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Dealing with Water Scarcity in MENA

Available in: Français, العربية

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  • About half of the countries in MENA are consuming more water on average than they are receiving in rainfall
  • Per capita water availability in MENA is projected to fall by half of what it currently is by 2050
  • Eighty-five percent of the water in the MENA region is used for irrigation

August 15, 2008 —The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is the most water scarce region of the world and in recent years the amount of water available per person has declined dramatically.  "Current estimates are based on constant rainfall patterns, yet the global projections for climate change actually indicate a drop in rainfall precipitation of 20 to 40% and an increase in temperatures- meaning increased evaporation", said Julia Bucknall, Lead Natural Resources Management Specialist.  "Based on these available indicators, the MENA region will be seeing a lot more people trying to manage with a lot less water", she added.

The impact of water scarcity on food production

Where water scarcity makes the most impact is in food production.  Eighty-five percent of the water in the MENA region is used for irrigation and that is potentially the main area from which the growing urban demand can be met.  While there is some potential in adopting more efficient irrigation practices, there's no getting around the need to restrict the amounts of water used for agriculture in many parts of the region. That is institutionally, and politically, very difficult.

With less groundwater available for agriculture, the region is going to be much more dependent on trade for food products.  While this scenario is acceptable, we should remember that as the region's dependence on trade gets higher and higher, there are economic risks, and volatility in a region like the Middle East is not to be taken for granted.  The region imports about 50% of its grain already, and we've seen recent sudden increases in the prices of grain have a big impact on consumers in the region.  Clearly, the volatility in food prices is going to be felt in the region and may result in political consequences.

World Bank interventions in response to the water crisis in MENA

The Bank has a number of innovative projects to help countries manage water resource challenges.  The key focus at present is to encourage countries to reduce consumption to the level of average precipitation, and that means future levels of precipitation, not just the current levels.

Launching the Arab Water Academy as a Center of Excellence

The World Bank Middle East and North Africa Region leveraged a new partnership with the Islamic Development Bank, the Arab Water Council, the Abu Dhabi Environmental Agency, USAID to launch the Arab Water Academy as a center of excellence to deal with one of the most challenging priorities that Arab societies face today. The Academy is co-hosted by the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (EAD) and the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA).

In the Arab World, some of the most pressing water problems in the world exist. “It is no exaggeration to say that in these countries some of the best engineers in the world, capable of taking on the technical challenges also exist,” says Julia Bucknall, Task team Leader of the initiative. “Yet we are increasingly realizing that the challenges are not only technical, they are also economic, political, social and financial,” added Bucknall.

As one of the institutions supporting this innovative partnership, the World Bank will work with others to build expertise and capacity in a number of fields including the economy of water; integrated water resources management; water security and sustainable management of water; governance and policy implementation.

Views from our partners...

We will collaborate with our partners to ensure that this center of excellence offers the world class standards of knowledge and expertise as a response to many of the questions and challenges that decision makers in the water sector face today. Bringing together Arab countries to this platform speaks to the need and commitment required to ensure the success of our mission,” said HE Majid Al Mansouri, Secretary General of the Abu Dhabi Environmental Agency

For Arab countries whether in the North or South, this center of excellence introduces a new momentum that is imperative to advance our economies and develop our knowledge base. The water challenge we face as Arab societies is a threat to our present and future and now is the time to address it.” said Fawzi Al Sultan, Chairman of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture

The Academy will not be a school, it will not teach water management. It is a center of excellence offering continuous learning for water professionals to learn the relevance of other disciplines and for specialists from other disciplines to learn about water. This platform will be part of shaping minds and institutions that will shape future water management in our region,“ said Dr. Mahmoud Abu Zeid, Chairman of the Arab Water Council.

The Bank is helping governments in several countries across the region invest in modernizing irrigation, in better water supply, in improving water quality through wastewater collection and treatment and in improving groundwater management as well as helping with water policies and institutions. The Bank is increasingly linking physical investments with improvements in water planning. To do that, the Bank is promoting systems to assist countries with “water accounting”, in the same way they would do financial accounting. Countries need to look in the bank to see if the resources will be available.  To achieve this, the Bank is advancing the use of remote sensing technology to map water use in basins over different periods of time.  By linking this data to existing models and data from existing ground-based monitoring systems, people can more accurately predict what the localized responses might be to future climate shocks, estimate levels of potential runoff, and what would be the safe yield from aquifers.

In addition to working at the level of individual countries and river basins, the Bank is also helping countries work together and share information, experience and knowledge. One mechanism to do this has been the Arab Water Council, which the Bank supports.   The Council’s membership includes all of the region’s water ministers and provides a venue where they can share their experience, knowledge and data, and coordinate actions as a region.  The Council is now working on developing a common dataset for the entire Arab World, which will track, on a consistent basis, regularly updated, how much water is available, and where and how it is used.

Most recently, the Bank provided financing to establish the  Arab Water Academy, which will be launched in summer 2008 in Dubai.  The Academy will bring leaders from the water sector, and outside the sector too, from around the Arab region to learn international best practices and provide a forum to discuss how to effect change within their own circumstances.  In essence a mid-career learning program, the Academy has great potential to effect change in the region.

Planning for the future

The lesson from history is that people adapt when faced with water scarcity, and people in MENA will find a way to live with less water.  The question remains whether this accommodation happens in a planned way that lessens the impact on the poor, or if it happens in a jerky, crisis to crisis kind of way. There is hope that countries in the region will take proactive steps, and there are many things they can do.

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