New Data Show Water Scarcity Is Increasing in the Arab World, Stirring Discussion
Eighteen out of the 22 Arab countries are suffering from severe water shortages, and ten of them face “extremely high” water stress due to increasing demand, new data from the World Resources Institute shows.
“If there is a dry year, these countries will face serious consequences,” said Rutger Hofste, a researcher at the institute, a global nonprofit research organization, and lead author of an article describing the new findings. “These dry seasons will worsen with climate change.”
The findings, published this month on the World Resources Institute’s Aqueduct 3 platform, update data analyzing the amount of water drawn from surface and groundwater sources in regions around the world, compared to the total available annual renewable supply.
The principal cause of growing water scarcity worldwide, according to the World Resources Institute, is increasing demand because of urbanization, economic development and population growth. In the Middle East and North Africa, climate change further complicates the situation, as precipitation becomes more variable and rising temperatures increase demand.
“Water withdrawals are doubling globally, and this has a big impact,” Hofste said.
The World Resources Institute’s data show that the global rate of water withdrawal and the amount of freshwater extracted from ground and surface water rose two and a half times between 1961 and 2014. Water demand for agricultural use, including crop irrigation, has more than doubled over the past half century and now accounts for about 67 percent of the water consumed every year. In 2014, industries required three times more water than in 1961, accounting for 21 percent of total water withdrawals. At the same time, domestic use, which accounts for 10 percent of water consumption, is more than six times higher than in 1961.
In the Middle East and North Africa, 10 states—Qatar, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Libya, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman—are the countries at greatest risk of water shortage, as they are withdrawing more than 80 percent of their available freshwater reserves for agriculture, industry and urban needs every year, placing them at the highest level of water stress.
Yemen, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria, Djibouti, Iraq and Egypt come next in this regard, withdrawing 40 to 80 percent of their renewable freshwater each year for the same purposes. (See a related article, “Researchers See Water at Root of Tunisia’s Inequality Problem.”)
Two Arab League member states, Sudan and Mauritania, fell within the group of countries the institute found at a “medium-high” level of water stress, using 20 to 40 percent of their renewable water reserves annually.
One member state, Somalia, was in the low-to-medium range, using about 10 percent of its reserves annually. Comoros was not included in the institute’s data.
“The new data are not a surprise to me or to any expert working in the water sector,” said Jauad Al Kharraz, director of research at the Middle East Desalination Research Center (MEDRC), an international organization based in Oman that works on solutions to freshwater scarcity in the region. “Still, these data are important to remind everyone of the dangers related to water stress and the need to address them quickly and find sustainable solutions.”
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Alternative Sources Needed
“Water use must be re-prioritized and alternative sources should be sought,” said Nader Noureddine, a professor of soil and water resources at Cairo University.
According to Noureddine, Egypt has a water deficit of 42 billion cubic meters a year. “We have five major crops that consume 65 percent of the total water,” he said. (See a related article, “Water Is Scarce in Egypt; So Are Research Funds.”)
Osama Salam, an assistant professor at Egypt’s National Research Center and director of water projects at the Environment Agency in Abu Dhabi, agrees with Noureddine regarding the need to seek alternative sources of water.
“Egypt needs to reassess the role of groundwater and desalination of seawater to reallocate it as freshwater sources to meet the expected water shortage in the near future,” he said. A shortage is imminent, he said, “due to a population growth estimated at 2.05 percent annually, and the high annual per capita consumption of domestic water of about 102 cubic meters, besides the expected negative impact of the operation of the Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam.”
On a worrying note, the World Resources Institute’s data reveal that many areas suffering from severe water stress are located in conflict zones, and water scarcity can be a contributing factor in fomenting conflicts. These areas include Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Many areas that have to absorb large numbers of displaced people, such as Jordan and Turkey, also suffer from water stress.
“The water situation is very difficult globally, especially in the Middle East,” said Maher Abu-Madi, a professor at the Institute of Environmental and Water Studies at Birzeit University, in Palestine. “However, the water crisis in most of these countries is political and administrative, and not physical.”
Abu-Madi was surprised that Israel was ranked as having a high level of water stress despite the presence of Lake Tiberias, the Jordan River, groundwater, desalination of sea water and wastewater treatment. “This is misleading and far from true,” he said. “I think this result is due to the integration of the Palestinian situation into the results of the occupation.”
According to Abu-Madi, there is a big difference between the situations in Palestine and Israel, especially in terms of the great financial resources of the Israeli forces and how this is reflected in the investment in infrastructure and the necessary technologies in the water sector.
“The occupation has seawater desalination and wastewater treatment and reuse projects,” he said. “In Palestine, the situation is still in the beginning and waiting to get its water rights from the occupation first.”
Hofste, a researcher at the World Resources Institute, points to the need for good water management practices, as socioeconomic factors are the main driver of pressure on the world’s water resources. “Countries facing water challenges can deal with their crises,” he said.
Leah Schleifer, a researcher and Hofste’s colleague at the institute, also stresses the role of governments to better respond to water scarcity crises.
“These countries should first measure their water supply and demand, to understand the causes,” she said. “Then they should invest in possible solutions such as wastewater treatment and recycling, increased agricultural efficiency and infrastructure repair.”
According to a 2018 World Bank study, about 82 percent of wastewater in the Middle East and North Africa region is not recycled. (See a related article, “Researchers’ Recycled Water Meets Farmers’ Suspicion.”)
The United Arab Emirates, for example, desalinates more than 2 billion cubic meters of water a year and recycles 70 percent of its wastewater, a figure that’s expected to reach 100 percent by the end of this year, said Kamal Rabie, a professor and researcher at the agricultural research center in Egypt.
“The Gulf region now has the largest number of desalination plants in the world, with a total capacity of 11 million cubic meters per day, equivalent to about 50 percent of the world’s daily desalinated water production,” said Rabie.
Oman, a country with a very high level of water stress, is treating 100 percent of its collected wastewater and reusing 78 percent of it
“Exploiting this resource is a great opportunity to increase the water supply,” said Schleifer.