Water Security in the Middle East and North Africa 

According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), the MENA region is one of the most water insecure regions of the planet and that “roughly two thirds of the Arab World’s surface water supplies originate outside the region” and as put by Amit Pandya, Stimson Centre Fellow and Cipher Brief expert, would require extensive cooperation between regional countries to manage. Water Security in the MENA region should consequently be at the top of the elites’ agendas and second to none. 

Water resources, as aggravated by global climate change, local populations’ explosion, and non-ending regional conflicts, not only continue to outstrip supply but also make it difficult to store and rationally distribute the little of that is available. 

Amit Pandya in a write up of August 19th, 2016 that is reproduced below, observed, that perhaps the most important first step will be to “avoid wringing our hands at the impossibility of reversing large scale natural processes and understand water as a resource that is, has been, and should be managed.”  

The Centre of Security Discourse and Planning

In 2016, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has experienced record-setting high temperatures. This is seen by meteorologists as part of a steady trend that will not abate and has led experts to predict that stress on water endowments and supplies in the region could in turn spur conflict and population displacement in the world’s most water-scarce region. As populations grow, per capita water demand rises and global climate change intensifies.  Per capita water availability in the MENA region is projected to halve by mid-century.

Water is, of course, essential to human life. In a region that is the locus of some of the world’s most intense and complex conflicts, water should therefore be placed at the center of security discourse and planning. There has certainly been some attention to the security implications of water and related economic and governance issues. However, immediate political and ideological developments have understandably dominated the mainstream security discourse, particularly among policy makers, and have obscured equally important issues such as water, environmental change, and economic and demographic trends. These have largely remained specialist interests. This must change if adequate and responsive policies are to be developed by the international community and by those powers, such as the United States, with a stake in the region.

Managing water has been fundamental to the development of human societies in the Middle East and North Africa. The role of the Nile in Egyptian civilization, from antiquity to the present, is axiomatic, and the role of water management in the rise of civilization itself is reflected in the legal codes of ancient Mesopotamia, where the Codes of Ur-Nammu and Hammurabi, dating back four millennia, set rules for the proper use and maintenance of common water works.

This suggests that we should avoid wringing our hands at the impossibility of reversing large scale natural processes and understand water as a resource that is, has been, and should be managed. Accordingly, we need to emphasize the importance of water policy, both within and from outside the region.

Meeting the challenge will require enhanced innovation and reform within the water policy communities and economies of the MENA countries, as well as increased cooperation, data sharing, knowledge, and capacity building between them, and a recognition by the international community of its responsibility to support these efforts.

Annual renewable water supplies in MENA are approximately 620 billion cubic meters (BCM), compared to Africa’s almost 4000 BCM, Asia’s 12,000 BCM, and a world total of approximately 43,000 BCM. MENA’s per capita annual water availability is estimated by water experts to be only around two thirds of the amount that is needed to prevent a significant constraint on socio-economic development, making the region the most water stressed in the world. Indeed, many MENA countries suffer from levels as low as 10 percent of the MENA regional figure. The region has approximately seven percent of the world’s population and less than 1.5 percent of the world’s renewable freshwater supply. At the same time, richer states, like members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), have some of the highest per capita water consumption rates in the world.

This scarcity is compounded by population growth, migration, industrialization, urbanization, pollution, and climate and other environmental change, along with the proliferation of energy-intensive lifestyles. Growing water demand, decreasing water availability, and deteriorating water quality are the result.

Issues of water scarcity and choices about water policies affect farming (crop choice, growing seasons, and pests), fisheries, forestry, livestock, hydropower, and industry, all of which have an impact on agricultural production, food security, and rural and urban livelihoods. Competition among uses, such as irrigation, municipal uses, and energy production, can damage public health and social welfare, thus creating political instability and posing significant internal security risks.

Some MENA countries have low levels of renewable water resources, such as flowing rivers, and must rely on groundwater and desalination for most of their supply.   Others get much of their water from river systems they share with other countries. The former group includes Bahrain, the Gaza Strip, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Yemen. The latter Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank, Sudan, and Syria.

Much of the MENA region relies upon transboundary water resources. International competition and conflict are inevitable and have, in many cases, already occurred. However, these shared resources can also be occasions for unprecedented cooperation, given the urgent need for water.

Two-thirds of the Arab world’s surface water supplies originate outside the region. Roughly 90 percent of the Euphrates’s annual flow, for instance, and half of the Tigris’s water supply rises in Turkey. More than half of Iraq’s renewable water originates outside the country. Sudan and Syria receive some three quarters of their water from beyond their borders; and Bahrain, Egypt, and Kuwait depend on external sources for more than 95 percent of their renewable freshwater.

In addition, underground water resources, including fossil water, are little noticed or discussed by non-specialists. Significant transboundary aquifers in the region include the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer beneath Egypt, Libya, Chad, and Sudan; the Northwestern Sahara Aquifer System underlying Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia; and the Basalt Aquifer shared by Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Several MENA countries derive one-third or more of their water supplies from underground reservoirs. But many states are depleting their groundwater at an unsustainable rate. Annual withdrawals exceed 108 percent of renewable resources in Iran, 350 percent in Egypt, 800 percent in Libya, and 954 percent in Saudi Arabia. When these water sources cross political boundaries, it is easy to see sources of conflict at such ruinous rates of withdrawal.

As with river systems, countries and other entities will need to better map and assess groundwater resources, and negotiate policies for its extraction, its sustainable management, and its equitable allocation.

Some water strategies that have been adopted in MENA — such as desalinization in the Gulf and dam construction on the major river systems — have side-effects that pose additional environmental, economic, and social stresses. Other strategies, such as Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM), are models of skillful and successful management, in Oman for example.

A modest but substantive approach by the international community to address these issues might consist of technical assistance and financing for water quality monitoring and improvement, climate change adaptation, community and stakeholder participation, and knowledge sharing.

The last should be focused around cooperation and exchange between institutions within MENA, such as the Arab Integrated Water Resources Management Network (AWARENET), and national and regional scientific institutions, such as the Islamic World Academy of Sciences and the Sahara and Sahel Observatory. However, institutions and governments from outside the region also have much to contribute in this respect.

Amit A. Pandya is a non-resident Fellow at the Stimson Center.  He is an international lawyer whose research interests include social, environmental and economic trends in the Arab world and South Asia.  He has served as Counsel to Subcommittees on National Security and International Operations in the U.S. House of Representatives, Director of the Humanitarian Assistance Office in the U.S. Department of Defense, Deputy Assistant Administrator for Asia and the Near East at the U.S. Agency for International Development, a member of the Department of State’s Policy Planning Staff and Chief of Staff to the International Labor Affairs Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor.