Climate change is exacerbating one of the most grueling challenges of our times—water scarcity. Rising temperatures, recurrent droughts, and diminished river flows are endangering water supplies globally. As a result, approximately 2.3 billion people worldwide live under extreme water-stress, and these figures are only projected to multiply with population growth. Rapidly depleting freshwater resources coupled with ineffective response mechanisms will aggravate food insecurity and threaten socio-economic stability in much of the developing and developed world. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA)—the most water-scarce and conflict-prone region in the world—is already experiencing the acuteness of this challenge.
The MENA region constitutes nearly 6% of the world’s population and the annual average water availability per person in the region stands at only 1200 m3, almost six times less than the global average of 7000 m3. World Bank’s latest report, Ebb and Flow, which provides the first-ever global assessment of water shortages on migration patterns, noted that MENA already has the world’s highest level of forced displacement and growing water insecurity may lead to more climate-induced migration and future conflicts. These vulnerabilities are bound to have major implications for the marginalized, impoverished, and least resilient members of society—particularly women and young girls.
In traditional households and rural areas, women are primary caretakers whose daily lives are intricately tied to the availability and access to water. Women all across the globe, spend almost 200 million hours a day collecting water for household consumption and domestic needs. This is no small feat: the hours women spend walking tediously long distances in pursuit of water have adverse effects on their heath and jeopardize their educational opportunities. These issues are further compounded for female migrants who make up almost half of the global migrant population and being mostly excluded from any decision-making, have no choice but to move against their will for the betterment of their husbands and families.
Jordan’s water shortages in recent years have been aggravated by the influx of Syrian refugees in its northern turfs. Furthermore, the aquifers are depleting and the flows in the country’s main river system, the Yarmouk-Jordan River, continue to taper off due to dam-building. Any future cross-border conflict scenarios will deepen the country’s refugee crisis and sharing of scarce water resources between locals and migrants will increase the likelihood of social unrest. Women in refugee camps face additional predicaments owing to the lack of safe shelters and risk of gender-based violence. Women need to be accompanied by men to use the make-shift public restrooms and are frequently subjected to verbal and sexual assault during their trek to fetch water. Besides poor access to clean water, refugee camps also do not have adequate health provisions which can result in dire consequences for child-bearing women.
In Iraq, Baghdad has become a lucrative spot for rural migrants. The country’s drought patterns, hot and humid climate, and growing water scarcity has forced farmers and communities living in the Iraqi marshlands to migrate to urban areas in pursuit of alternative means of livelihoods. These migrants often settle in urban slums and illegal settlements where women and children are subjected to various criminal activities such as child trafficking and forced prostitution. These settlements, much like the aforementioned camps, do not have clean water supplies leading to a heavy caseload of water-borne illnesses. Accordingly, women being responsible for tending to the ailing family members, often are at an immediate risk of contracting the illness.
Water is one of the most vital resources for life and for women, in traditional and low-income communities, water defines their day-to-day activities. As adverse extreme weather patterns become more frequent and worsen MENA’s existing water crisis, climate or water-induced migration and displacement may become a regular phenomenon for its member states. Under these circumstances, all countries in the MENA region must develop synergetic approaches to address the multi-dimensional repercussions of migration, including water shortages. In the same vein, it is essential that more research focuses on the evaluation and analysis of migration trends and their disproportionate impacts on women.
A prerequisite for developing water secure and sustainable communities is to build greater climate resilience and adaptation capacities. Women, as main water bearers, should be front and center in this process and should receive equal participation opportunities which will enable them to better lead water management efforts. Countries at local levels should initiate women-focused educational awareness and training programs and at national levels, policymakers should work to remove any structural barriers to develop a more gender-balanced climate change adaptation framework. In Jordan, the government is already dedicating efforts to programs such as Water Wise Women (WWW) designed to train local women, including refugees, to be plumbers. Jordan has a notorious system of leaky pipelines which means that ample water is lost before it can make way to the taps. Through WWW, women will be equipped to fix leakages and conserve water for their homes and communities. On transboundary levels, there should be more meaningful participation of women stakeholders in water-related peacekeeping and negotiations. The Women and Water Diplomacy in the Nile (WIN) Network, established by SIWI, is a good example of one such platform for regional members to seek inspiration from and recreate in their respective basins/countries.
Women’s empowerment could be key to MENA’s water future and therefore it is becoming increasingly important to advance women’s rights, engage them in matters of water resource governance, and cater to their perspectives when devising water management and conservation solutions.