Resources & Climate

An Unsustainable Endeavor: Water Scarcity and Human Security in the Middle East

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By John Doble – Water scarcity in the Middle East continues to pose threats to human security despite the efforts of governments to reduce consumption and develop new technologies for desalination. Continued reliance on non-renewable water sources for commercial and municipal water use will be unsustainable. Water shortages may also contribute to poor irrigation practices, leading to increased soil salination and health risks from improperly recycled waste water.  In facing these daunting challenges, leaders in the region will need to make difficult decisions sooner rather than later.

The impact of water scarcity on the region is seen clearly in the agriculture sector.  According to the World Bank, the Middle East and North Africa have the lowest percentages of arable land in the world.  Salinity further robs the region of nearly a million hectares a year, due to insufficient levels of irrigation, aquifer contamination, and rising sea levels. (i)   Despite this trend, Middle Eastern states continue to consume far more water than is replaced by the water cycle, primarily to meet agricultural demand, which far surpasses industrial and residential needs.  If current trends continue, by 2025 Kuwait, Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Yemen will each have less than 100 cubic meters of water per capita a year, which is ten percent of the minimum annual renewable water resources (ARWR) needed to sustain economic development and public health.(ii)   

Efforts to curb agricultural water use in the region have had mixed results.  Domestic interest groups and the 2008 surge in food prices pressured leaders of oil-rich states to invest in locally-grown agriculture.  In one case, Saudi Arabia decided to phase out wheat production by 2016, but later invested in alfalfa and animal products, which require more water than wheat production.(iii)   Oil-poor countries that lack financial resources, such as Yemen, may simply see domestic agriculture falter along with water supplies, increasing their dependence on foreign food aid.    

Oil-rich states have also tried to avoid making hard choices by investing an estimated $15.5 billion in creating new water through desalination plants between 2009 and 2013. (iv)  Rather than risk unrest by charging citizens for the amount of water that they use, in order to reduce overall consumption, leaders created a new industry and continued to supply water to farmers virtually for free.  This is unsustainable in the long run because desalinated water is both too expensive to be commercially viable for most agriculture and is highly energy intensive.  In light of the energy needs of the agriculture and industrial sectors and the region’s growing population, states will struggle to provide for future consumption levels.  

Water scarcity also has adverse impacts on public health.  With freshwater increasingly diverted to support growing cities and industry, farmers are turning to waste water to nurture their crops.  Working with aging and inadequate sewage systems and treatment facilities, states continue to face challenges protecting agriculture water supplies from contamination, especially in Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Gaza and the West Bank, Syria and Yemen. Moreover, one study found that published figures were unreliable in predicting the scope of this risk from country to country, suggesting that the situation is likely worse than commonly acknowledged. (v)  

Consequently, workers and consumers are exposed to microbial pathogens and dangerous industrial chemicals.  While much is unknown about the impact of many chemicals on human biology, the threat of bacterial, viral, and parasitic diseases is well documented.(vi)  This problem will only grow as water becomes scarcer and states spend billions distilling new water rather than treating current resources. 

Thus, water scarcity is having a profound impact on the region’s ability to ensure the health and well-being of its people. Middle Eastern countries will need to consider ways to reduce reliance on unsustainable agricultural practices, perhaps shifting focus to encouraging food production in countries with spare capacity, while safeguarding maritime shipping and opening up to global supply chains.  Money can be redirected from water creation to water treatment infrastructure, with proper pricing for water usage implemented.  Together, such initiatives could help cut down water consumption to more sustainable levels, develop mutually beneficial relations with food suppliers for the region, and improve public health.

Photo Credit: Farm in Alaga, Saudi Arabia (by iDip, 2006):



Works Cited:

(i)  “Agriculture: Much Tilling Without Harvest.” Executive No. 117 (April 2009)

(ii)  Qadir, Manzoor, Akissa Bahri, Toshio Sato and Esmat Al-Karadsheh.  “Wastewater production, treatment, and irrigation in Middle East and North Africa.”  Irrigation Drainage Systems Vol. 24 No. 37 (2010): 39.

(iii) Elhadj, Elie.  “Camels Don’t Fly, Deserts Don’t Bloom: an Assessment of Saudi Arabia’s Experiment in Desert Agriculture” Occasional Paper No. 48, SOAS Water Issues Study Group (May 2004), p. 6

(iv) “The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Desalination Plant Market.”  Frost & Sullivan (September 5, 2009)

(v)  Zaidi, Mohammed K.  “Environmental Aspects of Wastewater Reuse” in Zaidi, Mohammed K., ed., Wastewater Reuse-Risk Assessment, Decision-Making and Environmental Security (New York: Springer, 2007): p. 359

(vi) Toze, S.  “Water reuse and health risks – real vs. perceived”, Desalination No. 187 (2006): 41-51.




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