Groundwater Nourishing Life by Dr Irfan Peerzada and published by Greater Kashmir applies to all areas of the planet, particularly to those regions that are at the forefront of the sweeping global warming.
It should be noted that this threat has been taking on an alarming dimension for several years. Risks and vulnerability analyses of the Climate Change effects on the MENA region were carried out on behalf of certain authorities in charge of the environment. Most came up with findings on the fragile sectors of agriculture and water resources and established maps from local and international data such as the “drought severity” map based on the World Resources Institute.
These analyses of risks and vulnerability to climate change developed by these experts for several years also indicated that climate change will cause the MENA region generally a rise in temperatures, a decrease in total rainfall but also a greater instability of the distribution of precipitation during the year. It will lead to a degradation of the vegetation cover and soils resulting in greater erosion and acceleration of desertification.
In the above-featured image “Groundwater is also critically important to the healthy functioning of ecosystems, such as wetlands and rivers. “Flickr [Creative Commons]
Reliance on groundwater for food production continues to increase globally
Groundwater is invisible, but its impact is visible everywhere. Out of sight, under our feet, groundwater is a hidden treasure that supports our lives.
Almost all the liquid fresh water in the world is groundwater. Life would not be possible without groundwater. Most arid areas of the world depend entirely on this resource.
Groundwater supplies a large proportion of the water we use for food production and industrial processes. Groundwater is also critically important to the healthy functioning of ecosystems, such as wetlands and rivers.
Groundwater: The invisible ingredient in food
Population growth, rapid urbanisation, and economic development are just some of the factors driving increased demand for water, energy and food. Agriculture is the largest consumer of the world’s freshwater resources. Feeding a global population expected to reach 9 billion people by 2050 will require a 50 per cent increase in food production.
Today, approximately 70% of global groundwater withdrawals are used in the agricultural sector, for the production of food, livestock and industrial crops. Reliance on groundwater for food production continues to increase globally, resulting in more use for irrigated agriculture, livestock and related industrial processes.
Indeed, about 30 per cent of all the water used for irrigation is groundwater, with regions heavily reliant on groundwater for irrigation such as North America and South Asia.
Groundwater has already lifted millions of people out of poverty and significantly improved food security, especially in India and East Asia, since technologies for drilling and energy sources for pumping were made widely available for rural farmers in the latter half of the 20th century.
Groundwater: a finite resource
Groundwater is being over-used in many areas of the world, where more water is abstracted from aquifers than is naturally recharged by rain and snow.
Continuous groundwater over-use can lead to depletion of this resource, compromising significant groundwater-dependent ecosystems and threatening to undermine basic water supply, agricultural production, climate resilience and food security.
Avoiding the problems of groundwater depletion requires increased management and governance capacity at multiple integrated levels and in inter-sectoral approaches. Reducing food waste can also play an important role in lowering water consumption.
Groundwater is polluted in many areas and remediation is often a long and difficult process. This increases the costs of processing groundwater, and sometimes even prevents its use.
The use of chemical and organic fertilizers in agriculture is a serious threat to groundwater quality. For example, nitrate is the most common contaminant of groundwater resources worldwide. Other diffuse contaminants of concern to groundwater from irrigated agriculture include pesticides and antimicrobial-resistant bacteria.
Laws and regulations need to be enforced at all levels to prevent or limit diffuse groundwater pollution from agriculture, to preserve ecosystems and human health.
What can we do about groundwater?
Groundwater has always been critically important but not fully recognized. We must protect groundwater from pollution and use it sustainably, balancing the needs of people and the planet. Groundwaters’ vital role in agriculture, industry, ecosystems and climate change adaptation must be reflected in sustainable development policymaking.
In some areas of the world, we do not even know how much groundwater lies beneath our feet, which means we could be failing to harness a potentially vital water resource.
Sustainable groundwater use requires continuous monitoring of water consumption, particularly in irrigation systems serviced from non-renewable aquifers.
Satellite technologies offer cost-effective opportunities for estimating groundwater consumption and abstraction levels by measuring actual evapotranspiration in near-real time, over large areas.
Dr Irfan Peerzada, Department of Agriculture, District Bandipora
Many countries in the MENA region, depend on groundwater as their main source of freshwater. Because the region suffers from the highest level of water scarcity stress in the world, it is absolutely vital that this reliable source of groundwater is looked after with due consideration of overexploitation and climate change can be lethal. The authors of this article recommend that all groundwater: depleting reserves must be protected around the world. Let us hear them.
Groundwater: depleting reserves must be protected around the world
Though water is central to our everyday lives and indeed life itself, we often mark World Water Day on March 22 not by reminding ourselves of all that water brings, but of the consequences of its absence or contamination.
Groundwater is our planet’s invaluable natural store of freshwater but it is woefully neglected. It differs from the water running off into rivers, lakes and wetlands as this underground flow derives from precipitation that occurred years, decades or even millennia ago. Much of the estimated 23 million km³ of groundwater in the upper 2 km of the Earth’s crust is ancient. Yet even the shallower and more easily accessible water, part which has been replenished by rain over the past half century, still greatly exceeds all other unfrozen water on Earth.
Found throughout landscapes on all continents, groundwater plays a vital role in not only sustaining water-dependent ecosystems during period of low or absent rainfall, but also providing people with access to safe water, especially off-grid communities. In drylands that stretch across around 40% of the world, groundwater is often the only perennial source of freshwater. It is estimated that half of the world’s drinking water and a quarter of all the water used in irrigation are currently sourced by groundwater drawn from wells and springs.
Groundwater flowing within rocks underground known as aquifers is generally more resilient to climate variability and change than surface waters. Therefore droughts – whose frequency and severity are amplified by global warming – often increase dependence upon groundwater. This was recently witnessed in Cape Town in South Africa, which narrowly avoided “day zero” when the municipal water supply would be turned off. It has even been argued that human evolution itself relied on continuous spring discharges during periods of extreme drought.
The world is expected to become more dependent upon fresh water stored as groundwater as societies adapt to a world in which rain falls less frequently but in heavier bursts brought about by climate change. Recent evidence suggests such changes in rainfall may favour groundwater replenishment in the tropics to cope with drier periods, and that irrigation with groundwater could address climate change threats to rain-fed agriculture.
Exploited and contaminated
Despite groundwater’s invaluable attributes, it is not immune to overexploitation or contamination. For instance, continued groundwater pumping in some of the world’s most productive food-growing regions – California’s Central Valley, the North China Plain, northwest India, the High Plains of the US – is rapidly depleting reserves.
Similarly, some of the world’s fastest growing cities such as Dhaka (Bangladesh) and Nairobi (Kenya) are struggling to reliably provide safe water as the groundwater below is running out. Groundwater depletion in both contexts disproportionately affects lower-income households and farmers who are typically less able to engage in a “race to the bottom” and drill deeper wells.
Groundwater in coastal areas is also becoming more salty, thanks to intensive pumping and rising sea levels, which both serve to drive sea water into underground aquifers. This salinisation especially affects groundwater in low-lying nations across the world and has the potential to force millions of people to leave their homes.
Use of groundwater is also impaired by the natural leaching of pollutants such as fluoride and arsenic from their host rocks – arsenic leaking into wells in Bangladesh has been described as the largest mass poisoning in history. Human activity, be it indiscriminate use of pesticides and fertilisers in agriculture, inadequate sanitation infrastructure, or ineffective regulation of industrial practices, also threatens the sustainability of groundwater use.
A common resource
As groundwater is out of sight, it has long been out of mind. Many countries struggle to monitor and evaluate their supplies, and only invest a tiny fraction of the resources they allocate to tracking surface water. There has also been a lack of investment in training and education in groundwater science, known as hydrogeology.
Like fisheries, groundwater is a commons, which is constantly threatened by The Tragedy of the Commons – a situation where individual users act in their own self-interest to deplete or degrade a resource, contrary to the collective good. The Nobel-Prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom showed that cooperation is possible, however. She identified a set of conditions from case studies that included shared use of groundwater in which a community of users regulates individual access to develop common-pool resources prudently and sustainably. If we are to make groundwater visible, and ensure it provides equitable and climate-resilient access to water throughout the world, then such cooperative approaches are urgently required.
The top featured image of Reuters is not only for illustration but meant to draw some attention to one of the most important cause of this traumatic situation of Egypt as well as that of many countries in the MENA region. Russia-Ukraine crisis poses a serious threat to Egypt, that with an over-population still on the rise, has a limited but diminishing arable lands area. Building on farmland coupled a certain lack of control of all real estate developments bear on the lower social classes; those supposed to be at the forefront of food production.
Russia-Ukraine crisis poses a serious threat to Egypt – the world’s largest wheat importer
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could create a global food security crisis. It is disrupting agricultural production and trade from one of the world’s major exporting regions. This threatens to drive rising food prices still higher and create scarcity, especially for regions most dependent on exports from Russia and Ukraine.
Particularly affected is the Middle East and North Africa – or MENA – region. These Arab countries consume the highest wheat per capita, about 128 kg of wheat per capita, which is twice the world average. More than half of this comes from Russia and Ukraine.
As agricultural and food security experts, we have explored the impacts of the war on the wheat market, focusing on Egypt.
Wheat is a key food item for Egypt, representing between 35% and 39% of caloric intake per person in the last few years. And wheat imports usually account for about 62% of total wheat use in the country.
Despite the government’s efforts following the global food crisis in 2007 to 2008 to diversify sources of cereal imports, the vast majority of cereal imports, between 57% and 60%, come from Russia and Ukraine.
A number of key policy actions are needed that will reduce dependence on Russia and Ukraine in the short term. This will help Egypt’s agriculture and food system to become fairer and more resilient – an absolute necessity in the context of looming threats from climate change, water scarcity and conflict.
Black Sea import disruptions
Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat. It imports a total of 12 to 13 million tons every year. With a population of 105 million, growing at a rate of 1.9% a year, Egypt has become increasingly dependent on imports to meet food needs.
Imports of cereal crops have been steadily increasing over the last three decades at a rate higher than that of domestic production.
Egypt’s wheat market and trade regime is largely controlled by government agencies. The General Authority for Supply Commodities, operating under the Ministry of Supply and Internal Trade, usually handles about half of the total wheat imported, while private trading companies handle the other half.
Government agencies are already feeling the impact of the war, which has led to recent cancellation of tenders due to lack of offers, in particular from Ukraine and Russia.
Still, there is no fear of shortage in the coming weeks. In early February, Egyptian MoSit Minister Aly Moselhy said that the country held sufficient inventory to cover five months of consumption. But the outlook beyond that is less clear.
With the abrupt closure of Ukraine ports and current maritime trade in the Black Sea – wheat is transported across the Black Sea – Egypt will have to find new suppliers if Ukraine is unable to export wheat this year and if sanctions against Russia impede food trade indirectly.
Such opportunities are, unfortunately for Egypt, limited.
Currently, wheat producers in South America – Argentina in particular – have larger than usual surpluses from the last harvest available to export. Overall, however, it will be difficult to expand the global wheat supply in the short run. About 95% of the wheat produced in the European Union and about 85% of that in the United States is planted in the fall, leaving those regions little room for expanding production in the near term.
In addition, wheat competes with crops such as maize, soybeans, rapeseed, and cotton, all of which are also seeing record high prices. In combination with record-high fertiliser prices (also exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine conflict), farmers in some regions may favour less fertiliser-intensive crops, such as soybeans.
About 20% of world wheat exports come from the Southern Hemisphere (primarily Argentina and Australia) which typically ship from December through March.
In addition, Canada and Kazakhstan are large producers that harvest in the fall. Over the coming year and beyond, their exports may be able to make up much of the deficit created by the loss from Ukraine production, but at a higher cost due to longer shipping routes and increased transportation costs triggered by higher oil prices.
Rising global wheat prices hit a 10-year high at US$523 per ton on March 7. This is a serious problem for the Egyptian government’s budget and a potential threat to consumer purchasing power.
Even just before the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war, prices of commodities in Egypt were increasing. The war has started adding further pressure and consumers are feeling these impacts.
Some countries have already imposed export restrictions in response to rising prices. These trends, coupled with disruptions in Russia’s and Ukraine’s exports, will likely add further upward pressures on prices going forward. Even under the most optimistic assumptions, global wheat prices will remain high throughout 2022 and the trend is likely to persist through 2023, given limits on expanding production.
The Egyptian government has been spending about US$3 billion annually for wheat imports. The recent price increase could nearly double that to US$5.7 billion. This, in turn, threatens Egypt’s Baladi bread subsidy program. This program provides millions of people with 150 loaves of subsidised bread per month. About 90% of the production cost is borne by the government at an annual cost of US$3.24 billion. The program requires about 9 million tons of wheat annually about half of the total wheat consumption in Egypt and three-quarters of Egypt’s wheat imports.
In the short term, Egypt needs to diversify its food import sources.
The government is actively exploring this option, while also increasing planned procurement from domestic sources by 38% over last year’s figure. The government has just announced a new and relatively higher buying price for domestic wheat from farmers.
In addition, the government has decided to ban exports of staple foods, including wheat, for three months to limit pressure on existing reserves.
In the long term, Egypt needs to explore options for reducing the gap between domestic supply and demand. Here are some of its options.
Boosting domestic wheat production will be challenging, as Egyptian farmers are already achieving high yields, relying on high input and water use. While there are some opportunities to expand arable land, modernise farming systems and improve water management practices, the country’s principal focus should be to adapt the farming system to address imminent water shortages and climate change threats and increase resilience, rather than unsustainably expanding production.
Reducing the high consumption and waste of bread has significant potential. Egyptians on average consume about 145 kg of wheat per capita annually – double the global average.
Improve the efficiency and targeting of the Tamween food subsidy program. This provides beneficiaries with ration cards for various foods. The program absorbs a large share of imported wheat and vegetable oils. Reforming it could reduce inefficiencies in the wheat sector and the cost of running the program.
In conclusion, the Russia-Ukraine war poses a big challenge to global food security and particularly difficult obstacles for Egypt. The short-term and long-term impacts will of course depend on how the war unfolds and affects exports from Russia and Ukraine over the coming months and years. Impacts on Egypt will also depend on other countries’ responses to global price hikes and cereal shortages.
Egypt can mitigate some of these impacts with short-term actions as outlined above, but major global shocks like the Russia-Ukraine war are also reminders of the need of longer-term reforms and solutions.
IHS Markit on 31 January 2022 posted this article written by Jihane BoudiafRalf WiegertYasmine Ghozzi on how the natural scarcity of water resources in the region as augmented by the current socio-economics and above all, like for the rest of the world, by climate change are causing the dilemmas MENA Governments are facing.
Water: The dilemmas MENA governments are facing
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has been increasingly affected by water-related issues. This has focused concerns on government ability to meet demand for this increasingly scarce resource, the associated potential for violent protests and interstate conflict, and the consequences for economic development.
The MENA region is heavily exposed to water stress risks. Water scarcity is endangering development of water-intensive sectors and threatens economic diversification of net energy exporters in the region.
Agriculture has the highest consumption rate of freshwater by far. The strong growth outlook for agriculture in several MENA countries signals that pressures on water resources will intensify, with policy goals facing potential reversal.
Climate change-related issues such as locust devastation confronts MENA countries with increased pressure to meet vital needs. State failure to address water supply issues threatens to become a major source of civil unrest; water scarcity will be an important trigger for regional conflicts.
Technical expertise in water management is increasingly likely to become a major tool to advance diplomatic objectives in the region.
The MENA region contains only 1.4% of global freshwater resources, making it the most water-scarce region worldwide, suffering from increasing desertification and droughts. The United Nations defines critical water stress – the highest possible category – as the situation of more freshwater being withdrawn than freshwater resources are available. Of the 16 countries facing critical water stress globally, 12 are in the MENA region: Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Qatar, Yemen, Algeria, Bahrain, Syria, Egypt, Oman, and Jordan. Those countries withdrew more than 10 times as much freshwater in 2018 than was available from renewable resources. The situation is, however, getting worse as freshwater supply is becoming increasingly scarce.
Demand is also growing, and demographics are unfavorable. IHS Markit expects the MENA region’s population to grow by 45% between 2020 and 2050, putting further strain on scarce water resources. The lack of, and rising prices for water restricts economic performance and slows development. MENA countries increasingly facing an existential dilemma between ensuring food security and water use, as well as expanding productive sectors such as the manufacturing and agricultural (either generate export revenues, like Morocco and Egypt or reduce import dependencies like the GCC countries). Developing these sectors is, however, problematic given that they are highly water-intensive, demonstrating an obvious policy contradiction that risks putting natural water supplies under further strain.
Agriculture is by far the largest consumer of water in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, and Iraq. In Israel, water withdrawal by agriculture represented about half of its total. Industrial water withdrawal was most prominent in Oman, where 13% of water was withdrawn for industrial purposes. For the region overall, IHS Markit currently projects agriculture to grow by 2.5% on average between 2020 and 2025. We forecast agriculture to perform strongly in Jordan, Oman, Qatar, the UAE, and Iran, which all have average growth rates for agricultural production ranging between 3.0% and 4.4%. Given the water scarcity in the region, such strong growth will also aggravate stress relating to water access across the region. There is a risk that the planned sectoral growth will not be realized in the absence of sufficient access to freshwater.
Producing freshwater in Saudi Arabia and the UAE is expensive, thus increasing the cost of agricultural production. In Saudi Arabia, nearly 80% of total water withdrawn is already used for agriculture, indicating the difficulty of sourcing additional water resources to permit agricultural expansion. The GCC is therefore likely to remain highly dependent on agri-food imports, notably for basic staples like rice, wheat and flour, and pulses, which are imported almost 100% across the GCC.
State failure to address water supply issues threatens to become a major source of civil unrest, with heightened risks of violent protests demanding better access to water and exposing governments’ inability to secure water resources. This is even more problematic for countries whose water security is not only dependent on improving water management and modernizing technologies but is also heavily dependent on the government’s ability to secure shared water resources from other countries. This is notably the case for Egypt, Iran, Turkey, and Israel.
Economically stronger countries like the GCC members and those that had already initiated national plans on water management (such as desalination processes and the modernization of irrigation systems for private, industrial, and agricultural usage) like Egypt and Israel, are likely better placed to improve access to water resources. Israel is likely to increasingly use water to advance its diplomatic objective of normalizing relations with MENA countries. In November 2021, Israel, Jordan, and the UAE signed a flagship energy-for-water deal, whereby Israel would double its annual supply of desalinated water to Jordan to 200 million cubic meters of desalinated water to water-stressed Jordan in exchange for 600MW of renewable electricity from a UAE-financed solar energy facility in Jordan. Israel’s ‘water diplomacy’ is facilitated by its position as one of the world leaders in water reuse and desalination, with 86% of its total wastewater being recycled. Having been in a situation of water shortage 10- 15 years ago, Israel currently has a surplus of water through a combination of recycling of wastewater and desalination technology, enabling it to export regionally. This places Israel as a key water stakeholder regionally in the coming years, which is likely to facilitate its access to MENA countries, thereby improving its prospects for pushing its normalization agenda within the MENA region.
The following outlines one particular area where to build low-carbon, resilient societies that share the same transboundary water situation of the MENA region.
The region is generally one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change, enduring extremely high temperatures, desertification, water scarcity, degraded marine and coastal ecosystems and high levels of air pollution.
Jordan has launched a US$600 million project in 2007 to pump water from its Disi aquifer in the south, signalling an end in sight to the kingdom’s chronic water shortage, experts and government officials say. But as it happens, it is not as simple as that.
It is argued that there are striking differences between the social, environmental, economic, and political perspectives of any groundwater essentiality between different countries. Thus, international law has been focused on this source of water. This is especially acute if critically relying on the groundwater that could be up to 97% of the whole water resources.
Al Disi Aquifer is known as a non-rechargeable type, as it is separated from any surface water or any water source. Accordingly, this aquifer is difficult to be sustainably utilized; its water, labelled fossil has been accumulated over a long time.
It is in the Arabian Peninsula, mostly in Saudi Arabia, but part of it is in Jordan. Jordan is a country of mostly arid land, with limited sources of water that has been and still is experiencing the hydro-hegemony influence of its other neighbour, i.e., Israel. In other words, the Jordan River, which is the only source of water in Jordan is being dominated and used by Israel, despite a certain agreement between the two countries.
Jordan has the scarcest water availability, suffering an extreme shortage of water, and its land is almost all arid, furthermore, it is considered affected by the hegemony of its neighbours’ concept, where most water resources are utilized without any restraints. Therefore, Jordan has focused on other sources like the Disi aquifer to maintain its basic needs of water.
Saudi Arabia’s land is arid with no underground water resources. Their economic development must have been oriented towards utilizing the fossil fuel that became the main source of the economy. The government focused on developing the agriculture of wheat mainly, to maintain certain food security, which contribute only to 1.7 of their GDP. It is assumed by the Draft Synthesis Report that agriculture had been supported by the government, but it is mainly dependent on the underground to the extent that some aquifers have dried up leading the government to recently stop its funding of the farming companies.
Al Disi aquifer is a very important source of freshwater for that area, located between Jordan and Saudi Arabia. This is due to its efficiency in the sustainable development of water with the environmental ecological balance. This aquifer lies in the huge area of almost all of Jordan and extends to the area of Tabuk that is in Saudi Arabia, comprising a confined type of groundwater aquifers. The City of Aqaba depends on the Disi aquifer as a main source of water. It is assumed to be an area of free trade and depend on tourism and investments even in times of shortage in the supply of water. The project of the Red Sea to Amman from the Jordan River will initiate an alternative water supply to Al Disi, and the water from the latter will be used in Aqaba city.
It is expected that Jordan will have less water in the future, and farming will suffer a shortage of water, according to the increasing pressure on water demand for domestic purposes. This is due to the significant increase in the refugees that came to Jordan from different neighbouring countries like Iraq and Syria. To this end, many assume that Jordan has reached an extreme shortage of water, and the Jordanian authorities should rely on other resources like the Jordan River, and co-operational negotiation is significantly essential to initiate more projects like the Red Sea-Dead Sea project will be very helpful to fill the gap of water needs.
Yet the most disappointing results of the situation of the watershed in Jordan is that both the Jordan and Yarmuk Rivers, which are the main sources of surface water, are suffering from extreme drawbacks, either from over abstracting or building dams for hydroelectric by neighbours. Thus, the most significant finding of this situation is that the aquifer water is important for Jordan natural resources, according to Musa Hantash, the Jordanian water secretary, saying that the “Al-Disi should be protected as national wealth for coming generations,” this is due to the aquifer vast spatial distances that are covered.
Both countries Saudi Arabia and Jordan had started to extract water from the aquifer in 1977 for different purposes, but in 1983 both have started to use this water excessively in agriculture.
The excessive of extracting water is due to the Lack of international mechanisms like the international agreement that guide the countries towards a framework of the sustainable manner in water utilization. Yet different transboundary agreements have different mechanisms.
This aquifer agreement represents one of the contemporary approaches to transboundary underground water management that focuses on the domestic allocation of water abstraction from specific areas and avoiding vulnerable ones, which support water management.
The fossil aquifer Al Disi like many transboundary aquifers between many MENA countries, like North-Western Sahara Aquifer Sass, Tunisian and Nubian Sandstone between Egypt and Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System in Chad, Egypt, Libya, and Sudan, the world’s greatest non-renewable aquifer. These aquifers are regarded as very essential to balancing the sustainable development of nature and keeping some control on sediments.
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Earth has been used as a building material for at least the last 12,000 years. Ethnographic research into earth being used as an element of Aboriginal architecture in Australia suggests its use probably goes back much further.
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