What does the Arab world do when their water runs out?

What does the Arab world do when their water runs out?


"Water usage in north Africa and the Middle East is unsustainable and shortages are likely to lead to further instability – unless governments take action to solve the impending crisis

• Failure to act on crop shortages fuelling political instability

John Vidal The Observer, Sunday 20 February 2011
Poverty, repression, decades of injustice and mass unemployment have all been cited as causes of the political convulsions in the Middle East and north Africa these last weeks. But a less recognised reason for the turmoil in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen, Jordan and now Iran has been rising food prices, directly linked to a growing regional water crisis.

The diverse states that make up the Arab world, stretching from the Atlantic coast to Iraq, have some of the world's greatest oil reserves, but this disguises the fact that they mostly occupy hyper-arid places. Rivers are few, water demand is increasing as populations grow, underground reserves are shrinking and nearly all depend on imported staple foods that are now trading at record prices.

For a region that expects populations to double to more than 600 million within 40 years, and climate change to raise temperatures, these structural problems are political dynamite and already destabilising countries, say the World Bank, the UN and many independent studies.

In recent reports they separately warn that the riots and demonstrations after the three major food-price rises of the last five years in north Africa and the Middle East might be just a taste of greater troubles to come unless countries start to share their natural resources, and reduce their profligate energy and water use.

"In the future the main geopolitical resource in the Middle East will be water rather than oil. The situation is alarming," said Swiss foreign minister Micheline Calmy-Rey last week, as she launched a Swiss and Swedish government-funded report for the EU.

The Blue Peace report examined long-term prospects for seven countries, including Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Israel. Five already suffer major structural shortages, it said, and the amount of water being taken from dwindling sources across the region cannot continue much longer.

"Unless there is a technological breakthrough or a miraculous discovery, the Middle East will not escape a serious [water] shortage," said Sundeep Waslekar, a researcher from the Strategic Foresight Group who wrote the report.

Autocratic, oil-rich rulers have been able to control their people by controlling nature and have kept the lid on political turmoil at home by heavily subsidising "virtual" or "embedded" water in the form of staple grains imported from the US and elsewhere.

But, says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East programme at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic Studies, existing political relationships are liable to break down when, as now, the price of food hits record levels and the demand for water and energy soars.

"Water is a fundamental part of the social contract in Middle Eastern countries. Along with subsidised food and fuel, governments provide cheap or even free water to ensure the consent of the governed. But when subsidised commodities have been cut, instability has often followed.

"Water's own role in prompting unrest has so far been relatively limited, but that is unlikely to hold. Future water scarcity will be much more permanent than past shortages, and the techniques governments have used in responding to past disturbances may not be enough," he says.

"The problem will only get worse. Arab countries depend on other countries for their food security – they're as sensitive to floods in Australia and big freezes in Canada as on the yield in Algeria or Egypt itself," says political analyst and Middle East author Vicken Cheterian.

"In 2008/9, Arab countries' food imports cost $30bn. Then, rising prices caused waves of rioting and left the unemployed and impoverished millions in Arab countries even more exposed. The paradox of Arab economies is that they depend on oil prices, while increased energy prices make their food more expensive," says Cheterian.

The region's most food- and water-insecure country is Yemen, the poorest in the Arab world, which gets less than 200 cubic metres of water per person a year – well below the international water poverty line of 1,000m3 – and must import 80-90% o f its food.

According to Mahmoud Shidiwah, chair of the Yemeni water and environment protection agency, 19 of the country's 21 main aquifers are no longer being replenished and the government has considered moving Sana'a, the capital city, with around two million people, which is expected to run dry within six years.

"Water shortages have increased political tensions between groups. We have a very big problem," he says."

The point here is that water scarcity is an underlying cause of much of the unrest in this area of the world, only it is not getting the attention and press it needs in order to be dealt with. Governments would rather privitize it and much of it is polluted beyond the ability to be used. Even desalination in this area is proving costly. I am amazed that the word "conservation" never gets mentioned in addressing this crisis, and that is part of the problem. I would hope that the available sources would be shared equitably, but as we now see Turkey and Israel are the water bosses of the Middle East, and they control a large part of the water being used ( much of it now diverted for dams.) Also, we see many dams being built in Africa with hydropower becoming a source of energy that cannot be sustained in a land where drought and population growth are already straining agriculture along with the effects of biodistress (climate change.)

We need to address population and water usage in line with polluton of this resource that is now unsustainable. We also need to bring energy sources to these areas that do not consume huge amounts of water that should be used for growing food and addressing the needs of people in these areas. I have always contended that there was a MAD scenario to the water crisis in that no country would ever do anything to harm the source of another as it would come back on them. However, from what I have seen recently regarding unwillingness of upstream countries to share equitably with downstream countries, this crisis is becoming more and more contentious not only in the Middle East but in Asia and Africa.

Mideast News/Water Wars

The information here is a bit dated (1994) but the predictions to 2025 are coming true. Countries in this region have all stated that the one resource they will wage war over is water. And with this area already being arid now contending with longer replenishment rates due to climate change affecting the hydrologic cycle along with wasteful irrigation and drought where there is little potable water and higher populations, we will only see more protests along these lines as well as protesting higher food prices, unemployment and political corruption. Water is the 400 lb. gorilla in the room.

Survival of our species depends on taking this SERIOUSLY.
And this is not about politics or religion. This is about humanity.


Great informative post. Thanks.
Jan said…
Thanks for reading it.