The forthcoming World Economic Forum Annual Meeting will answer some questions: How can the Middle East and North Africa manage the region’s water crisis? In the meantime, let us see what it is all about.
How can the Middle East and North Africa manage the region’s water crisis?
Nearly 90% of children in the region live in areas of high or extremely high water stress.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is one of the most water-scarce regions in the world.
For years, the water crisis has exacerbated conflict and political tensions. Moreover, the issue continues to significantly impact the health and wellbeing of people in the area, especially women and children. In fact, according to UNICEF, nearly 90% of children in the region live in areas of high or extremely high water stress.
As global temperatures rise and the climate crisis accelerates, the MENA water crisis is expected to worsen – and impact economic growth. The World Bank found that climate-related water scarcity could lead to economic losses equaling up to 14% of the region’s GDP over the next 30 years.
Yet technological innovations and advanced water-management systems are helping to mitigate the situation. This includes the development of major desalination plants, as well as the implementation of sustainable agriculture and water-recycling programmes.
Ahead of the World Economic Forum’s 2023 Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, four industry leaders share their thoughts on the MENA water crisis and detail ongoing efforts to help the region overcome water scarcity in the coming years.
Peter Terium, Chief Executive Officer, ENOWA; Managing Director, Energy, Water & Food, NEOM
“In NEOM, located in the north-west of Saudi, underground water has been more and more used for agriculture and irrigation due to the increase in population in the region. This has led to a drop in the ground water table and has dried up many of the springs in the area, changing the face of the environment. The aquifers no longer have the capability to regenerate themselves due to the water demand and open dumping of wastewater on the land has led to pollution of this scarce resource.
“By replacing the underground water used for irrigation with the desalinated water, and processing the wastewater and recycling all water that normally goes to waste, we will rebalance the ecosystem and bring back the natural oasis in the region. ENOWA, NEOM’s energy and water subsidiary, is creating a circular water system. To realize this, we bring together innovation across the water value chain, and beyond.
“Globally, average water loss is about 30%. By using innovative technologies, ENOWA aims to reduce loss to 3% which reduces the overall infrastructure and costing for water. With smart monitoring technologies, 100% recycling of wastewater, and the production of clean industrial resources, we are maximizing the potential of water use in industry, farming and to rebalance nature.”
“With our circular approach, we are positively impacting NEOM’s flora and fauna, and we hope to amplify the positive impact across the world.
— Peter Terium, Chief Executive Officer, ENOWA
A boat lies on the dried-out shore of the Euphrates river in Syria. Image: REUTERS/Orhan Qereman
Bahrain Economic Development Board
“Gulf Cooperation Council members are taking a multi-faceted approach to addressing water scarcity. Saudi Arabia’s Rabigh 3 Independent Water Plant produces 600,000 cubic metres of desalinated water a day using reverse osmosis. It can meet the needs of 1 million households and is recognised by Guinness World Records as the world’s largest reverse osmosis desalination plant.
“Bahrain EDB focuses on attracting investments and building solutions that have a positive impact on issues like water scarcity, such as Pavilion Water – a water desalination specialist that produces fresh water with zero greenhouse gas emissions.
“Innovative farming is also helping produce more food with less water across the region. UAE-based start-up Smart Acres is a vertical indoor hydroponic farm that, compared to traditional methods, yields 20 times as much food while using a tenth of the land and 90% less water.
Paddy Padmanathan, Vice-Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, ACWA Power
“Billions of people around the world lack adequate access to water, a basic need to sustain healthy life. The Middle East and North Africa is the worst off in terms of physical water stress receiving less rainfall than other regions but, yet having fast-growing, densely populated urban centres that require more water.
“Immediately the awareness of the issue needs to be heightened and consumption needs to be contained at 150 litres per day. But to even supply that low level of consumption, we need to keep innovating.
“We at ACWA Power continue to stretch technology to reduce energy, chemical and sophisticated consumables consumption by challenging conventional practices, increasing the use of big data, the phenomenal power of computing, advanced analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence to reduce the cost of taking salt out of seawater (desalination) and by increasing the utilization of renewable energy also simultaneously reduce the carbon footprint of this energy intensive process to increase the provision of potable water at a progressively lower cost reducing the impact on climate change.
“With the track record of being the leading desalinator in the world, today dispatching 6.4 million cubic metres per day of desalinated water we are proud to have led the cost reduction challenge by bringing the cost of desalinated water from $2+ per cubic metres just a few years ago to less than $0.50 per cubic metres today.”
Majid Al Futtaim Holding
“With some of the highest per-capita water-consumption rates, a hot and dry climate, wasteful water infrastructure and a heavy reliance on greenhouse gas-producing desalination, MENA countries are particularly affected by water scarcity. The region’s rapid population growth has also led many countries to rely heavily on ever-depleting ground and surface water.
“At Majid Al Futtaim, we understand the scale of the issue and began addressing it as part of our sustainability strategy. We developed a clean water investment strategy that focuses on investing in water generation technology, local offsetting and the development of renewable-powered reverse osmosis desalination plants.
“As a diverse business operating across industries, Majid Al Futtaim is present in several sectors that are typically characterised by high water use. Yet the company takes several steps to effectively minimise its water footprint.
— Majid Al Futtaim Holding
“In our food and beverage retail sector, 80% of products are sourced locally from the region. We’ve also introduced micro irrigation systems and hydroponic farms into our supply chains to minimise water loss and promote sustainable farming. Meanwhile, in the fashion industry, which as a whole uses 93 billion cubic metres of water annually, Majid Al Futtaim engages with suppliers to offer sustainably made products designed to last longer as well as be re-used or recycled.
“Majid Al Futtaim also institutes sustainable water management systems into its building and community development sector. This includes, for instance, the use of on-site water treatment technologies and sustainable gardening practices.”
MADRID, Dec 1 2022 (IPS) – Drought is one of the ‘most destructive’ natural disasters in terms of the loss of life, arising from impacts, such as wide-scale crop failure, wildfires and water stress.
In other words, droughts are one of the “most feared natural phenomena in the world;” they devastate farmland, destroy livelihoods and cause untold suffering, as reported by the world’s top specialised bodies: the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).
They occur when an area experiences a shortage of water supply due to a lack of rainfall or lack of surface or groundwater. And they can last for weeks, months or years.
Exacerbated by land degradation and climate change, droughts are increasing in frequency and severity, up 29% since 2000, with 55 million people affected every year.
The impacts of climate change are often felt through water – more intense and frequent droughts, more extreme flooding, more erratic seasonal rainfall and accelerated melting of glaciers – with cascading effects on economies, ecosystems and all aspects of our daily lives, Petteri Taalas, WMO Secretary-General
By 2050, droughts may affect an estimated three-quarters of the world’s population. This means that agricultural production will have to increase by 60% to meet the global food demand in 2050.
This means that about 71% of the world’s irrigated area and 47% of major cities are to experience at least periodic water shortages. If this trend continues, the scarcity and associated water quality problems will lead to competition and conflicts among water users, adds the Convention.
Most of the world already impacted
The alert is loud and strong and it comes from a number of the world’s most knowledgeable organisations.
To begin with, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) on 29 November 2022 reported that most of the globe was drier than normal in 2021, with “cascading effects on economies, ecosystems and our daily lives.”
Between 2001 and 2018, UN-Water reported that a staggering 74% of all-natural disasters were water-related.
Currently, over 3.6 billion people have inadequate access to water at least one month per year and this is expected to increase to more than five billion by 2050.
In Africa, major rivers such as the Niger, Volta, Nile and Congo had below-average water flow in 2021.
The same trend was observed in rivers in parts of Russia, West Siberia and in Central Asia.
On the other hand, there were above-normal river volumes in some North American basins, the North Amazon and South Africa, as well as in China’s Amur river basin, and northern India.
The impacts of climate change are often felt through water – more intense and frequent droughts, more extreme flooding, more erratic seasonal rainfall and accelerated melting of glaciers – with cascading effects on economies, ecosystems and all aspects of our daily lives, said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.
“Changes to Cryosphere water resources affect food security, human health, ecosystem integrity and maintenance, and lead to significant impacts on economic and social development”, said WMO, sometimes causing river flooding and flash floods due to glacier lake outbursts.
The cryosphere – namely glaciers, snow cover, ice caps and, where present, permafrost – is the world’s biggest natural reservoir of freshwater.
Being water –or rather the lack of it– a major cause-effect of the fast-growing deterioration of natural resources, and the consequent damage to the world’s food production, the theme of World Soil Day 2022, marked 5 December, is “Soils: Where food begins.”
18 naturally occurring chemical elements are essential to plants. Soils supply 15.
Agricultural production will have to increase by 60% to meet the global food demand in 2050.
33% of soils are degraded.
In addition to the life of humans, animals, and plants, one of the sectors that most depend on water–crops is now highly endangered.
Indeed, since the 1950s, reminds the United Nations, innovations like synthetic fertilisers, chemical pesticides and high-yield cereals have helped humanity dramatically increase the amount of food it grows.
“But those inventions would be moot without agriculture’s most precious commodity: fresh water. And it, say researchers, is now under threat.”
Moreover, pollution, climate change and over-abstraction are beginning to compromise the lakes, rivers, and aquifers that underpin farming globally, reports the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
Salinised and plastified
Such is the case, among many others, of the growing salinisation and ‘plastification’ of the world’s soils.
In fact, currently, it is estimated that there are more than 833 million hectares of salt-affected soils around the globe (8.7% of the planet). This implies the loss of soil’s capacity to grow food and also increasing impacts on water and the ability to filter pollution.
Soil salinisation and sodification are major soil degradation processes threatening ecosystems and are recognised as being among the most important problems at a global level for agricultural production, food security and sustainability in arid and semi-arid regions, said the UN on occasion of the 2021 World Soil Day.
Among the major causes that this international body highlights is that in some arid areas, there has been an increase in the amount of wastewater used to grow crops.
“The problem can be exacerbated by flooding, which can inundate sewage systems or stores of fertiliser, polluting both surface water and groundwater.” Fertiliser run-off can cause algal blooms in lakes.
Meanwhile, the amount of freshwater per capita has fallen by 20% over the last two decades and nearly 60% of irrigated cropland is water-stressed.
The implications of those shortages are far-reaching: irrigated agriculture contributes 40% of total food produced worldwide.
Soils are highly living organisms
“Did you know that there are more living organisms in a tablespoon of soil than people on Earth?”
Agricultural systems lose nutrients with each harvest, and if soils are not managed sustainably, fertility is progressively lost, and soils will produce nutrient-deficient plants.
Soil nutrient loss is a major soil degradation process threatening nutrition. It is recognised as being among the most critical problems at a global level for food security and sustainability all around the globe.
Over the last 70 years, the level of vitamins and nutrients in food has drastically decreased, and it is estimated that 2 billion people worldwide suffer from a lack of micronutrients, known as hidden hunger because it is difficult to detect.
“Soil degradation induces some soils to be nutrient depleted, losing their capacity to support crops, while others have such a high nutrient concentration that represents a toxic environment to plants and animals, pollutes the environment and causes climate change.”
Rarely brought to the forefront, water has always been, for all countries, at the centre of their main concerns.
Deaf conflicts between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia through which the Nile passes have been revealed without reaching significant exceedances. Just as the waters of the Euphrates have always suggested, arm wrestling and tensions between Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Israeli warmongering have hovered indefinitely on the subject because the Zionist state has made it a weapon of survival.
Water, the first source of life, has always been an element of discord between men, whether for the irrigation of small plots of land or to quench the thirst of entire territories.
The current exceptional global drought that, in the long term, puts on the agenda a fabulous problem already announcing the downgrading of the priority given to the different and fundamental sources of today’s energies.
As all emanate from this blue gold, the choice between gas, oil, wheat, and other resources that are objects of planetary tug-of-war and nerves will no longer be questioned. Water had never required idolatry, and its pressing solicitude is about to surpass that of oil.
It is no longer just a question of conforming to the usual vicissitudes of the agricultural world. But it is now a vital resource for humans.
The spread of land aridity and the relentless exceptional drought disintegrating the order of the hemispheres will create a massive breach for new world conflicts. That green Britain refrains from pampering the grass of its residences, about to lose their green lush or that farmers throughout Europe are forced to bow down to providence in the same way as the peasants of Niger is a warning shot to announce a new inevitable global disruption. It is doubtful that the powers will stand idly by in the face of thirst and the temptation to republish; by all means, the stranglehold on the water will become flush with the skin.
Green water – the rainwater available to plants in the soil – is indispensable for life on and below the land. But in a new study, we found that widespread pressure on this resource has crossed a critical limit.
The planetary boundaries framework – a concept that scientists first discussed in 2009 – identified nine processes that have remained remarkably steady in the Earth system over the last 11,700 years. These include a relatively stable global climate and an intact biosphere that have allowed civilisations based on agriculture to thrive. Researchers proposed that each of these processes has a boundary that, once crossed, puts the Earth system, or substantial components of it, at risk of upset.
So far, it has been suggested that human use of freshwater is still within safe limits globally. But earlier assessments only considered the extraction of what is called blue water – that which flows in rivers and resides in underground aquifers. Even then, regional boundaries are likely to have been crossed in many river basins due to a sixfold increase in the extraction of blue water over the past century. Besides irrigating crops to sate growing demand from people and livestock, population growth and higher standards of living have raised global domestic and industrial water consumption, disrupting aquatic ecosystems and decimating the life within them.
By including green water in our assessment, we found that freshwater’s ability to sustain a stable Earth system is even more threatened than first reported.
Research shows that clearing forests reduces the flow of moisture to the atmosphere, dampening how efficiently the Earth system can circulate water and ultimately putting ecosystems like the Amazon at risk of collapse. Global heating and changes to how the land is used, especially deforestation, are among the biggest factors responsible for humanity’s transgression of this planetary boundary. Their combined influence indicates that the planetary boundaries interact and need to be treated as one networked system.
We found that since the industrial revolution, and especially since the 1950s, larger parts of the world are subject to significantly drier or wetter soil. This shift towards extreme conditions is an alarming development due to the indispensable role of water in maintaining resilient societies and ecosystems
Too much soil water is no good either. Water-saturated soils make floods more likely and suffocate plant growth. Abnormally large quantities of water evaporating from wet soils can delay the onset of monsoons in places like India, where the dry season has extended and disrupted farming. High humidity combined with high temperatures can also cause deadly heatwaves, as the human body quickly overheats when sweating becomes impossible in very moist air. Several regions, like South Asia, the coastal Middle East and the Gulf of California and Mexico, are experiencing this lethal combination much earlier than expected.
What can be done?
Growing scientific evidence suggests that the planet is both drier and wetter than at any point within the last 11,700 years. This threatens the ecological and climatic conditions that support life.
Our analysis shows that the sixth planetary boundary has been crossed. But ambitious efforts to slow climate change and halt deforestation could still prevent dangerous changes to the cycling of Earth’s green water. Along with other measures, switching farming practices to sustainable alternatives would prevent more soil being degraded and losing its moisture. Explicitly governing green water and its protection in policy and legal frameworks may also be necessary.
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