Lack of water endangers regional economies

For a region so rich in oil reserves, water scarcity has become a huge cause for concern.

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By  John Irish Published  October 8, 2003

If there's one topic that the Middle East's leaders should not ignore, it's the issue of water scarcity. Unfortunately, at the World Bank/IMF meetings the subject was somewhat overshadowed by the call for better governance in the region and few delegates sat through the two hour seminar focusing on the water issue.

"There is no magic solution. Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries have been facing this crisis for the last 30 years and will continue to do so, unless they establish a long-term vision," Jordan's minister for water, Dr Hazem Al Nasser, told the audience.
The facts speak volumes.

Agriculture accounts for between 5-25% of GDP in MENA countries, yet 90% of all water goes into this sector. The Middle East makes up 5% of the world's population, yet only has access to 1% of fresh water and even then availability of water as a whole has declined since 1985 and is now lower than in Africa.

According to Jean-Louis Sarbib, senior vice president for human development at the World Bank, each individual's share of water in the Arab region is around 1,200 cubic meters per year, an average that is just over the minimum set by the UN of 1,000 cubic meters per year.

However, Yemen is already 50% below that at 500 cubic metres. Figures indicating that MENA will also see a doubling of the population in the next 30 years mean that a careful strategy to conserve water urgently needs to be put in place.

At grassroots level, education must play a role in raising awareness of how to use water and not waste it. "Domestic usage can be improved through metering, new pricing strategies and the recycling of 'grey' water - water used for washing and other domestic uses," said Fady Juez, managing director, METITO, a firm dealing with water supply.

Desalination plants are often considered the most effective way of increasing water resources, yet saving resources should be the main focus, experts said. While it can cost as little as 50 cents to desalinate each cubic metre of water, areas that need the water are often located far away, meaning that transportation costs increase the overall cost of water.

Over the last few years, the call for private public partnership to increase efficiency and create long term water resource management plans has also increased. However, there has been very little activity on this front, largely due to the bureaucratic mentality that influences administrative decisions. Consequently, as Dominique Mangin d'Ouince of Suez Environnement explains, private firms currently think twice before coming to the region.

A rethinking current agricultural policies could well help alleviate the water crisis. By selecting higher yield crops that may appeal more to the export market and making irrigation methods more efficient, the region could save as much as 40% of water outlay, as happened in California.

All in all, working as a region to overcome the problem will be key, something that may prove difficult in the Middle East. Nevertheless, experts are confident that water scarcity will not lead to wars, as has been predicted. "I don't believe it will create conflict. Of course water rights create sensitivities. I think it is vital to co-operate. This is the case between Jordan and Israel with regard the Dead Sea," says Jordan's Al Nasser.

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