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What does a World with less Water mean for the Middle East?

Author: Amy Espinoza Published: 17 June 2021

An event organized by SOAS Middle East Institute on 4 May 2021

Chair: Narguess Farzad (SOAS) and Dina Matar (SOAS)

Speaker: Peter Schwartzstein, an environmental journalist focused on climate change issues affecting the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Mediterranean, his work can be usually found in National Geographic and the BBC.

The Middle East usually makes headlines for its convulsive political situation and violent conflicts; it's not so common, however, to associate the region with climate change. It should be, especially when it’s water-scarcity-related. As it’s here where one of the most water-scarce portions of the world can be found. Lately, water resources have been in short supply increasing the difficulties for people living in the area to access clean water. With temperatures going up and long dry seasons becoming the new normal, the Middle East and its population of over 440 million will face more challenges.

"water wars will be the next major challenge for the MENA region" Peter Schwartztein.

There are a total of 17 countries in the Middle East, spanning from West Asia to the north of Africa. Understanding the uniqueness of each nation is crucial to unfold how serious the challenge to get water really is and possibly offer insight on how a solution would look like, still Peter Schwartzstein speaks about the creation of a concerning pattern observed in the Arab Peninsula where people are forced to go underground to obtain water, sometimes as far as a mile underground. The process to achieve this comes at a high cost making the population rely on the goodwill of big corporations or savings to fund these projects. Not only that, groundwater is rarely renewable, once it’s extracted the area cannot be used again and the surroundings are left dehydrated. Saudi Arabia had to learn a hard lesson in 2016 after abusing groundwater operations, the country came to the decision that some crops had to be banned simply because there wasn’t sufficient water. Rainfall is another common problem, wavering amounts of rainfall are pushing farmers across the Middle East to depend on groundwater, a solution that’s far from being sustainable.

Jordan: A dramatic water crisis

For Peter Schwartzstein the situation in Jordan might be a cautionary tale for what’s next for the region. Located in the desert, Jordan is the same size as Portugal, its access to freshwater however is 10th percent of what Portugal gets. One of the poorest countries in the world, this nation has seen a rise of 30% in water costs in the last 10 years, the uncontrolled growth of its population and the shift from rural to urban livelihoods is risking the future of the Jordan population. By 2100 Jordans could receive only 10 gallons of water per person by the day- the global average is 100 gallons per person. This dire prediction is not based on the lack of natural resources. Jordan, after all, is the home of the region’s biggest river system-the Yarmouk River, the problem lies in the misuse and abuse of the resources, not only in Jordan but in neighboring areas like Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Syria.

Population Growth

According to the World Bank, the Middle East and North Africa region has a population growth rate of 1.7 percent annually, a stark contrast to the 1 percent seen in the rest of the world, increasing, in consequence, the already soaring demand for water. It’s not only the internal population that's driving the multiplication of inhabitants, refugees are undoubtedly playing a role as well. Just in the context of the Syrian war, 5.6 million Syrians are displaced across Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. In the seven years of war in Yemen , 4 million people have been forced to leave their homes. None of the conflicts seems to be soon resolved, making the increase of the regional population a serious threat to an area that deals with extreme poverty, political instability, and hunger.

Water as a weapon of war

If an uncontrollable increase in the population is the region’s first challenge, Schwartzstein pinpoints that water wars will be the next major challenge . Already today, water facilities are being deliberately attacked in parts of Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Gaza. While this is not a novelty in regards to how conflicts have developed across human history, what’s concerning is hownormal instability has become for the Middle East and North Africa. Schwartzstein gives to the audience a statistic to bear in mind: The Middle East is home for 6% of the world’s population, but only has access to 1.5% of global freshwater, with armed forces destroying water facilities with no care for what happens next, that number is on its way to be reduced.

The perils for rural life and the rise of famine

One thing that couldn’t be more dependent on water is agriculture. Rural farmers across the Middle East are collapsing as it is becoming more and more difficult to obtain water and the ramifications of this goes beyond affecting the life of a single person, this is destroying the livelihoods of entire families. Which are on the path of poverty, putting farmers in the claws of a vicious cycle where they have to ask for loans in order to buy seeds that can be cultivated in a landscape where a shortage of water is part of their daily reality. This also has a direct impact on communities in general, as farmers have to leave behind more profitable and nutritious crops like fruits and vegetables due to water scarcity . One of the possible grim consequences of this situation is that one day people won’t be able to secure their food. In some war-devastated areas, this is already happening.

Going Forward

Water scarcity means food insecurity, it leads to children becoming severely ill and dying from preventable diseases. It brings poverty to a point where parents have to put their sons and daughters in dangerous situations to be able to provide them with at least one meal per day. Less water means less development and lost economic opportunities . Peter Schwartzstein recounts how countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates are welcoming the implementation of technologies capable of searching for water in a renewable way. Saudi Arabia for example signed an agreement with an Israeli startup that has developed the technology to extract water from air humidity and the UAE among other Gulf nations is constantly investing in desalination processes . This, of course, is welcomed, but to really speak about the proposal of a solution, it would be necessary to speak about collaboration between all the countries that compose the Middle East. Policymakers must think about how governments, businesses, and societies can set in motion policies with the sufficient strength and impact to actually create a positive change.

Water scarcity is not an individualistic problem. It’s a collective one.

The solution needs to be collective as well.

Amy is from Peru and is a Public Health senior student in the United States, she currently freelances as a political writer. Her passion is to bring the world closer to the stories of those who have been told they're meant to be voiceless.

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University, Stanford. “Jordan's Worsening Water Crisis a Warning for the World.” Stanford News, March 29, 2021.

“The MENA Region's Water Crisis: Avoiding Potential Water Wars.” The Washington Institute. Accessed May 14, 2021.

More Information:

“Water In Crisis - Spotlight Middle East.” The Water Project. Accessed May 14, 2021.

Sabaghi, Dario. “The Middle East Looks to Innovate Its Way Out of a Water Crisis.” World Politics Review. Accessed May 14, 2021.

Scott, Katy. “Can the Middle East Solve Its Water Problem?” CNN. Cable News Network, March 22, 2019.

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