31 December 2021

Saving a Water-Stressed Middle East

Neda Zawahri

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) will be the most severely affected by climate change. A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts that this region will inevitably experience shorter and warmer winters, hotter and drier summers, and more extreme weather events. Combined, these changes will decrease domestic water resources. In a region already plagued by severe freshwater shortages, any decrease or variability in supplies is likely to intensify an escalating water crisis. Consequently, the region is considered one of the most vulnerable places in the world to the impact of climate change on domestic water resources.

The MENA region is also the world’s driest region. While it contains less than 2 percent of global renewable freshwater resources, it is home to around 6 percent of the world’s population. Twelve of the world’s most water-scarce states are located here, including Algeria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Libya, Oman, the Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Yemen.

With the exception of Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Oman, water availability in the region is well below 1,000 cubic meters per person per year, which is much less than the qualifying threshold for individual water security. In terms of consumption of water, there is great variance; the Arab Gulf countries use more water per capita than the global average, while the poorer states, such as Jordan and Yemen, have some of the lowest consumption rates in the world.

Due to its impact on water resources, climate change will challenge the capacity of states across the MENA region to meet their domestic water and food security needs. As a result, domestic and regional tensions will surface, worsened by social and economic losses across the region. These will weaken the ability of the region’s states to respond to these challenges and effectively adapt to climate change, including managing their water resources. Not to mention the hard fact that the region has already surpassed most predictions and thresholds surrounding the impact of climate change.

Climatic Change Predictions Have Already Come to Pass

Climate change predictions indicate that temperatures in the region will increase between 3 to 6°C from 2070 to 2100, depending on greenhouse gas emission rates. What is worrying is that analysis of the region’s temperatures indicates that this warming trend has already begun. From 1961 until 1990, the region experienced a 0.6°C increase in its temperatures, and is now warming at an even faster rate. Other research has revealed an increase in the number of warm days, a decrease in the number of cold days, and an increase in overall temperatures from 1950 to 2003. This warming trend, in an already hot and arid environment, will have a negative impact on human health, tourism, farming, water supplies, and ultimately, the regional economy.

Decreased Rainfall

Climate change models also suggest that the majority of the MENA countries will experience a decrease in the precipitation rates anywhere between 10 and 40 percent from 2070 and 2100; the evaporation rate is set to increase from 47 percent to 54 percent. The only exception from this trend is Yemen and Oman, which models indicate could become wetter. The World Bank predicts that the majority of the MENA region will experience a 20 percent reduction in its annual rainfall coupled with higher evaporation. Seasonally, the precipitation rate is expected to increase in the autumn season and decrease in the spring. The potential decrease in precipitation during the spring season is expected to harm rain-fed agriculture, while increased rainfall during the autumn harvesting season can challenge crop yield. This change in precipitation and the negative impact on crop yield and agricultural productivity can endanger the region’s food security. Due to the decrease in crop yield, states such as Egypt and Sudan will be challenged to meet the individual and national food security needs of rural areas dependent on rain-fed agriculture.

According to the World Bank, precipitation data across the region revealed that much of the aforementioned trend has already started. In Jordan, for example, the past forty-five years have exhibited a decrease in annual precipitation between 5 and 20 percent, a decrease in the number of rainy days, and warming. When comparing rain patterns in the 2000s with the 1960s, data revealed a 23 percent reduction in precipitation in Iraq, 15 percent in Lebanon, and 16 percent in Syria. The intra-seasonal variability in precipitation patterns appears to have already occurred across several states in the region.

Extreme weather conditions

Climate change predictions also anticipate an increase in the occurrence of extreme weather events, such as flash floods and droughts, in the Middle East. Flash floods represent a significant challenge for the management of regional water sources—one whose hydrological infrastructure was designed and constructed for an arid environment and is not well adapted for flash or regular flooding. An increase in flash flooding is expected to challenge states’ capacities to fill reservoirs and may even jeopardize the integrity of the reservoirs themselves.

According to several climate change models, sea levels in the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf are also expected to rise between 0.1 to 0.9 millimeters per year by 2100 because of climate change. Research indicates that since the 1990s, there has been sea level rise, beginning gradually and now more rapidly. One of the many impacts of a rise in sea level is saltwater intrusion into coastal aquifers, which can contaminate and diminish their utility.

Throughout the region, droughts and floods have already plagued states in recent decades. Droughts challenge the capacity of states to meet their domestic demand for water, and inflict substantial economic losses, especially on rain-fed agriculture in Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. Such droughts are not only occurring more often across the region, but have also lasted longer than in the past. Water resource management is challenged during protracted droughts and the resulting collapse of the agricultural sector has contributed to waves of migration from rural to urban centers. These trends were particularly pronounced in Syria prior to its civil war—which led some to argue that the combined impact of the prolonged drought on the agricultural sector and the government’s failure to respond effectively was a contributing factor to the country’s subsequent unrest.

Water Demand, Crop Failure, and Conflict

Climate change is expected to reduce the available renewable surface and groundwater resources across the region. While the exact quantity of decrease varies depending on unfolding climate scenarios, studies do indicate that the decrease in water availability could be greater than 15 percent if the region’s temperature increases by 2o C, and a staggering 45 percent if the temperature increases by 4o C. Given the anticipated impact of climate change on water resources, studies have indicated that the available water for irrigation in the Middle East will decline between 13 to 28 percent, and in North Africa it could decline between 9 to 25 percent by 2050. The expected increase in droughts and floods is likely to compound the decrease in water supply available for the municipal and agricultural sectors in the region.

Agriculture is an important source of national and individual food security along with income for farmers in the Nile, Euphrates and Tigris Basins, and the Mediterranean Coast. However, approximately 70 percent of the region’s agriculture is rain-fed, making this sector highly vulnerable to climate change. The decreased precipitation and increased evaporation expected from climate change will decrease soil moisture, which is likely to heighten the vulnerability and unpredictability of agricultural productivity. Variability in the timing and intensity of precipitation in Jordan has already had a negative impact on farmers, and heavy rains are contributing to crop failures. Climate change models show that the region will experience significant reduction in crop yields, especially major grains, in the future. A 1.5 to 2°C warming can result in a 30 percent decline in crop yields in Jordan, Egypt, and Libya, and a 3 to 4°C warming may lead to a 60 percent decline in wheat production in Syria.

Crop failure contributes to significant direct and indirect losses because it challenges a state’s ability to meet domestic food security needs, alongside directly impacting rural livelihoods and individual food security. According to the World Bank, climate change’s impact on reducing water resources and the agricultural sector’s production has the potential to reduce gross domestic product (GDP). Iran, for example, may experience a reduction of 7.2 percent in GDP, while Jordan may experience a 6.8 percent reduction.

Additionally, with few exceptions, states across the region confront some of the highest population growth rates. Bahrain’s population growth rate is 3.68 percent, the second-highest population growth rate in the world. Annually, Syria and Iraq’s populations grow at 2.52 and 2.32 percent respectively. By 2050, the region’s population is expected to double, placing increased pressures on its domestic water resources and food security.

Other resources that may be affected by climate change are transboundary water systems, such as rivers, aquifers, or lakes shared by two or more countries. About 60 percent of the MENA’s water supply flows through transboundary rivers that cross the border of one or more nations, such as the Euphrates and Tigris, Nile, and Jordan Rivers. These rivers are critical sources of water for many states in the region. Over 96 percent of Egypt’s and Bahrain’s water resources originate outside of their borders, while 72 percent of Syria’s and 60 percent of Iraq’s water comes from neighboring states. This represents the highest percentage of dependence on transboundary freshwater resources in the world. Climate change models expect a decrease in the runoff of the transboundary rivers in the area. A 4°C warming is likely to result in a decrease between 25 percent to 55 percent in the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers’ runoff, while the daily runoff of the Jordan River is expected to decrease by 17 percent.

A decrease in the runoff of transboundary water resources has the potential to increase tension between riparian states. For basins with agreements governing the use of shared water resources, climate change can impact the ability of riparian states to continue to comply with existing treaties, protocols, or agreements. Tension is also likely to arise in areas not governed by agreements. A decrease in the region’s water supply can mean that upstream states increase their consumption of transboundary water resources, thus decreasing the supply available to midstream and downstream nations, leading to regional tension. For example, as Ethiopia continues to increase its consumption of the Nile River, Egypt’s ability to meet its domestic water needs will be challenged, in turn contributing to political strain between the riparian states. Historically, Syria and Iraq have suffered water shortages as Turkey increased its use and control of the Euphrates River, which has led to periodic tension between the states.

Managing Water Resources in the Middle East

In general, states across the MENA region have not embraced more efficient management of existing water supplies. Instead, they have opted to invest in constructing hydrological infrastructure, such as dams and desalination plants, to augment existing supplies. This hydrological infrastructure is not only expensive compared with using existing supplies of water, but is not a viable long-term solution and therefore an inefficient means to meet their ever-growing water demand. Construction of hydrological infrastructure results in extensive negative ecological consequences on the region’s environment, such as emissions of greenhouse gases and the need to discharge large quantities of brine from desalination plants into either the sea or the desert. Construction of dams is expensive and environmentally unsustainable as they have a limited life span and often have significant negative environmental impact on the ecosystem. While the cost of water desalination is decreasing, energy-poor states, such as Syria, Egypt, and Jordan, must incur the added high energy costs, expensive capital investment, and the transportation cost for delivering treated water in pipes from the sea coast to inland cities to meet their growing demand. Depending on the water’s salinity level and type of technology used, desalinization alone can cost anywhere between $0.60 to $2.86 per cubic meter, which will certainly have to be subsidized since many of the region’s consumers cannot afford to pay the full price.

Increasing efficient use of domestic water resources is an economically cheaper option for the MENA’s energy-poor states and a more environmentally sustainable solution to meet growing water demand. But embracing more efficient demand management policies could mean making and enforcing politically sensitive policies for many leaders across the region. Examples of these policies include cutting water subsidies and limiting the quantity of water used in irrigation.

Increasing the cost of irrigation water by cutting subsidies or limiting the quantity of water used for the agricultural sector, which consumes anywhere between 65 to 85 percent of the region’s domestic water budget, is an economically sound method of saving water in the region. Due to the nature of the social contract between the state and society, many countries find it politically costly to cut subsidies on water for fear of upsetting powerful constituents and contributing to popular protests, such as those which occurred during the 2010–11 Arab uprisings. In another example, attempts by the Jordanian monarchy to cut subsidies immediately resulted in popular protests by powerful tribes in 1989, 1996, and 2010. Consequently, governments across the MENA tend to avoid increasing the cost of water for the agricultural and municipal sectors.

Moreover, some nations such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt have overexploited their renewable and nonrenewable surface and groundwater by over-extracting these resources beyond their safe range. In fifty years, the UAE is expected to deplete all its natural freshwater resources due to its over-extraction of water. Two states in particular, Jordan and Syria, have over-pumped and over-exploited their domestic water resources beyond sustainable capacity and are confronting a significant water crisis. The Amman-Zarqa and Azraq aquifers in Jordan are mined by 176 percent and 215 percent beyond their safe yield. Economically wealthier energy-rich countries, such as the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia, have relied on extensive desalination to meet domestic water needs, but their water subsidies present a significant financial burden on domestic budgets.

Yet, due to the impending impacts of climate change, effective management of domestic water resources across the region is a necessity and, according to the World Bank, is expected to require more effort and adjustment leaps for the MENA than any other region in the world.

Without building their adaptive capacities to manage the impending impact of climate change on the region’s water resources, many states across the region are expected to confront challenges in securing access to sufficient water to meet their domestic water and food security needs. As a result, these states will face direct and indirect losses along with an increased potential for domestic and regional tension over access to water resources.

Currently, there is great variability in the MENA’s adaptive capacity and vulnerability to climate change because of the economic diversity within the region between the Arab Gulf states, the poorer conflict-torn states, such as Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, and other states, such as Jordan and Egypt.

In building their adaptive capacity, states need to build better institutions to govern domestic and transboundary water resources, increase water prices for high-consuming elites, and increase the efficiency in irrigation water use. Historically, regional institutions for governing transboundary rivers tended to be weak and lacked the capacity to address the tensions between riparian states. The region’s river basin commissions need to be empowered with conflict-resolution mechanisms that can help guide states to address disputes over transboundary water resources as they arise. One such example that requires revival are strengthened conflict-resolution mechanisms such as the Joint Technical Committee established between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, which covered the Euphrates and Tigris basin and met regularly from 1983 until 1993. This commission is very weak and lacks the capacity to address the riparian states’ water disputes. There has already been political wrangling over water supply between the three countries.

Adapting to Climate Change in the Water Sector

Oftentimes, wealthy elites are the ones benefiting from cheap water pricing along with foreign nationals and expats. Governments across the region can use persuasion to renegotiate their social contract with elites and increase the price of water for the wealthy along with foreign nationals.

Irrigated agriculture is the predominant consumer of the MENA’s water resources, taking up in Iran 92 percent, in Iraq 79 percent, and in Syria 88 percent, of the domestic water resources. However, the level of agricultural productivity in the region is very low, and its share in the states’ GDP is equally low. Despite this minor contribution, agriculture is still an important source of employment in many MENA countries, especially in urban areas. Directly diverting water from the agricultural sector to the municipal sector is not a viable solution. Since many poor farmers are heavily dependent on cheap water, a direct diversion of water can challenge their livelihoods and contribute to unemployment and food insecurity. However, water-saving techniques can help improve irrigation water use. For instance, making improvements in irrigation techniques such growing less water-intensive crops, using treated wastewater, and other agricultural management practices can help to conserve water in the agricultural sector and help states build adaptive capacity to minimize the impact of climate change.

In the meantime, conflict-torn countries, such as Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Iraq, lack the effective institutional capacity to adapt to climate change, which can leave their populations vulnerable. Once these states enter the post-conflict reconstruction process, the donor community needs to take into consideration the need to build adaptive capacity in the water sector and guid these states through the construction of effective, resilient, and strong water management institutions.

In general, climate change models and recent hydrological trends point to a hotter and drier MENA region in the near future. States, such as Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq, which are already confronting a significant water crisis, are set to experience increasing aridity and further decreases in their water supplies. Given these impending effects, it can’t be stated enough that states must sooner than later begin to build adaptive capacities to minimize the social, economic, and political losses they will likely confront.

Across the region, states need to consider negotiating with farmers to improve their irrigation techniques by embracing water-saving technologies. Domestic overconsumption of scarce water needs to be addressed for the region to assure its future national and individual water security. And finally, regional transboundary institutions need to be strengthened to address increasing tensions between riparian states in order to maintain peace and security.

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