THE Middle East water situation described in a recent World Bank report is ominous. The bank is not in the business of scaremongering but it is anxious that governments worldwide address water issues as a matter of urgency. And it doesn’t mince words. In the Middle East and North Africa, the water situation is ‘precarious’, population and development have ‘overwhelmed’ traditional management methods and the problems of scarcity and pollution are ‘as severe as anywhere in the world.’ In reality, set in a global context, they look far worse (see table).

The dimensions of the regional difficulty are all too apparent. Over the period from 1960-2025, annual per capita renewable water supplies will have dropped by 80 per cent from 3,430 cubic metres to 667 cubic metres. By the turn of the century, the people of the region will have to make do with renewable water supplies that are less than a third of the average for the rest of Asia. At that stage, the world average for annual per capita renewable resources will be seven times higher. The region has always lived with the reality of water scarcity but a constant problem now risks becoming chronic.

The main features of the current regional water situation are:

Annual renewable water resources average 1,436 cubic metres a head. About a third of this comes from river flows from outside the region. Water is scarce while river flows are variable and hard to manage. Many states are now mining water, which is a risky, short-term expedient. The region has 60 per cent of the world’s installed desalination capacity. This option is expensive and restricted to rich states.

80 per cent of water withdrawals are for irrigation. Urban and industrial demand is rising most rapidly and the share of population living in urban areas will rise from 60 per cent today to 75 per cent by 2025. Withdrawals in Libya, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Yemen already exceed renewable supplies. Egypt, Israel and Jordan are at the limit and Iran, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia face severe regional deficits despite an overall surplus. Only Iraq and Lebanon have adequate renewable supplies.

The major water resources of the region are shared. The main river basins of the Jordan, Nile, Tigris and Euphrates are the subject of riparian disputes. Only on the Nile is there a formal agreement and this is only between Egypt and Sudan. There are large aquifers under North Africa and the Arabian peninsula with the potential for shared exploitation but the cost of development would be high.

Water quality is an issue of growing concern. It is deteriorating through a combination of low river flows, inadequate treatment, agricultural run- offs and uncontrolled effluent from industry. Poorer quality reduces the utility of the resource and treatment costs will rise sharply if rivers and potable aquifers are to be sustained in usable forms. Sea water seepage into coastal aquifers is widespread. Waterlogging and secondary salinity affect many of the major irrigated areas.

The World Bank, which has ploughed about $4,000 million into regional water projects since the 1960s, is now crusading for improvements in water management and water planning. The role of government is to provide for systematic planning without the need for controlling every aspect of resource management. A strong element of current thinking is the need for ‘stakeholder participation’ in decision-making. This should involve water users in designing policies and solutions that are more efficient and most likely to last.

Planning shift

Another key strand is to shift governments away from supply management in their planning. With so few new water sources to tap it makes little sense to devote money to their location and development. Most possible new sources are hard to access and very expensive to develop for only a marginal gain. The alternatives to new investment are conservation and better management of existing supplies. Water must also be reallocated between uses. This may mean reducing areas under irrigation which has potentially disruptive knock-on effects and would require political decisions that few governments are ready for. Such cutbacks and the use of treated waste water in irrigation are inevitable in the long term, in the bank’s view.

Demand management is now advocated strongly as providing the best chance of achieving conservation through increased efficiency and equity of water use. Demand management comprises direct measures to control water use, through regulation and technology and indirect measures to change behaviour such as market mechanisms, financial incentives and public education.

The bank concedes that the transition from traditions that provide water virtually free to conditions that price water at real economic levels will be long and complex. It notes that in Islamic societies water is considered a gift from God that belongs to the community. Institutional reforms in the widest sense will be necessary if the transition is to be made. Current arrangements in ministries and government agencies are fragmented and inappropriate to an environment of competing uses. National institutional reforms and international treaties on shared water are preconditions for optimum development and management, the bank says.

Perfect forum

The current Middle East peace process provides a perfect forum for promoting the cross-border co-operation and coherent planning that the region’s water problems need. According to a senior Jordanian official, the multilateral water talks have made more progress than any of the other working groups. ‘There has been substantial progress – so much so that we may have to slow down so that others can catch up,’ says Munther Hadadin, Jordan’s negotiator. The delegations are still divided on fundamental issues such as basic water rights and Israel’s disproportionate per capita consumption levels. But, at least a start has been made in the region’s most contentious area where the future problems are potentially the most acute.