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Overview : Water Sector Brief

Available in: العربية, Français

Download the  Water Brief (PDF]

The Middle East and North Africa Region (MENA) is the most water scarce region in the world. Worldwide, the average water availability per person is close to 7,000 m3/person/year, whereas in the MENA region, only around 1,200 m3/person/year is available. One half of MENA’s population lives under conditions of water stress. Moreover, with the population expected to grow from around 300 million today to around 500 million in 2025, per capita availability is expected to halve by 2050.

The source of water varies from country to country. Some, like Egypt and Iraq rely mostly on surface water from large international rivers. Others, like Yemen, Djibouti and the Arab States of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries depend almost entirely on groundwater and desalination, while others use a mixture of surface and groundwater. Most countries have mobilized almost all available surface water, and many major rivers do not reach the ocean.

More than in any other region, water in MENA is a development issue. Consequently, and over the last few decades, MENA countries have responded to scarcity by investing in infrastructure. Water supply coverage has increased remarkably. More than three quarters of the population in MENA borrower countries now have access to clean water and improved sanitation, although service is often not continuous. Many countries have completed major investments in water storage infrastructure and have invested heavily in expanding irrigation systems. Furthermore, the MENA region leads the world in applying non-traditional water technologies such as desalination and wastewater re-use. However, these investments have not always been accompanied by the necessary institutional and policy changes, and are often not generating optimum economic returns. Non-water policies in particular create incentives for inefficient water use in agriculture for example, which uses 85 percent of the region’s water, and unsustainable pumping of groundwater, which is similarly encouraged in some countries by heavy energy subsidies.

Key Issues in the Sector

Unsustainable and inefficient use: Seven countries in the MENA region are using more water than their renewable supplies, and many use the water they have wastefully. The Gulf countries have the highest per capita consumption of domestic water in the world – more than 50 percent more per person than in the United States. Leakages in urban systems are often 40-50 percent, and more than half of water withdrawn for agriculture does not reach the plants as intended.

Ineffective policies: Policies relating to food security and maintaining rural employment have led to tariff and non-tariff mechanisms to protect agriculture. This has resulted in some 85 percent of water used in agriculture, to grow crops that countries would sometimes be better off importing. The water diverted for agriculture often necessitates expensive investments to ensure supply for domestic and commercial consumption. Socially-motivated policies on water pricing inhibit cost-recovery, reduce maintenance, worsen service quality and threaten the financial sustainability of utilities in many countries in the region.

Deteriorating water quality: Insufficient sanitation infrastructure has contaminated surface and groundwater, with negative impacts on the environment and public health. In Iran, for example, illness and death associated with inadequate wastewater collection and treatment cost an estimated 2.2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2002.

Excessive reliance on the public purse: Public spending on water accounts for between 1 and 5 percent of GDP in the region, and as much as one quarter of public capital expenditure. Yet

much of the public spending does not always generate the expected benefits. Investments may be poorly sequenced (dams with no irrigation infrastructure to exploit the stored water), and, in some cases, suffer technical problems. Where precipitation has recently been significantly lower than in previous decades, water storage infrastructure can be over-dimensioned given the amount of water available. Intermittent supply of urban water accelerates degradation of infrastructure. Utilities in only two countries in the region cover their operational and management (O&M) costs, resulting in under-investment in maintenance.

World Bank Recommendations

• Plan for the inevitable transformation in agricultural water use. The growing population and climate change inevitably will reduce the amount of water available to agriculture. Farmers will either be forced to adapt when their aquifers become exhausted or surface water too unreliable, or the transition can be managed, and mitigated to some extent by policies to increase water productivity, increase investments in modernized irrigation systems and non-conventional water resources in addition to an overall enhancement of knowledge on available resources for more realistic and sustainable hydrological planning. Countries may wish to consider social protection mechanisms to shield poor rural households.

• Improve urban water supply and sanitation services. Larger urban populations will put increasing pressure on operators to expand domestic water services, as well as wastewater collection and treatment. Improving the sector’s performance is primarily an institutional challenge. Countries will need to improve regulation, inter-sectoral coordination, improve governance in the sector, and open the sector up to civil society.

World Bank Lending/AAA Activities

The World Bank focuses its efforts in the MENA region on engaging or scaling up its activities in (i) priority countries in line with the Millennium Development Goals objectives (e.g. Morocco, Egypt, West Bank and Gaza, Iraq, Yemen, and Djibouti) (ii) further deepening sector policy dialogue in countries where the Bank has had long partnerships (e.g. Morocco, West Bank and Gaza, and Yemen) and (iii) restoring basic services and building capacity in conflict or post-conflict countries (e.g Iraq and West Bank and Gaza). In terms of areas of dialogue, the Bank focuses its efforts on the following:

• Extending services to the urban poor: The Bank has carried out several municipal development, rehabilitation (Morocco, Tunisia, and Yemen), and community infrastructure (Jordan) projects.

• Decentralization of service provision: The Bank has continued to promote decentralization of water supply service delivery by helping create independent public companies responsible for service for small cities and towns (Yemen, Algeria, Jordan).

• Expanding wastewater collection and treatment services: In many countries of the region, the current focus of the sector is the improvement of the sanitary conditions of urban areas through the collection and treatment of wastewater (e.g. Yemen, Morocco, etc.).

• Increasing rural access to water supply and sanitation (WSS): Rural water supply and sanitation has received the least investment support, and that support is generally through multi-sector programs in the agriculture sector or social funds.

• Improving operator performance: The Bank is focusing on utility reform and improvement of sector finances largely through expansion of public-private partnerships. Urban water supply and sanitation operations are underway in seven of twelve countries. Management contracts were successful in Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza, and in the pipeline for Yemen, which witnessed progress in corporatizing the WSS services.

• Managing water resources effectively: Several water resource management projects have been launched focusing on groundwater management, water demand management, monitoring, water planning at the basin or aquifer level, environmental protection, intersectoral coordination and other issues.

• Improving irrigation efficiency: Projects in several countries (Egypt, Yemen, Morocco, Tunisia, and Iraq) address the efficiency of water and energy-use in irrigation, decentralization of management responsibility to farmers’ associations, pricing policies, re-use of treated wastewater and other issues.


A total of 29 projects have a primary focus on water in eight countries, with total commitments of US$2.1 billion. About 64 percent of this total focuses on water supply and sanitation issues, with the remainder supporting water resource management, irrigation and related fields.

All dollar figures are in US dollar equivalents. September 2010

For more information,
please contact: In Washington: Najat Yamouri, Phone: 1 (202) 458-1240; Email:


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