Is the Middle East running out of water?

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The drums of water wars have been banging in the Middle East for decades. From local journalists to taxi drivers and heads of state, many see these wars as inevitable. The argument runs that with climate change and booming populations, there isn’t going to be enough water for everyone. What follows is intuitively simple: when people run out of water, they reach for a Kalashnikov or summon an air-strike. Yet, historical records show that full-blown war over water resources has not taken place in the Middle East, nor anywhere else in the world. Most conflicts over water are subnational, and water shortages are rarely their sole motivation.

Looking ahead, it is clear that climate change and population growth are making the Middle East’s water woes more urgent. However, this does not mean that countries in the region will run out of water nor go to war over water. In fact, there are reasons to be optimistic. Individuals, communities and countries can – and already do – address water scarcity in multiple ways.

The first strategy is to use less water and reduce waste. Reducing water use and using water more wisely is the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly way to address water scarcity. In the UAE, the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment set hydroponics, a cultivation method that uses no soil and very little water, as a key priority. In 2014, it launched a 100 million Emirati dirham (about 25 Million Euros) fund to support farmers in establishing hydroponic farms, which use 80 to 95% less water than traditional farming methods. For this strategy to be successful, careful measurement and monitoring (what specialists call water accounting) are needed to demonstrate that policies and investments, such as water meters or efficient irrigation systems, lead to real water savings. Using less water also means changing diets, and reducing consumption of water-intensive animal products.

Second, countries are reallocating water. When water is saved in one sector – for example, in agriculture – more of it can be allocated to other sectors, for instance to meet demands of households and industries. In Jordan, water reallocation between governorates and between sectors is a key pillar of the country’s water strategy. For example, the water saved by farmers in the Mafraq basin is helping to meet Amman’s drinking water demand.

PHOTO CREDIT: ©FAO/Khaled Desouki

Increasing water supplies, through water harvesting, desalination or wastewater reuse is also important. 82% of the region’s wastewater is not recycled, and this is a major missed opportunity to increase water supplies while also avoiding environmental pollution. Fortunately, this is slowly changing: technologies and institutional arrangements to treat and reuse wastewater for forestry, agriculture, landscaping, and aquifer recharge are being tested and implemented. In Jordan, the As-Samra wastewater treatment plant treats Amman’s wastewater, which is then used to irrigate crops in the Jordan valley, and similar approaches are being implemented across the region.

Finally, countries are circumventing water scarcity through ‘virtual water’ trade, that is, by importing the water embedded in agricultural commodities. Trade allows countries to meet their food needs without having to rely on their own land and water resources to produce goods. When used with appropriate measures to protect the poorest members of society from food price fluctuations, trade is a significant instrument to cope with water scarcity.

Solutions to meet the growing demand for water in the Middle East exist, and are within reach.  The challenge is to accelerate uptake, through access to finance and, more importantly, through the development and strengthening of institutions and their human capital. The challenge is also to change the narrative around water. As research shows, water is not a threat that leads to war, but an opportunity for cooperation and sustainable development.