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MEEF - Middle East Projects News & Analyses - previous page


Drop in the ocean

The outlook for water sufficiency in the Arab world appears grim.


Water is the most important resource in the Arab region at present, and it will be scarce in the future. It is one of several elements which will shape and influence the region in the 21st century, including demographic growth, technology, multilateral and regional trade agreements, as well as peace and political stability in the Middle East.

The Arab world is characterised by high population growth rates amounting to 2.5 per cent per annum, which is significantly higher than the world rate of 1.7 per cent and that in industrialised countries of 0.7 per cent. This high growth rate generates a greater need for food and water for urban and industrial uses, especially that the tendency to urbanise has a strong impact on consumption and creates more demand on certain items. As the expansion of urban areas accelerates over time it adversely affects the environment, particularly the encroachment on agricultural land, forest lands, air and water pollution as well as desertification.


Meanwhile, in Arab countries, population growth increases by three per cent, at a time when unemployment stands at a high 20 per cent. Most of the unemployed are youth and graduates of high schools and universities, which is a factor in spreading poverty and threatening sustainable development. Furthermore, water scarcity constitutes the most formidable challenge to agriculture in almost all Arab countries.


While representing 10 per cent of the planet's land mass and five per cent of its population, the Arab world is home to only 0.5 per cent of global water resources. The number of Arab water scarce countries has risen from three in 1955 (Bahrain, Jordan and Kuwait) to 11 by 1990, including Algeria, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tunisia, UAE and Yemen. Other seven countries are anticipated to join the list by 2025. Aridity dominates most of the lands of the Arab region since the percentage of available land to total land is very low. Most of the region's cultivated land is rain-fed, whereas irrigated land is very limited amounting to 20 per cent of total cultivated land.


The percentage of irrigated land to total available varies greatly among countries of the region. It is 100 per cent for Egypt and the UAE, 15.1 per cent for Sudan and 7.3 per cent for Algeria.


With a population growth rate among the highest in the world, consumption of water increases at a faster rate than can be replenished naturally. In a region critically short on water, this depletion has been compounded by domestic pollution which has contributed to the deterioration of usable resources and a general decline in the quality of available water.

By year 2025, renewable water supplies in almost all countries of the region will fall below 700 cubic metres per capita. Despite some scope for greater efficiency in water use and recycling in the region, there is simply not enough water for expanding irrigated agriculture to meet the region's rising food needs. For example, over-exploitation of ground water for irrigation is a major concern for most countries in the Arabian Peninsula, the West Bank and Gaza. Along some coastal areas, this ground water has resulted in excessive water intrusion from the sea into ground water aquifers.

Naturally, scarcity of water in the Arab region could create tension and political instability, such as water conflicts between Turkey, Syria over water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers; and Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine over the Jordan River and others including underground water. These conflicts must be resolved through negotiations and a spirit of cooperation, such as the case with the River Nile which serves the development of the countries of the Nile Basin as a result of Egypt's leadership.

One of the most important issues related to the use of water in agriculture is food security. Given water availability in the Arab region, domestic production of food will not satisfy consumption needs since water resources are certain to fall short of fulfilling this target. Arab countries have to rely on food imports equivalent to 30-50 per cent of their consumption needs. Such imports have to be secured through foreign currency made available from increased exports, which implies that Arab economies become competitive on the world stage. At present, the food gap amounts to $15 billion, with the Arab world importing around 60 million tonnes of food annually, and 50 per cent of total cereal imports. Other foods include meat, sugar, legumes, vegetable oils, milk and dairy products.

It must be noted that food security does not mean self- sufficiency. It is determined by the ability of a country to ensure that all people at all times have both physical and economic access to basic food security. This means food availability either from domestic production and/or imports, stable food supplies within season and between seasons, accessibility to all segments of society through distribution systems and reasonable prices, as well as food safety.

First, in order to narrow an ever growing gap in water and food supplies, certain steps must be taken. The integration of Arab countries in one large common market is essential for its survival, and the subsequent integration in the world economy will lead to benefits from the global market. Although water is the most scarce resource in the Arab region, it is one variable in the development process, hence integrated development policies, including water as an economic resource, must be adopted.

Moreover, it is necessary to compile enough data about surface and underground water resources. One major step would be the formation of a group of experts in water resources, agriculture, political and international law to assist countries in resolving water conflicts peacefully.

Also, since 80 per cent of cultivated land in the Arab region is rain-fed, greater efforts must be devoted to enhance its productivity through better management and drought resistant crops. It is also important to strengthen agricultural research to produce varieties of crops with lower water requirements and shorter cycles.

Since water quality is an essential requirement, anti- pollution devices and policies must be applied as well as advanced technologies for water treatment. In the meantime, farmers should be encouraged to take part in the implementation of national water policies through water users' associations.

Last but not least, a long-term strategy for water resources in the Arab region is needed for the efficient use of water. Renewable energy should be given a wider role in areas of water treatment and desalination, while a common fund for Arab water security should be created in order to finance necessary research and water projects.


Al Ahram Weekly


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