POLICY: Management must supply and demand

28 January 1994

THAT water is short throughout the arid world and the populations living in these regions are increasing appears to point to a future of conflict. But this analysis is not consistent with the history of the management of other scarce resources.

The acquisition of resources by force has certainly been one of the outcomes of their scarcity throughout history, but much more remarkable in the past 50 years has been the scale of the adjustments and the use of trading mechanisms to ameliorate resource scarcity. Such adjustments have certainly been the principal means of delivering food requirements in many countries with large and increasing populations, such as Egypt.

Egypt now imports almost half its food and, by implication, the substantial volumes of water required to produce that food. This 'imported' water, substituting for Egypt's water deficit, is equal to approximately two thirds of the water used currently in the agricultural sector. This estimate of Egypt's water 'imports' is conservative; they could soon exceed indigenous agricultural water use.

The importance of these adjustments lies in the evidence they provide of how governments can adapt to extreme levels of water shortage. The adjustments are extraordinary when compared with the small volumes of water over which governments claim they would consider going to war. Boutros Boutros Ghali was frequently quoted as saying, when Egyptian spokesman on African affairs, that a war in the Middle East could be started by disagreements over water. It appears a strange assertion when the government of which he was a member had already adjusted to a huge water deficit.


Serious journals and publishers have emphasised the possibility of conflict rather than the prospects for adjustment and co-operation. This is, to say the least, irresponsible. In mitigation, some of the scaremongers have begun to modify their warnings about the likelihood of conflict and started to recognise that adjustment and co-operation provide the best explanation of the current and future political economy of water.

The Middle East is a region where approaches to water management and expectations concerning supply have been evolving for millennia. Attitudes to water are, for the most part, firmly fixed. Patterns of water use, developed during periods when supplies exceeded demands, have entered the 'mind-sets' of farmers, officials and political leaders, and have established themselves as entitlements. Today, opinion formers in the region increasingly preach economic and ecological principles as a basis for sustainable water policies.

The evolution of management responses suggests that by the late 20th century the option of augmenting water supplies with new water for agriculture was no longer available for the countries of the arid world. There is almost no new water to be mobilised within national boundaries. For most countries, desalination could only provide a minor source of new water. Meanwhile, the surface water supplies are likely to be diminished during the next half century for downstream riparians through the use of Nile water by Ethiopia and Turkey's use of Euphrates and Tigris waters.

The table identifies demand management as the principal approach which water authorities in dry countries will use to achieve a measure of balance between supply and demand. Water allocation policies such as the reallocation of water from agriculture to municipal and industrial uses are unwelcome but inevitable. At the same time, demand management policies, especially applied to municipal users, will increase the effectiveness of water use. In addition, the comprehensive reuse of water will enable the augmentation of water for selective irrigation. Reallocation of water at the international level will require profound political adjustments.

All these measures require that policy be made with the cultural grain of the peoples involved, taking into account views on water which are integral to their traditions. New instruments, such as charging for water, will become increasingly familiar as governments recognise that such measures are an essential preliminary to spreading an understanding of the real value of water in their economies.

The past hundred years have seen important technological advances and a progressive rise in population. Demands for water have changed and the technological and institutional capacities to manage both supply and demand have improved. Progress must be made to develop and implement institutional instruments if efficiency in allocating and managing production of water are to be achieved.

The perception of how management should be approached has begun to change in the past two decades, especially the past decade, among those responsible for managing water in arid regions. The industrialised economies in dry regions such as the southern states of the US have begun to incorporate principles of demand management in their policy-making. Unfortunately, those who are responsible for managing whole national economies in the Middle East have yet to recognise the necessity of adopting new approaches. Only about 4.5 million of the 350 million inhabitants of the arid Middle East and North African countries have a government which has begun, albeit reluctantly, to adopt them.

The Middle East is in an uncomfortable transitional stage with respect to water allocation and management. Only Israel has so far seriously adopted principles of demand management and it is not a natural model for the other countries of the region. Israel's 1991 decision to reduce water allocations to agriculture was a tacit admission that its agricultural vision of the 1950s and 1960s had led to unsound and unsustainable policies. The decision also indicated a way forward for other economies enduring water scarcity. Neighbouring Arab states have emulated Israel's misguided resource management strategies since the 1960s and the painful economic and political ramifications are only too evident. The non-oil-rich countries of the region will in the near future join Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco in beginning the painful adoption of water demand management policies.

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