Home » Action on water urgently needed as the MENA dries up

Action on water urgently needed as the MENA dries up

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Water potential

The recent UN World Water Development Report warned of an ‘imminent’ global water crisis. But, in the MENA region, the crisis has already arrived.

Although the region has struggled with water challenges for years, the situation is now worse than ever, and freshwater resources are rapidly depleting.

As the region runs dry, bold and decisive action on water is imperative.

The scale of the water crisis

As rains fail, droughts take hold, and rivers dry up, the MENA’s water supply is under threat as the most waterstressed region in the world.

Currently, 66 million people in the region lack access to basic sanitation, and nine in ten children live in areas with high water stress. But the future looks even more bleak. Research indicates that at the end of the decade, the amount of water available per capita will fall below the threshold of “absolute scarcity.”

What does this mean for the region? Uninhabitable land, further food insecurity, compounded instability and the destruction of livelihoods.

Take Jordan, for example. It is one of the most water-scarce countries in the world, and it’s being hit hard by climate change. Already, the country is battling against skyrocketing temperatures and decreased rainfall, but Professor Jawad Al-Bakri from the Department of Land, Water and Environment at the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Jordan, shared a deeply troubling forecast. “Research findings showed adverse trends of climate change, which would include reduction in rainfall amounts by 20% and increased air temperature by 2-4.5 degrees Celsius by the end of [the] century,” he said.

And the impacts of climate change effects on Jordan’s agricultural industry and food security could be devastating. Jordan is well-known for its olives, and production makes up a big segment of the agricultural industry, with the olive oil industry an important source of employment for those in rural areas. But as climate change worsens and temperatures continue to soar, this could be under threat. Al-Bakri shared figures of a reduced self-sufficiency degree for olives from 100% to less than 50% and reduced self-sufficiency in vegetables from 144% (export) to the edge of 100%.

Al-Bakri notes that domestic water demand is also set to increase by 500 MCM due to population growth, while groundwater resources will suffer from a reduction in recharge by 16%. Surface water resources, meanwhile, will see a recession of 20-30%.

Moreover, while access to water is already brimming with inequality, without intervention, this will only worsen. One study, for example, predicts that 90% of Jordan’s low-income population will see “critical water insecurity” by the end of the century without “intervening measures.”

Mounting pressures

Although climate change is intensifying water challenges in the region, for years, misuse, waste and mismanagement have had a major influence on supplies.

Huge amounts of water, for example, are used in irrigated agriculture in the MENA. Around 85 per cent of water resources are diverted to agriculture, and research shows that around half of this irrigation water is lost. But, of course, as the population grows, so too will the demand for agricultural water, and this is what Al-Bakri forecasts, alongside “a deficit of 300 MCM” by 2050.

As part of the solution to water scarcity, Al-Bakri said there needs to be changes to water policy and strategy, including a “clear water allocation system” that includes incentives for farmers to follow suitable cropping patterns with high water use efficiency.

“At the same time, tariff and allocation shall be defined for non-efficient use of water and improper cropping patterns,” he said.

Of course, alongside this misuse of water, crises across the region, including in Lebanon, demonstrate just how crucial solid infrastructure and leadership are for conserving limited water resources – and the consequences of what happens when this is eroded.

Action on water

As water resources dwindle, the region needs to rapidly ramp up solutions, and innovation will have a key part to play here. This is evident when looking at the desalination situation.

With such limited water supplies, some countries in the region currently rely on desalination for as much as 90% of their drinking water. GCC countries, in particular, have the highest water desalination capacity globally.

But, if the region were to meet growing demand through desalination, it would require the equivalent of 65 plants the size of Saudi Arabia’s Ras Al Khair plant, the region’s largest. Plus, fossil fuel-based desalination plants currently account for around two-thirds of production, meaning the region desperately needs to scale up green desalination tech to meet demand in a sustainable way.

Such green desalination projects are beginning to emerge. Back in 2022, for example, ENOWA signed an MoU with Veolia and Itochu to develop a reverse osmosis (RO) water desalination facility powered by 100% renewable energy for NEOM to meet 30% of the city’s anticipated water demand.

Likewise, in the UAE, DEWA is pursuing its own project with Desolenator for a solar-powered desalination system. But, considering the region’s huge water demands and desalination’s environmental impact, these projects need to speed up, scale and multiply.

Experts also highlight the huge potential of wastewater reuse and successful projects have been demonstrated in Jordan, for example. As of 2022, there were 400 operational water reuse projects in the MENA region. However, as the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) outlines, the potential for resource recovery from municipal wastewater in the region remains “untapped.”

But, beyond the need for sustainable tech and the expansion of water reuse strategies, cooperation around water resources is also essential.

Blue Peace Middle East is a non-governmental initiative that’s dedicated to promoting water cooperation across borders. The initiative is the region’s first and only regionally-owned dialogue platform and is focused on transforming water from a “potential source of conflict” into “an instrument of cooperation and peace,” explained the Chair of the Managing Committee, Maysoon Al-Zoubi.

“Cooperation over water resources is a key element to achieve sustainable development, stability and security in the region,” said Al-Zoubi, outlining that the initiative is contributing to this goal by gathering people from various backgrounds from the region to:

  • Foster knowledge exchange,
  • Create innovative thinking around water, and
  • Build trust among different stakeholders with different interests but similar potential benefits.

Al-Zoubi explained that while the organisation previously focused on Water Use Efficiency as a tool for promoting cooperation, it is now implementing the Water-Energy-Food-Ecosystem Nexus approach.

“Supporting and highlighting the relation and connection of water to other sectors, this integrative approach is essential to reach sustainable development in the region, but also within the countries of this region, as development can only occur collectively among all sectors impacted by increased water scarcity,” added Al-Zoubi.

Further, while noting that the region is lacking a sustainable regional water agreement, Al-Zoubi shared that Blue Peace ME believes it can “create the environment for discussion towards such ends and bring countries to a common understanding around the benefits of shared water.”

The MENA is undoubtedly at a critical point in its water crisis, and the decisions made today will shape the destinies of millions in the region, for better or worse. Now more than ever, cooperation and partnership are required to bolster water resource governance, improve access and drive forward innovative solutions.

By Madaline Dunn, Lead Journalist, ESG Mena

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