WATER is steadily working its way up the political agenda in the Middle East as the region faces up to the fact of absolute scarcity. The shortage of water is a global challenge as it is starting to affect even water rich countries such as the US, but it is particularly acute in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

MENA is the driest region in the world. While it is home to 5 per cent of the global population, it has less than 1 per cent of the world’s annual renewable freshwater. The region’s population of 280 million has doubled in the last 30 years and is set to double again in the next 30 years. Its cities are growing at a rate of 4 per cent a year and already contain 60 per cent of the region’s population. Demand for water from domestic and industrial consumers has risen dramatically while well drilling and irrigation have boosted the use of water by agriculture.

This is the context described in a seminal paper published by the World Bank in the spring of 1996, which seeks to raise awareness of the region’s looming water crisis and launch an action plan to avert it. At the Habitat 11 conference in Istanbul in June, water was deemed to be the most hotly contested urban issue facing the world in the next century. Most cities in the developing world will face extreme water shortages by 2010, the conference heard, endangering health and impeding development. Cairo, Karachi and Tel Aviv were among the cities singled out as facing the most severe water problems.

Water issues were again the focus of attention in November, when France hosted a Euro-Mediterranean conference on water resources which brought together 15 European states and 12 North African and Middle East. One indication of the importance of the issues under discussion was the joint appearance of Syrian and Israeli delegations, for the first time in six months. The World Bank hopes to convene a conference in the course of this year to promote its ideas for a regional water partnership to head off the impending water crisis.

The decline in water availability in the MENA region is recent, but rapid. Per capita availability of water has fallen from about 3,300 cubic metres a year in 1960 to about 1,250 cubic metres in the mid-1990s. It is expected to fall to about 650 cubic metres by 2025. In some of the worst instances – in Yemen and Gaza – per capita availability is already as low as 180 cubic metres.

Groundwater resources are being overexploited. In the case of Jordan and Yemen, withdrawals from aquifers are 25-30 per cent more than is being replenished. The result can be seawater intrusion and pollution which cause permanent damage to underground water resources. Aquifers, rivers and reservoirs in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt are being contaminated by fertilisers and pesticides or the uncontrolled dumping of waste.

Water is also being wasted on a grand scale. Agricultural irrigation accounts for 87 per cent of water allocations in the MENA region and only 13 per cent goes to municipal and industrial users. This compares with a worldwide average of 69 per cent and 31 per cent, respectively. Irrigation efficiency is low and flood irrigation techniques are particularly wasteful. About half of all urban water supplies are lost through leakage.

Efforts to reform bad practices and develop strategies for the future have been haphazard. Although there have been initiatives by local, national and international agencies, they have been poorly co-ordinated and sometimes contradictory. Worst of all, water still tends to be heavily subsidised, which offers little incentive to conserve it. The World Bank applauds the efforts made over the years to improve sanitation and make clean water available to more people, but it is not so sanguine about the future. ‘Nevertheless, water demand increasingly outstrips supply throughout the region. This worsening imbalance between supply and demand has brought many countries to the brink of crisis,’ it says.

The bank believes the potential crisis can be averted through a co-ordinated national and international effort. This would entail abandoning the preoccupation with supply in favour of integrated water management. Water suppliers and water users would be encouraged to work together to conserve quantity and quality. The national agenda would include:

Mobilising country efforts, including private participation – to develop partnerships at national and local levels

Integrating water resources management – to reconcile competing demands for

water

Using water more efficiently and reducing pollution – to get the most value from it

Seeking alternative sources of water – to free countries from reliance on finite freshwater supplies.

International efforts should focus on:

Promoting partnerships at regional and international levels – to maximise technical and financial co-operation.

The bias of regional thinking is still towards the development of additional water resources, but such options are narrowing and the new thinking is finding an audience.

Many national authorities are now moving towards the adoption of an integrated approach to water resources management. Such a strategy will require huge investment: to rehabilitate and extend distribution and transfer networks, modernise irrigation, expand wastewater collection and treatment, and preserve the quality of aquifers by solid waste management and river and aquifer protection.

The World Bank estimates the required investment by MENA countries in water over 10 years from 1996 at $45,000 million- 60,000 million. The greatest investment will be required where people are least well served at present: in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Gaza and the West Bank. In some countries, the investment could amount to 2 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). The World Bank action plan sets clear targets for the next 10 years:

a reduction in the use of irrigation water by about 10 per cent and a simultaneous increase in agricultural value added

a region wide reduction in water losses of about 40 per cent

a 50 per cent increase in water availability for domestic and industrial use

access to drinking water for about 90 per cent of the population and safe sanitation for 80 per cent.

The bank concludes that the achievement of these goals by 2005 will avert a water crisis and move the region from water scarcity to water security.

From Scarcity to Security: Averting a Water Crisis in the Middle East and North Africa, World Bank 1996