Scarce water resources will drive life-and-death politics
Every day, around the globe, nearly 4,000 children die from waterborne diseases. That is 166 children every hour, nearly three per minute. More than one billion people lack clean drinking water, and more than 2.5 billion lack adequate sanitation. Those numbers tell the story: while increased attention has been paid lately to a "coming water crisis", for many, that crisis has already come.
For Arab countries, water scarcity has certainly arrived. Middle East and North African states have the least renewable water supply per capita of any region, and are considered to be one of the highest "water stress" regions in the world. With some 5 per cent of the globe's population, the Arab world has less than 1 per cent of the world's fresh water. For a region rich in other natural resources, water is not one of them.
This brewing water crisis will have diverse effects in different countries, ranging from the possibility of near-term humanitarian crises in Yemen and drought-affected North African countries, to the long-term slowing of development in the GCC.
The GCC countries are also overly reliant on others for their food security. According to an official UAE white paper prepared for the G20 summit in Cannes last year, the UAE imports 85 per cent of its food. Food security is tied up with weather patterns, rainfall and water access issues around the world.
The GCC countries, however, have the financial resources to sustain this over-reliance in the short-term. For North African countries such as Egypt, also reliant on others for their food security but with less of a financial cushion, rising food prices pose serious risks of instability.
Indeed, in the five years preceding the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt experienced three rounds of food price spikes. Anger at food inflation fed the multiple streams of resentments fuelling the uprisings.
Water is more than just life-giving nourishment or a vital ingredient of oxygen-producing ecosystems and the food we eat. It also fuels the global economy. All sources of electricity and energy require water in their production processes. Indeed, a senior executive of a major western oil and gas company accurately observed: "All energy companies are also, by default, water companies." With global energy consumption rising, the demand for more water will increase.
The Middle East is widely considered to be "high" or "extreme" in water stress. Yemen's water situation is particularly stark, exacerbating the many humanitarian crises the Arabian peninsula country faces: there are currently 750,000 Yemeni children suffering from malnutrition, a doubling in the past year.
Yemen has access to about one-fifth of the water needed per person by average global standards, and it imports nearly 90 per cent of its food. Sanaa could lack sufficient water within 10 years, sparking a wave of "water refugees" across the country and possibly across borders.
In Morocco, droughts have become more frequent - occurring every two years rather than every five as had been the pattern. In Jordan, the Dead Sea is dying. Its water level is dropping by as much as two billion gallons a year, and the shoreline is receding by more than a metre each year. It runs the risk of disappearing entirely by 2050.
The world's water experts gathered in Marseille, France last week for a major United Nations conference. The UN launched its triennial World Water Development report at the event. The results were sobering. The report notes that "unprecedented growth in demands for water are threatening all major development goals". It also warns that "rising food demand, rapid urbanisation and climate change are significantly increasing pressure on global water supplies".
The report highlighted four main areas of concern for the Arab world: water scarcity, dependency on shared water resources, climate change and food security. The report noted that many countries are extracting too much groundwater, "threatening the sustainability of many national and shared aquifer systems". Meanwhile, tensions can flare among countries, particularly along the Nile River Basin, over rights to water access.
As for climate change, the report notes that "small changes in climate patterns can result in dramatic impacts on the ground", citing Morocco's more frequent droughts as an example.
Food security, however, might be the most pressing issue. Agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of total water demand in the region. Despite this, most Arab countries are highly food-dependent. "Limited agricultural productivity, continued land degradation and water scarcity have made food self-sufficiency goals unachieveable at the national or regional level," the report noted.
It's time for regional leaders to take collective action. The UAE has taken a useful first step by convening an International Water Summit to be held in Abu Dhabi next year, but summits are not enough. Action is required now.
A regional pan-Arab agency for water security should be created immediately. The agency should be lean, credible and supported at the highest levels of government. It would act as a centre of knowledge, a warning system signalling looming dangers, a catalyst for resource allocation and a regional voice in global bodies on this vital issue.
Solutions to the Middle East's multiple water crises are within reach, with collective and forceful action. A reputable agency with high-level backing could catalyse the kind of sustainable solutions urgently needed. Time is running out - and so is the water.
Afshin Molavi is a senior adviser at Oxford Analytica and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation
On Twitter: @afshinmolavi
Updated: March 19, 2012 04:00 AM