooperation Council countries treat about 80 percent of their wastewater and reuse roughly 45 percent of it.

Uncertain Future

For non-oil-producing Arab countries, the search for solutions is hampered by a lack of funds. The six GCC countries are the only Arab states that have achieved water self-sufficiency by building desalination plants on the shores of the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman. But they too are facing an uncertain future, as their populations grow and their capacity for spending declines.

Water flowing through the region’s many valleys could be part of the solution. The quantity of water located in these valleys is unclear but likely in the tens of millions of cubic meters, thanks to torrential rains that often pass through the area. However, the cost of building the infrastructure needed to store the water is beyond the financial means of non-oil-producing countries.

Meanwhile, the GERD will continue to be a major cause for concern for the Nile’s downstream countries, particularly Egypt. Even without the dam, the country is likely to see an acute water shortage, primarily due to its rapidly expanding population. It has been trying in vain since the 1960s to control population growth in order to stabilize the economy and improve living standards. Other countries in the region, with the exception of the wealthy GCC states, will experience a similar fate. For most Arab regimes, staying in power is more important than finding a solution to a problem as consequential as this one.

This entry was posted on Friday, January 27th, 2023 at 8:14 am and is filed under Egypt, Ethiopia, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tigris-Euphrates System, Turkey.  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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