A reliable supply of freshwater is a prerequisite for sustainable socioeconomic development, as well as for sociopolitical stability and human prosperity, especially in semi-arid and arid regions of the world. The Middle East and North Africa’s (MENA) freshwater resources are under immense pressures and are facing significant risks to their sustainability due to overexploitation, climate change, and interstate competition over their use that extends beyond the region’s boundaries.
From the standpoint of the material needs for human existence, the Greek poet Pindar put it simply: “Water is best.” All forms of life need it. Water is also essential to all production processes. A reliable supply of freshwater is a prerequisite for sustainable socioeconomic development, as well as for sociopolitical stability and human prosperity. Freshwater is therefore a principal constraint on sustainable development and the attainment of human security and peace in semi-arid and arid regions of the world.
The Middle East and North Africa’s (MENA) freshwater resources are under immense pressures and are facing significant risks to their sustainability due to overexploitation, climate change, and interstate competition over their use that extends beyond the region’s boundaries. Read moreover, the present state of the freshwater resources on which the region depends could undermine its ability to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a number of which deal with water, directly or indirectly. While clean water and sanitation (SDG 6) is the most explicitly related goal, the elimination of poverty (SDG 1), zero hunger (SDG 2), good health and well-being (SDG 3), gender equality (SDG 5), decent work and economic growth (SDG 8), and other goals could be impacted as well. The challenges that the state of the region’s freshwater resources pose to its present and future prosperity need to be addressed in order to reduce or avoid significant harmful consequences for the region.
The MENA region extends across an area of about 1.2 billion hectares, or 12 million square kilometers, which is around 10 percent of the world’s total land area.1 In 2018, the region had a population of 487.7 million people,2 and its population was growing by an annual average of 1.7 percent as of 2017.3 The region’s population is projected to reach 586 million by 2030 and 731 million by 2050.4 The majority of countries in MENA are classified for development assistance and financial lending purposes as low-income and middle-income countries.
Hydrologically, the MENA region consists of five principal groups of countries:
Al-Mashreq countries: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories
Al-Maghreb countries: Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Mauritania
Nile Basin countries: Egypt and Sudan
Arabian Peninsula countries: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, and Yemen
Sahel countries: Somalia, Djibouti, and the Comoros Islands
In addition, as Mediterranean countries, Egypt and the al-Mashreq and al-Maghreb states (excluding Mauritania) share common geo-climatic characteristics that in part determine their natural hydrological resource capacity and impact its resilience and sustainability. Furthermore, the coastal location of all MENA countries (excluding Sudan) provides another important lens for understanding the state of the region’s freshwater resources, its constraints, and the development risks and opportunities associated with it.
Water Scarcity in MENA
Freshwater is available naturally in two forms: as green water and as blue water. The former is the freshwater available from rainfall in the root zone of the soil, and the latter consists of the rainfall that is contained in surface or groundwater basins. The terms “water stress” and “water scarcity” are used in reference to the relative abundance of blue water within a freshwater resource base, in a certain area or socio-economic unit — a town, a country, or a region or the world — relative to its population’s need for or use of this resource. Water stress and scarcity are both natural and human-made phenomena. They are consequences of climatology and hydrology, as well as of institutions and developmental processes.
The basic human need to drink underpins the importance of a stable freshwater supply. However, in determining resource scarcity for development purposes, other important needs must also be taken into consideration. These include the freshwater needed for food production, industrial activities, and ecosystem services. What is meant by need, however, could be both subjective and circumstantial — depending on the stage of development of a given society, for example, or on the technologies available to it.
The relative abundance of freshwater resources in a particular country or region is commonly measured either in relation to the extent to which the resource is used or to the number of people living in that geopolitical area.
The first indicator identifies resource stress levels within a country or region by measuring total renewable freshwater withdrawals as a percentage of the total renewable freshwater resource base (TRWR) available to its society. These withdrawals consist of all this society’s water use, for consumption and production purposes. TRWR consists of surface freshwater and groundwater resources that are generated either internally within the political boundaries of this geographic area, or externally, outside it. TRWR excludes freshwater resources that are non-conventional or that for geo-climatic reasons cannot be and are not being replenished, namely fossil water. A freshwater stress level indicates the extent to which the available TRWR base is being exploited to meet this society’s freshwater demand.
By this measure, the MENA region is experiencing a high level of renewable freshwater stress that is nearly twice the world average and by far the highest of any region in the world. There are, however, differences in renewable freshwater stress levels in MENA across its countries and within its sub-regions. Stress levels are extremely high in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries of the Arabian Peninsula, particularly in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, as well as in Libya. In Lebanon, Morocco, and Mauritania, stress levels are considerably lower than in the GCC and in the region as a whole on average.5
Another widely recognized method of measuring the relative abundance of freshwater resources is the Falkenmark Indicator. It compares the TRWR base to the population base in a given society or geopolitical unit. According to this method, “water stress,” “water scarcity,” and “absolute water scarcity” are conditions characterized by a fall in the average per capita share of TRWR below the thresholds of 1700 cubic meters (CM) annually, 1000 CM annually, and 500 CM annually, respectively.6
The Falkenmark Indicator is commonly used by organizations including the UN and some of its agencies, such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Other international development agencies (such as the UN Environment Programme and the World Resources Institute) have used more generous per capita freshwater availability requirements for development purposes — meaning that based on their definitions, the thresholds of water stress and scarcity, all else unchanged, are reached sooner over time with population growth in a given society.
While the MENA region is home to about 6 percent of the world’s population, it holds only around 1 percent of the Earth’s total renewable freshwater resources.7 It is the world’s most water-scarce region. In 2011 the average per capita share of TRWR in the region was 819.8 CM, and by 2016 it fell even further, to around 600 CM.8,9 By way of comparison, the global average share is about 6000 CM. MENA’s present per capita freshwater share is some 85 percent less than what it was in the 1950s, which was about 4000 CM annually.10
From this perspective, all the region’s countries except Mauritania and Iraq are water-stressed,11,12 and at least 12 countries suffer from absolute water scarcity, including all of the Arabian Peninsula countries, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria.13
A continuous increase in freshwater demand in the region due to population growth and associated factors such as rising income levels and expansion in urbanization would exacerbate the present states of freshwater stress and scarcity. The risks and challenges that this would present to the region’s development and its people’s wellbeing necessitate policy adjustments to alter the present trajectory of freshwater resource use.
These policy adjustments are crucial to the sustainability of livelihoods in the MENA region on a broad scale, and to achieve and maintain an acceptable quality of life for large numbers of its people. Nearly 40% of the MENA region’s population lives in rural areas, and therefore the livelihoods of millions are still tied directly to the availability of reliable supplies of freshwater for agricultural and pastoral economic activities. The linkages are stronger in the lower-income and agriculture-based societies where not only is the dependency on freshwater resources for livelihoods high, but the availability of alternative sources of freshwater, including for basic human consumption, is low as well. The first condition applies to a number of MENA countries, such as Egypt, Morocco, Yemen, and Mauritania, while the second applies to most countries in the region. The implications of high levels of water stress and scarcity are relevant in both the short and medium terms.
Freshwater Security in MENA
The security of a freshwater resource base is about more than just the issue of scarcity. Freshwater security depends not only on the quantity but also on the quality and the stability of the resources that are available to a society at a given time. According to the United Nations University, water security is “the capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of and acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human-wellbeing, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability.”14
The principal determinants of water security — resource quantity, quality, and predictability — are interrelated. For example, deterioration in the quality of a freshwater resource effectively reduces the quantity of freshwater supply that is available for human consumption. Freshwater security is also subject to natural and human-made conditions. Nowhere is this fact more pronounced than in the MENA region.
Climatology, hydrology, and geography already define the extent of freshwater security in MENA. The region has the greatest rainfall variability and the lowest precipitation levels of any geopolitical region in the world.15
In addition, MENA is also the region of the world most dependent on water resources that are not internally generated. The headwaters of over one-half of the region’s annually renewable freshwater resources are located outside of its political boundaries. These resources are concentrated mainly in the river systems of the Nile, Euphrates-Tigris, and Jordan-Yarmouk. The headwater sub-regions of these river systems are more humid than the downstream areas.
River Systems in West Asia and North Africa
The freshwater resources in the headwater countries have generally been abundant. However, populations are growing fast everywhere in the riparian countries of these transboundary river basins, including in the rivers’ upstream sub-regions. Agricultural development, industrialization, and urbanization are increasing the demands for these transboundary resources. The extent to which principles of international freshwater law are applied or not to regulate upstream uses along these transboundary river systems is a key determinant of freshwater security in MENA countries that are located downstream in the river basins. Therefore, unprincipled and unregulated use of these transboundary freshwater resources has far-reaching implications for the prospects of sustainable development and human security in these MENA countries.
Ongoing climate change is a risk multiplier when it comes to the overall state of freshwater resources in the MENA region. While the region’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions and climate change is minimal compared to other parts of the world, it is deeply exposed to the physical impacts of climate change.
Geographically, the region is composed mostly of a vast swath of desert surrounded by seas and oceans, with economically important and heavily populated coastal areas on the fringes of nearly every country’s territory. Collectively, therefore, the region is exposed, to varying extents, to a complex set of climate change impacts, including those that are projected to occur in the sub-tropics, arid and semi-arid countries, coastal areas, and small island states
Freshwater Resources in MENA and Climate Change
Projections made using global general circulation models and regional climate models have indicated that as global warming persists, the MENA region will continue to get hotter and drier, adversely affecting freshwater resource security. All of the region’s people are exposed to the associated adverse impacts of climate change on freshwater security. However, the poor and those dependent on natural resources for their livelihood — who are the least resilient to socioeconomic stress and shocks due to freshwater insecurity — are the most vulnerable.
The effects of climate change are already being experienced in the region. Long-term temperature observations have indicated that the region became warmer over the course of the 20th century and that precipitation levels fell in most MENA countries. Based on measurements from 119 weather stations across the region, there was an average increase in temperatures of 0.2°C to 0.3°C per decade over the period 1961-90 in al-Maghreb and Sudan.16 In the subsequent two decades the average temperature rise increased to a range of 0.3°C-0.4°C per decade across the region as a whole.
Climate projections indicate that the region will continue to experience an increase in its mean temperature, and that this rise could be as high as 1.5 times the increase in the global mean temperature by the late 21st century.17,18 In addition, precipitation is projected to fall, particularly in the rainy season in the eastern Mediterranean (al-Mashreq) and Mediterranean North Africa (al-Maghreb and Egypt).19 Higher temperatures and aridity will increase the region’s exposure to desertification. Meanwhile, the need for freshwater will be growing due to heat stress.20,21
Some of the direct physical impacts of climate change are heterogeneous and differentiated across the MENA region. Therefore, factors directly affecting freshwater security are not identical throughout the region’s countries. Where rainfall is a major source of freshwater, the sub-regional impacts of climate change would have a direct effect on freshwater security. Where a transboundary resource is a major source of freshwater, climate change could affect freshwater security in a more complex way. Two sets of climate change-related uncertainties are relevant to these countries’ freshwater security and related public policy: an internal one and an external one. Sustainable development is subject to a primary set of uncertainties associated with the projections of climate change impacts within these countries’ boundaries, on the basis of their internal climatic and hydrological conditions. Sustainable development, however, could also be affected by a secondary set of climate change-related impacts, and the uncertainties that are associated with them, outside these countries, in the headwater sub-regions of transboundary river systems on which they depend. Such complex climate change-induced freshwater security risks should not be overlooked in public policy. International freshwater law principles would need to be applied to mitigate complex risks along different sub-regions of a transboundary river basin.
Water Demand Projections
Freshwater demand in MENA has been projected to continue to grow faster than supply, driven by population growth, socioeconomic development, and associated rises in average income levels. Various regional and international development agencies have produced demand projections, including, among others, the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and the World Bank. AFED’s projections, which exclude climate change impacts, suggest that total water demand in MENA would grow by about 58 percent from 2010 to 2050.22 According to the World Bank’s projections that appear to account for climate change,23 the resource gap by 2040-50 would vary considerably across the region, ranging from 98 percent in Bahrain and 92 percent in Jordan to 16 percent in Algeria.
All estimates are based on assumptions, and some may not hold true in reality. The most important and now invalid assumption has been that freshwater demand would continue to rise normally in all countries. This has not been the case since at least 2011 in five MENA states.
Nevertheless, perhaps the most useful contribution these projections provide is that they point to the direction in which MENA countries must not go any further. Under the business-as-usual scenario of freshwater resource use, the resource base would come under much greater stress from competing demands the longer this trajectory is maintained.
A Closer Look at the MENA Country Groups
In this country group, Iraq and Syria are distinguished by their common vulnerability as downstream countries in the Tigris-Euphrates River system that begins in Turkey. They are, therefore, exposed to more complex risks and uncertainties, including those linked to unregulated upstream uses of this river basin. Jordan and the Palestinian Territories also face a distinct set of challenges. They are the most water-poor countries in this group by a wide margin. As downstream riparian countries in the Jordan-Yarmouk River system, their water security is affected by hydro-political power dynamics.
Lebanon has one of the highest per capita shares of TRWR in MENA. Because of its high dependency on internally-generated surface and groundwater runoff, its exposure to complex water security risk is the lowest in al-Mashreq.
Morocco and Tunisia depend mainly on internally generated surface freshwater runoff from rainfall as the principal source of supply, and to a lesser extent on groundwater, to satisfy their demand. These countries are among those most vulnerable to climate change impacts in the Mediterranean region, where a reduction in rainfall has been projected to occur with high confidence.
The Nile Basin countries
Egypt and Sudan face complex risk due to their exposure to significant primary and secondary impacts and uncertainties associated with climate change. Aridity is projected to increase in both countries due to the direct physical impacts of climate change in the North African and the Mediterranean region. Unregulated transboundary uses upstream in the Nile River basin could also adversely affect freshwater security in these two countries.
The Arabian Peninsula
With its land area comprised almost entirely of desert, and rainfall sparse in most places except in coastal areas and highlands, the Arabian Peninsula is home to the MENA’s most water-poor countries. While some groundwater resources exist, they are mostly non-renewable and heavily exploited. In the GCC, freshwater demand is almost entirely supplied by non-conventional freshwater resources produced from seawater desalination that is coupled with the availability of hydrocarbon resources. The peninsula’s extreme freshwater poverty means that the GCC countries are the least exposed in the region to the adverse effects of reduced annual rainfall due to climate change.
Somalia is one of the MENA region’s — and the world’s — poorest and most fragile countries. Its freshwater resources are also among the most vulnerable to climate change. Somalia’s climate is arid to semi-arid, with precipitation in the highlands reaching 500 mm a year, and maximum rainfall elsewhere a meager 150 mm a year.24 Rain is highly unpredictable; the highest precipitation occurs as sudden torrential rain, and droughts are common. Somalia has been food insecure for at least 20 years and is experiencing some of the world’s worst humanitarian conditions. It is one of the most vulnerable countries in MENA to climate change impacts, given the projected increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, including flooding and droughts. The chronically dire humanitarian situation in Somalia could deteriorate further, and the country has little margin for coping with additional freshwater and socioeconomic stress. Somalia faces complex risk because it is also a downstream riparian to the Shebelli and Juba rivers that emerge in Ethiopia.
The MENA region as a whole has a 34,000-kilometer-long coastal zone where economic centers and activities have been extensively developed. Almost all MENA countries, and particularly the Mediterranean ones, are therefore exposed to the rise in sea level due to global warming, which would increase the risk of seawater intrusion into these coastal regions’ groundwater aquifers.
"The current stress levels that the region’s freshwater resources are experiencing and the present trajectory of resource use are difficult to reconcile with the requirements of inclusive, sustainable development. Climate change is not the culprit in this dilemma. It only exacerbates the already existing difficult conditions, and it will likely hasten the arrival of key junctures at which definitive changes in policy and on the ground will have to occur for sustainable development to be possible.
At these turning points, choices will have to be made: give up long-established but harmful perceptions and attitudes toward freshwater resource use, or give up sustainable development. In some countries this turning point has already come and gone, while the inability to adjust and adapt to changing natural conditions and new realities has persisted."
The Way Forward
With or without climate change, freshwater scarcity will most likely persist in MENA for at least a generation or so — through 2050. The current stress levels that the region’s freshwater resources are experiencing and the present trajectory of resource use are difficult to reconcile with the requirements of inclusive, sustainable development. Climate change is not the culprit in this dilemma. It only exacerbates the difficult preexisting conditions, and it will likely hasten the arrival of key junctures at which definitive changes in policy and on the ground will have to occur for sustainable development to be possible. At these turning points, choices will have to be made: give up long-established but harmful perceptions and attitudes toward freshwater resource use, or give up sustainable development. In some countries this turning point has already come and gone, while the inability to adjust and adapt to changing natural conditions and new realities has persisted.
Certain factors responsible for rising freshwater scarcity in MENA countries are within their control. Others are not entirely or immediately, or even at all. MENA countries need to focus their best efforts on the factors they can influence the most. In order to do so and to respond appropriately to the clear signals of rising freshwater resource scarcity and insecurity that will impede inclusive and sustainable development, countries need to overhaul policies that contribute to freshwater resource availability and shape resource use patterns.
An initial step would be to take stock of all the important policies that directly and indirectly affect the environment in which freshwater resource development and consumption occur. This critical assessment is imperative to determine what needs improving or changing, and how.
MENA countries need to set their own priorities for freshwater resource use and sustainability, and determine how best to achieve them. Addressing freshwater challenges in the region will entail dealing with both demand and supply issues, as both are responsible for existing freshwater stress and scarcity.
On the demand side, countries need to consider appropriate policies that increase the economic value or benefits obtained from their freshwater resources. How benefits are prioritized, how values are determined, and how they could be best obtained, however, is context-specific. There are no generic answers to this question.
Freshwater scarcity could nonetheless be alleviated to varying extents with the implementation of appropriate policies and measures that dis-incentivize wasteful or excessive freshwater consumption in all sectors where it occurs, and that encourage the treatment and reclamation of wastewater.
There is universal agreement, including in international law, that human consumption must take priority over all other uses. Insofar as factors inducing freshwater scarcity are under countries’ control, appropriate public policy incentives have to be in place to ensure that this basic need for freshwater is secured.
Growth in the industrial sector’s freshwater demand could be managed more effectively with policy incentives that reduce the production and improper discharge of wastewater. Policy measures that encourage industrial wastewater recycling are essential to reduce not just industry’s freshwater use footprint but also its freshwater pollution, or grey water, footprint. The latter could be more harmful than the former to freshwater and environmental security, and human health and security.
On the supply side, non-conventional alternatives for freshwater resource supply, and their financial, social, and environmental success or failure, are context-sensitive. Location, geo-climatic conditions, types of freshwater demand that need to be supplied, and economic conditions in the area are all factors that come into play.
Appropriate methods to augment the freshwater supply in different areas of the region include, where feasible, expanding total wastewater treatment and reuse, including that of agricultural drainage water, and brackish and seawater desalination. Strict water quality controls and regulations, as well as measures to mitigate the environmental costs of desalination must be prioritized within the further development of these non-conventional sources of supply.
It might initially seem unfitting to reference freshwater harvesting as a measure to augment the supply of this resource in a region where climate projections all agree rainfall will decrease. However, as stated earlier, climate projections have also indicated that the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events including drought and flash floods would rise in the MENA region. In fact, the risk of flash-flooding increases in areas that are prone to drought. Parched soils have a reduced capacity to retain water when rainfall occurs, and particularly when it occurs in an intense precipitation event. In addition, because of the natural aridity of MENA, storm drainage infrastructure is far from adequately developed or is nonexistent in the region’s countries. Floodwater harvesting plans would be a useful and an important way to reduce the sensitivity of vulnerable areas within the region to the risks of these hydrological impacts. The development of harvesting infrastructure in these areas could then provide additional supplies of freshwater as a secondary benefit to the local communities.
The vulnerability of MENA’s freshwater security to exogenous stress factors, due to the region’s heavy reliance on freshwater resources generated outside its territories, will likely increase over time, all other things unchanged. Support should be given to concerned MENA countries to reduce their exposure to this risk. MENA countries that are downstream in transboundary river basins such as the Nile and Euphrates-Tigris need to have in place joint mechanisms with upstream riparian countries that protect the former from exposure to freshwater insecurity due to upstream developments. Regular consultations and fair agreements with upstream riparian countries are not only imperative by law; they are crucial to ensure that any upstream measures affecting the common freshwater resource base do not cause significant harm to downstream MENA countries. Transboundary harm could be devastating for people in freshwater-scarce MENA countries.
Exposure to external freshwater security risk could be reduced only to the extent that headwater and other upstream countries adhere to international environmental, freshwater, and human rights laws, which are interdependent. Within an international community of civilized nations, respect for these laws is not optional. Safeguarding this dimension of freshwater security in the MENA countries concerned requires foresight on the part of the leadership of all MENA countries and their partners. Pooling efforts to achieve this objective would benefit all the parties involved, including those outside the region. It is in the common best interest of the international community, particularly Europe, as well as the United States, to contribute positively to the economic stability and security of MENA countries — an issue that is becoming increasingly tied to freshwater security.
About the author
Amal A. Kandeel advises government, international, and private entities on economic and public policy; natural resources and sustainable development; and conflict/peace and human security issues. Her work has been focused on Middle East and North Africa (MENA) political economy and development, particularly on the nexus of freshwater resource security, climate change, food security, and sustainable agricultural/rural development, as well as women in development.
About the Middle East Institute
The Middle East Institute is a center of knowledge dedicated to narrowing divides between the peoples of the Middle East and the United States. With over 70 years’ experience, MEI has established itself as a credible, non-partisan source of insight and policy analysis on all matters concerning the Middle East. MEI is distinguished by its holistic approach to the region and its deep understanding of the Middle East’s political, economic and cultural contexts. Through the collaborative work of its three centers — Policy & Research, Arts & Culture and Education — MEI provides current and future leaders with the resources necessary to build a future of mutual understanding.
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Cover photo: A young Palestinian getting water from a tank tap source. The population of Gaza is facing a drinking water problem, highlighting the humanitarian issues facing the Palestinian generation in the besieged Gaza Strip for several years, which the United Nations says could become uninhabitable by 2020. (YOUSEF MASOUD/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Contents photo: Syrians stand next to water faucets as they fill jerrycans in Aleppo's formerly rebel-held al-Shaar neighbourhood on January 21, 2017, a month after government forces retook the northern Syrian city from rebel fighters. (LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)