Over the past century, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has undergone huge changes. According to 2007 estimates, its population has risen from less than 50 million a century ago to over 331 million, and is expected to reach some 385 million people by 2015. During this same period, the environment has deteriorated and natural resources have dwindled due to development patterns which were largely unsustainable. In most cases, policies were overwhelmingly sets of provisional short-term measures, meant to tackle momentary challenges rather than engage in long-term planning. Some parts of the region have seen unprecedented growth, bringing both economic and social prosperity to millions of Arabs, thanks largely to income from oil. Has this economic development, however, come at a cost? Can the patterns of development which some Arab countries are experiencing continue while sustaining livelihood and quality of life for future generations?
The Middle East’s physical environment stands at a pivotal juncture, threatened by numerous current and imminent problems. At the same time, awareness of the issues, as well as signs of political and social willingness to act, provide hope for timely intervention.
The growth of cities and towns poses particular challenges. Accelerating urbanization is straining already-overstretched infrastructure and creating overcrowded, unhealthy, and insecure living conditions in many cities. In 1970, 38% of the Arab population was urban. By 2005, this figure had grown to 55%, and is likely to surpass 60% by 2020.
The two major environmental threats in the region are those related to water scarcity and desertification and land degradation. Although the MENA has 5% of the world’s population, it has less than 1% of the world’s available water supply. Meanwhile, the rate of water consumption is straining this supply. Per capita water use in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), for example, is about four times that of Europe; consumption in Abu Dhabi is 550 liters of water per person per day, two to three times the world average of 180–200 liters.
The issue of water scarcity is the most serious threat to Arab security, as virtually all Arab countries are well below the line of “water poverty.” The World Bank has classified 22 countries as below the water poverty line (when per capita water availability cubic meters/year is below 1,000). Fifteen are Arab countries, and nine of them in the Middle East (see Table 1). Per capita water cubic meters/year in Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain is 91, 95, and 112, respectively. In the cases of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, Tunisia, and Oman the figures are 241, 318, 340, 434, and 874, respectively. If this is the case today, one can imagine the water shortages that the region will have to confront in ten years. An increasing population’s demand for water would reduce per capita share to 460 cubic meters by 2025, lower than the extreme water poverty level according to international classifications.
Due to poor agricultural technologies, agriculture remains the major user of water sources in most of the region’s countries. There is a low level of efficiency in the utilization of water in all sectors that use water, typically between 37% and 53%. This has generated a range of problems such as water logging salinity, low productivity, infertility of soil, and the deterioration of the quality of ground water.
Water governance remains fragmented among various institutions, which generates problems of the rationalization of water use. The problem is further aggravated by the high rate of population increase, the geographical location of the region’s countries in the Great Desert belt, and the lack of national programs to rationalize water consumption. In addition, a high percentage of the water resources upon which the countries of the MENA depend originate outside the region, giving rise to tensions in using jointly-shared water. This is acutely clear in the cases of the Nile, the Euphrates, and the Tigris rivers.
Poor distribution and heavy demand, especially of ground resources, characterize water use in the Arab countries. This leads to a lack of clean water for much of the population and the waste of significant amounts in the agriculture, industry, and tourism sectors. A report from the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UN–ESCWA) applies the question of water stress to the national level in the Arab states (UN–ESCWA member countries are Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, UAE, and Yemen). The report distinguishes between four levels of water stress as gauged by the ratio of population to renewable freshwater — slight, significant, serious, and critical. As shown in Table 1, the study reveals that four countries are facing “slight” water stress, two are facing “significant” water stress, five are facing “serious” water stress, and two — Kuwait and the UAE — are facing “critical” water stress.
A particularly striking example of the conflict that exists between rapid economic development and scarce water resources is the recent boom in the construction of golf courses in certain parts of the region. In fact, most of the current and planned golf courses are in Egypt and the Gulf region, particularly the UAE, where water resources are already low, even by regional standards.
Expansion of water-intensive projects like grass golf courses cannot go on unchecked, especially with meager investments to develop sustainable desalination technologies. There are plans to increase the 16 golf courses operating in the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (CCASG) to 40 in the near future. In most cases, golf courses in the region are irrigated with desalinated sea water, treated effluent, or a combination of the two. A 2007 report released by the international consultants Klynveld Peat Marwick Goerdeler (KPMG) estimated the use of water for each golf course in the region at an average of 1.16 million cubic meters per year, reaching 1.3 million cubic meters in Dubai, enough to cover the water consumption of 15,000 inhabitants. Currently, the quality of water resources in the region is affected by pollution, urbanization, floods, and over-use of water resources. So, fresh water is another problem in the region. (See Table 2).
In the Northern part of the Jordan Valley, Abu-Thallam has estimated the impact of water shortage on the planted area, income, and labor at the regional level. It has been found that reducing the quantity of irrigation water has lowered cropping intensity and thus the area in cultivation has contracted. This, in turn, has resulted in a reduction in total net income, and consequently a reduction in labor used in the area.
For instance, decreasing water supply by 20% will be followed by a reduction in the total cultivated area by about 14%. This will lead to a decrease in the total net income generated by 15%. The reduction in employment will also be accompanied by a direct and indirect loss in income too.
The challenge of addressing water scarcity in the Middle East is aggravated by the region’s ongoing population pressures. Utilizing new sources of water to meet the increased demand for fresh water would relieve some of the region’s shortages, but as new sources of water become more expensive, they become less accessible to low-income countries, given those nations’ limited financial and technical opportunities. Regional cooperation and political, legal, and institutional support are critical for enabling countries to address their freshwater shortages. Sound government policies regarding water allocation, distribution, and use can help countries to adopt better strategies to manage their scarce freshwater resources.
. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Arab Human Development Report 2009, “Challenges to Human Security in the Arab Countries.”
. UN Development Programme (UNDP), Arab Human Development Report 2002, “Creating Opportunities for Future Generations,” .
. United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UN–ESCWA), Water Development Report 2, State of Water Resources in the ESCWA Region (December 4, 2007), sdpd-07-6-e.
. K. Abu-Thallam, “Assessment of Drought Impact on Agricultural Resources in Northern Jordan Valley,” M.Sc. Thesis. The University of Jordan. Amman, Jordan (2003).