Middle East Water Security: Competition heats up as resources become scarcer
August 2023 Al-Monitor PRO Trend Report
In March this year, the United Nations (UN) held “the first UN water conference in a generation” in New York. Several UN officials used the opportunity to sound alarm bells about the deteriorating water security situation in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
Rola Abdullah Dashti, executive secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), said that almost 50 million people in the Arab World lack basic drinking water and 390 million live in countries suffering from water scarcity — almost 90% of the total population. Dashti added that the Arab region is not on the right trajectory in its attempts to meet the sixth UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) to provide clean water and sanitation services to the entire population by 2030.
As Youssef Brouziyne, head of the MENA Office at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in Cairo, told Al-Monitor, “MENA is a water-scarce region by nature, but it’s now a very interesting case in terms of water scarcity because we’re watching and witnessing every type of issue related to water security play out.”
Indeed, MENA is “the most water-scarce region in the world” and is home to 11 of the 17 most water-stressed countries globally, according to UNICEF. Unsustainable agricultural practices, rapid population growth, climate change, and poor or mismanaged water infrastructure are just some of the reasons behind an increasingly precarious environment. Countries across the region are therefore looking to find workable solutions to avert the worst possible consequences of water scarcity.
1. State of Play: Water Security in MENA
In August 2021, UNICEF released a report outlining the main causes of water insecurity in MENA. While the drivers of water scarcity are numerous and country-specific, broadly speaking there are five main explanations for water insecurity in the region: climate change, agricultural and irrigation practices, conflict, population growth and financial reasons.
Several North African countries have already seen the effects of a changing climate on their water security. Morocco’s drought periods have increased in both frequency and intensity over the past 20 years, with the World Bank noting that, between 1960 and 2020, the availability of renewable water resources decreased from 2,560 cubic meters per capita to roughly 620 cubic meters — a decrease of over 75%. This makes Morocco one of the world’s most water-stressed countries. Tunisia has also experienced adverse weather patterns, seeing five consecutive years of drought and serious water shortages as a result. Between September 2022 and mid-March 2023, Tunisian dams saw a decrease in capacity to around 1 billion cubic meters because of a scarcity of rain — just 30% of the country’s overall capacity. Similarly, in the Middle East, lawmakers in Iranwarned in June 2023 that the water in the Sistan and Baluchistan regions could run out by September this year. Over 60% of Turkey’s land mass is now at risk of desertification, with Izmir, Ankara, and Istanbul already classified as water-stressed by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
Poor agricultural and irrigation practices also contribute to water scarcity. In Tunisia and several other countries across the region, the unauthorized drilling of wells by farmers has damaged the water table and put unsustainable pressure on natural resources. Iran has always been exposed to drought due to the harsh climate in the region, but political mismanagement in the agricultural sector has only worsened the problem. Subsidies for farmers, one of the government’s key political constituencies, have encouraged the overuse of water in agriculture and reduced the amount available for human consumption or use. Unsustainable irrigation systems are reflected in the numbers: Globally, agriculture on average accounts for about 70% of water use; however, in MENA, that figure rises to above 80%. Since the onset of motorized pumps and more sophisticated technology in the 1970s, agricultural workers in MENA have tended to overexploit water resources to fuel increasingly large volumes of agricultural production. In many countries, there remains a lack of regulation that could prevent such overexploitation.
Conflict is an important contributor to water insecurity in war-stricken MENA countries. In February 2021, UNICEF estimated that over 4 million people in Libya faced imminent water shortages. This was partly because during the Libyan civil war from 2014 to 2020, there were repeated attacks on the Great Manmade River, the largest irrigation project in the world, which is designed to provide 70% of Libya’s freshwater. This meant that around 190 of the country’s wells were destroyed, seriously jeopardizing Libya’s water security. The war in Iraq contributed to similar issues, with the United Nations warning that Baghdad will meet just 15% of its water demands by 2035. Yemen was one of the world’s most water-stressed countries even before the outbreak of its civil war in 2014, with the conflict “markedly increasing Yemen’s water scarcity,” according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), given the damage inflicted on critical national water infrastructure. The conflict in Syria has caused similar problems there, with more than half of the population in the country’s northern region having no access to potable water as a result of war damage to infrastructure.
Diplomatic and political conflicts over the use of shared resources have impacted several MENA states. In Egypt, about 90% of the population lives along the Nile River and, while the river once provided almost everybody with drinking water, regional competition for water and a growing population means that this is no longer the case. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a hydroelectric dam to the south of Egypt that is now 90% complete, threatens to divert even more water away from Cairo. Iran’s disputes with neighboring Afghanistan over the use of the Hirmand River have further contributed to water instability in the country. Palestine suffers from high levels of water insecurity, particularly in Gaza, partly because of Israel’s effective control over resources. Under the 1995 Oslo Accords, Israel controls approximately 80% of the region’s water reserves, while Israel has also seized water resources outside its jurisdiction as part of expansionist policies. The ability of Palestinians to build new water-related infrastructure is restricted because of Israel’s dominance of the Joint Water Committee (JWC), which effectively allows it to veto any proposals. The Palestinian territories now have some of the lowest per capita water availability in the world.
The MENA region sees some of the highest rates of population growth anywhere in the world. Lebanon and Jordan, for example, are in the world’s top five fastest-growing populations. The World Bank predicts that, partly because of these demographic trends, by 2030 the amount of water available per capita in MENA will fall below the absolute water-scarcity threshold (500 cubic meters per person per year). Population growth in certain countries is largely driven by regional migration, particularly refugees fleeing conflict. In Lebanon, rapid urban expansion, population growth and an influx of 1.5 million Syrian refugees have put further pressure on resources that, despite natural abundance, were already growing more scarce amidst economic vulnerability.
Financial instability in poorer MENA countries has also limited the ability of national governments to invest in the requisite infrastructure or technology to ensure water security, in contrast to Israel and the richer Gulf states (see Breakdown). Since the depreciation of oil prices in 2014 that prompted austerity measures in Algeria given its reliance on oil exports, the government has canceled several water infrastructure projects and new desalination plants. In the summer of 2021, several neighborhoods in Algiers had their access to tap water rationed, prompting social unrest. The World Bank has noted that the Lebanese government has not been able to invest in safe and reliable water supplies in light of serious economic volatility. Private companies have also struggled to maintain their infrastructure as the steep drop in the value of the Lebanese pound has made importing essential parts prohibitively expensive. For many citizens, clean water is no longer affordable as private companies hike their prices in light of rampant inflation. Less than 50% of the population has access to safely managed water, despite being in a country known for its natural water abundance.
2. Breakdown by Solution
Almost all countries across MENA face similar problems when it comes to water security: a challenging environment that is becoming even more difficult because of a changing climate, inefficient agricultural systems and rapid population growth, particularly in urban centers. However, despite all this, some countries have managed to achieve very high levels of water security. In Israel and across the Gulf, solutions have been found to drive up water efficiency — solutions that other countries in the region are increasingly trying to adopt, often with the assistance of international financial institutions.
The United Arab Emirates has been at the forefront of efforts to make agriculture more sustainable. The UAE has experimented with “vertical farms” — which allow plants to be grown without the need for soil and therefore with much less water — and in 2017 opened the region’s first commercial-scale vertical farm in Dubai’s Al Quoz area. Saudi Arabia has explored “smart irrigation” techniques that involve using technology to control and monitor crops to optimize water use and avoid waste. A pilot project in Al-Hassa reported a 44% decrease in water consumption and 21% increase in crop yields.
Oman has also looked to make its management of water generally higher tech and more efficient. In May 2023, the Oman Water and Wastewater Services Company (OWWSC) announced it would be investing an undisclosed sum in developing Oman’s water transmission networks and investing in new potable water capacity at strategic locations. OWWSC has also committed itself to developing a high-tech transmission system that allows it to meet water demand growth in any given area by shifting the country’s water resources to different regions at different times depending on demand. Countries with fewer resources have had to rely on blunter methods to avoid waste. In March 2021, for example, the Egyptian parliament tightened restrictions on the use of water for irrigation including “prohibiting drilling in groundwater without prior approval from the Ministry of Irrigation.”
Another solution, exemplified by Israel’s success in achieving high levels of water security despite a hostile environment, is desalination. Eighty percent of the country’s domestic urban water is supplied by five desalination plants, which are among the most efficient in the world, while 87% of wastewater is reused. Its water consumption per capita is near the bottom of the OECD member countries, with Israelis using an average of just 138 cubic meters compared to an OECD average of 691 cubic meters. Although desalination is a particularly energy-intensive, and therefore expensive, solution, other MENA countries have sought to replicate Israel’s success. In November 2022, Morocco’s National Office of Electricity and Water (ONEE) and the National Water Company of the State of Israel agreed to collaborate on water desalination and reusing treated wastewater. In December 2022, the Egyptian Sovereign Wealth Fund also announced plans to invest $3 billion to build 21 seawater desalination plants.
Israel, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and others have demonstrated to MENA that the solutions for water insecurity are there. However, the problem is access to capital for investment in infrastructure projects. International financial organizations, in particular the World Bank, have sought to assist relatively poorer countries secure funding for such projects.
In February 2023, the World Bank announced a $25 million grant for the Water Security and Resilience Project in Palestine, and a $15 million grant for the Resilient Municipal Services Project — two projects that aim to increase the volume of water available in the territories and deploy more sophisticated infrastructure to make the water supply more stable. In May, the World Bank also approved over $434 million in financing for Turkey’s Water Circularity and Efficiency Improvement Project, which is aimed at “improving wastewater and reuse services, increasing irrigation services and efficiency, and strengthening institutional capacity and coordination for managing water circularity.” In June, the institution gave the green light to $250 million in financing to help improve the efficiency of water services in Jordan, which it claims will allow around 1.6 million people to benefit from improved water services. This spell of announcements is a sign, perhaps, that international organizations are starting to dedicate increased attention and resources to water solutions in MENA, although there is still a long way to go.
• The coming period is likely to include increased tension between MENA countries on water issues, particularly given that formal cooperation between states remains limited. Only one MENA country, Iraq, is currently a signatory of the UN Water Convention. As resources become more and more scarce, expect countries with an advantage over natural resources, such as those that are home to the sources of rivers, to commence work on infrastructure designed to secure more water supply at the expense of neighboring countries. Sherine El-Wattar, a consultant for the International Water Management Institute based in Cairo, said that “we see this currently in Jordan and in Egypt, with the new dam that is being built. I can see that this is going to be replicated across many countries.”
• The potential proliferation of transboundary tensions could spawn a focus on water diplomacy. Iraq has expressed the hope that its accession to the UN Water Convention could encourage others to follow suit or at least engage in greater levels of formal diplomacy on the issue. Brouziyne said that “transboundary water and water diplomacy is something that I think will gain importance, especially given the current geopolitical context of the region. Water governance and conflict is a new concept that is starting to become more and more prominent.”
• Many MENA countries are currently facing serious economic issues in light of a challenging macroeconomic environment, higher interest rates globally, and the fallout from the pandemic and war in Ukraine. This could jeopardize efforts to invest in modernizing water infrastructure. Wattar pointed to Egypt as an example of this and said that “there are several infrastructure development projects that have been mentioned, such as making sure the canals in the Delta are well-equipped and building dams in the Sinai; however, there’s not enough budget to address the problem and especially the root problem, which is public awareness.”
• The COP28 conference, which starts in November in Dubai, could be an important moment for water diplomacy, both in the region and further afield. Previous conferences, such as COP27 in Sharm-el-Sheikh, have focused on how to unblock private investment flows into the water sector. Hassan Aboelnga, vice chair of the Middle East Water Forum in Berlin, told Al-Monitorthat this will be even more important in light of the economic situation. “I think for COP28, they should emphasize how we can establish efficient mechanisms through which richer countries can help provide financing for countries which are most affected by climate change, including in MENA,” Aboelnga said.
4. Case Study — Qatar’s Mega Reservoirs
Over the course of the last decade, Qatar has experienced significant demographic changes. Most importantly, its population grew by approximately 35% between 2011 and 2022, from 2 million to 2.7 million. This rapid expansion exacerbated problems with water security that the Gulf state had already faced for decades.
A limited supply of groundwater, a dropping water table, minimal rainfall and high levels of industrial water usage meant that Doha’s water security has long been precarious. Climate change is threatening to reduce rainfall further, with higher average temperatures also intensifying water evaporation and therefore putting more pressure on increasingly scarce resources. Exacerbating the issue is that Qatar sees one of the highest domestic water consumption rates in the world, with Qataris using an average of over 450 liters per day. This is partly because individuals do not pay for their water and are therefore not financially incentivized to limit its use. The country’s water consumption doubled between 2010 and 2020 owing to population growth and sizeable personal and industrial consumption of water.
Qatar had three primary desalination plants that provided most of the country’s freshwater — one in Ras Abu Fontas and two in Ras Laffan — but the relatively small size of these sites meant they were only able to store limited amounts of water at any given time. The Qatari authorities were concerned that a natural or manmade disaster at one or more of these sites represented a grave risk. Research revealed in 2017 showed that Qatar’s strategic water stock consisted of only two days’ worth of supply.
To address this problem, in 2015 Qatar started building five “mega reservoir” sites in strategic locations. The project was overseen by KAHRAMMA, the Qatar General Electricity and Water Corporation, in collaboration with international construction companies such as Arcadis, a British firm.
The initial stage of construction involved Qatar building five interconnected water sites, each with two to four reservoirs constructed at strategic locations along the Qatar National Utility Corridor. This delivered storage capacity of roughly 2,300 million gallons of water. The first reservoirs began operating in 2018 and immediately increased the country’s water storage capacity by 155%, ensuring water security until at least 2026. However, work is ongoing as Qatar now wishes to expand the five sites so that each can host nine reservoirs, all of which will be connected directly to the existing water transmission system in the water network. Work is expected to be completed by 2036 and will take Qatar’s strategic water stock to a much more secure level of seven full days’ worth of supply.
As part of this wide-ranging project, Qatar has also managed to improve its existing water infrastructure, with loss in the network falling to just 2% in 2020. This has helped drastically improve Qatar’s strategic water capacities — but it is estimated to have come at a cost of around $5 billion. Aboelnga told Al-Monitor that “we could potentially see richer countries in the Gulf region follow suit with similar projects” but added that “several countries have economic as well as water scarcity” and will therefore need to find alternative solutions.
5. Key Takeaways
➡ The increasingly pressing nature of MENA’s water security situation means that more time and resources will be spent on developing regional solutions. Desalination, which has played a major role in the success of Israel and some Gulf states, could be part of this, but its advantages will need to be balanced against its environmental impact. Laurent Lambert, assistant professor at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies and specialist in energy and water resources governance, said that “while desalination is very good in terms of human development and in terms of environmental sustainability, we’re not there yet. A lot of progress has been made — it’s way less polluting than it used to be and it’s way more energy efficient than it used to be. But it still has a concerning greenhouse gas emission footprint.”
➡ At least amongst the richer nations of the Gulf, it is likely that more investments will be made in technological solutions to the water security issue, including, Lambert suggested, in artificial intelligence (AI). “I really look forward to the development of AI in the region — smart cities could include using smart grids to improve efficiency and water security,” he said.
➡ In approaching the topic of water security, there will be a divide in the region between those rich enough to invest in expensive and high-tech solutions and those with more limited financial resources. It is likely that the latter will attempt to harness the power of the private sector and attract private investment into their water industries. Watter said she thinks “entrepreneurs in the region will start focusing a lot more on water solutions because of the challenges MENA is facing. It’s already happening to an extent: A new fund has just opened in Egypt, the Climate Resilience Fund, which is focusing on start-ups related to the environment.”
➡ To achieve higher levels of water security, greater power and resources should be given to domestic organizations at the local level to ensure that solutions are properly tailored to specific environments. Wattar noted that international organizations “usually adopt success stories from Global North governments, but these are not always adaptable to local contexts. We need to increase the capacities of decision-makers in MENA countries at the government level.”
➡ However, when approaching the topic of water security, it is important to recognize that water security is interconnected with food and energy issues. Private sector companies, NGOs and governments should work on formulating a broad strategy to tackle these intertwined issues concurrently. Aboelnga said that “it’s really important in the region to consider the nexus between water and food security, as well as energy issues. At times you’ll find that when citizens can’t afford water prices, for example, it’s because of higher energy prices.”
➡ The overall quantity of available water is not the only issue to consider — the quality of water should also be a cause for concern. Brouziyne told Al-Monitor that “water quality is another issue we’re not talking about a lot in the region. We have water pollution coming from anthropogenic activities — contaminants and pollutants from industrial activities as well as from households. We’re also seeing water degradation due to salinity and increased seawater intrusion. We have some areas in MENA where water cannot be used anymore, such as some of the coasts on the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.”
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