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Development and water in the Middle East

Development and water in the Middle East
2 July 2024 09:26

By: Mouza Almarzooqi*

Water scarcity is a growing threat to the economies and societies of the Middle East, with the amount of water available per capita steadily declining. As a result, the management of water resources in the region requires advanced technology, funding, and expertise. By 2030, the annual per capita water availability is predicted to fall below 500 cubic metres, which is the threshold for absolute water scarcity. According to World Bank estimates, by 2050, an additional 25 billion cubic metres of water will be required annually to meet the region’s demands beyond current resources. This underscores the critical need for significant investments in water desalination.

Without water, there can be no life, progress, or prosperity. However, climate change, desertification, population growth, unsustainable water extraction, deteriorating infrastructure, and transboundary water challenges all contribute to water scarcity. Alarmingly, over 60% of the population in the Middle East and North Africa live in areas with high or extremely high water stress. This is a compound threat, as the lack of water affects not only daily life and public health but also the agricultural sector. This is particularly critical since agriculture is a major industry in the economies of the region and any country depends on agricultural revenues for food security and exports.

Water shortages also affect livestock as they result in reduced pasture areas, leading to the deterioration of livestock health and the subsequent disruption of food supplies. If a country relies on hydropower for electricity generation, drought will hinder this process, thus hampering ongoing economic activities and diminishing investment appeal, particularly in economies heavily dependant on agriculture or water-intensive industries. 

The impact of water scarcity on a country’s stability is significant. Water problems can be linked to some international crises because droughts can lead to unrest or a rise in internal migration, as people will leave uninhabitable areas and seek out better living conditions elsewhere. This migration can put pressure on certain regions, exacerbate unemployment problems and potentially lead to unrest, especially if the migration is from a large area.

Considering these facts, it is essential to invest in water extraction technology, rainwater utilisation, water reuse, and seawater desalination. In the Arabian Gulf region, there are advanced examples in this regard, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The GCC countries, which suffer from water scarcity and a lack of surface water, have abundant solar energy that can be used to generate the electricity needed to operate desalination plants using “reverse osmosis.”

To achieve water sustainability and enhance groundwater reserves, Gulf countries have been able to use “cloud seeding” technology to accelerate rainfall. These countries have successfully made significant investments in water desalination innovations and cloud seeding at lower costs, coupled with efficient management of facilities. This has allowed them to gain a competitive advantage in terms of technology and human expertise to overcome the global challenge of water scarcity.

The depletion of water sources and climate change pose a serious threat to the countries in the region and their ability to provide access to water for their citizens. Although water resource management is improving, many more challenges still remain. In order to protect human life and promote development, it is important to adopt a method that helps address this major challenge. This includes investing in water infrastructure, efficiently utilising groundwater resources without over-extraction to protect the rights of future generations, relying on agricultural products that use less water, recycling wastewater, and building effective water management institutions.

Achieving water sustainability and alleviating the plight of people affected by water scarcity, hunger, malnutrition, and ineffective agricultural systems in the Middle East and North Africa is crucial for establishing a sustainable future. The region can eradicate poverty, achieve food security, and address climate change by implementing national strategies based on coordination between key ministries to support policy development. This involves adopting integrated water policies to improve water use efficiency, invest in water production and recycling, modernise distribution networks, and diversify sources.

Additionally, continuous public awareness campaigns are necessary to promote sustainable practises and water conservation in collaboration with civil society. Regional cooperation is also crucial for the management of water rights in shared rivers.

*The writer is a researcher and head of economic studies section at TRENDS RESEARCH & ADVISORY

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