ABU DHABI // Countries in the region must focus on water, energy and food to prepare for the post-oil era, experts said at the International Water Summit in Abu Dhabi.
With 70 per cent of global freshwater used to grow food, Dr Irina Bokova, director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), said changing to renewable energy was critical to keep up with the demographic change and the scarcity of resources.
"Sometimes, you have to make trade-offs because one affects the other," she said. "This is the big challenge, especially in the Middle East with the water scarcity and rising population.
"It is important that the food, water, energy nexus is kept in the mind of decision-makers. We are working to mobilise the water community and political leadership."
She said the pressure of water management was huge due to the demographic and climate change, and higher standards of living. "It's also important to look at the impact of water management," she said. "Women are the most affected by water scarcity."
Others agreed that the issue had become pressing. "Whatever food that was available in the region, we had to become net importers of food because of the increasing population and lack of water," said Fahad Al Attiya, executive chairman of the Qatar National Food Security Programme.
"The UN food price index shows a level of stability but when you compare it to our national index, it's simply off the charts in terms of price volatility and that isn't pleasant," he said.
He also said that renewable energy could help alleviate the burden of water scarcity in the region. "Agriculture consumes at least four to six times the amount of water that the industry and households consume. So we desalinate water using renewable energy for agricultural purposes."
He said the management of resources was vital to ensure a sustainable future. "Water has to be at the heart of sustainable growth," he said. "It's not just consumption-based, it has to be linked to resource management."
His comments came ahead of Thursday's announcement that Masdar was planning solar desalination plants.
Dr Bokova said she was "impressed" by the UAE's work in renewable energy and "more optimistic" about the region's progress.
"It's focusing on its challenges and how to find the right priorities and balance," she said. "It has to be looked at from the point of view of technological innovation and change. I think we're still at the beginning of this stage but I see it emerging here."
Public and private sector partnerships have to be developed, she added, as well as comparing national to regional challenges.
"You cannot close yourself in your own problems. You cannot detach yourself from the problems of others."