Working together on water makes sense for region's economies

Mena is home to 12 of the world's 17 most water-stressed countries

epa07012917 A Yemeni fills jerrycans with water from a donated source amid widespread disruption of water supplies in Sana'a, Yemen, 11 September 2018. Many Yemenis are suffering from lack of basic services and resources, in a humanitarian disaster dramatically worsened by escalating conflict between the Houthis rebels and Yemen’s Saudi-backed government forces.  EPA/YAHYA ARHAB
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In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, water scarcity and security is a pressing and ongoing challenge.

MENA is the most water-scarce region in the world with more than 60 per cent of the population having limited-to-no access to drinkable water.

Furthermore, the region is home to 12 out of 17 of the world’s most water-stressed countries according to the World Resource Institute and 70 per cent of the region’s GDP is exposed to high or very high-water stress.

While water supply has remained constant, rapid population growth and urbanisation has put added pressure on natural freshwater resources and compounded the issue.

Water scarcity is not only a threat to the region’s development but a major trigger of conflict.

In 2017, water played a large role in conflict in at least 45 countries, particularly those in MENA – increasing instability and exacerbating conflict cycles.

The Nile River Basin is a case in point. As climate change threatens to disrupt its flow, it has become an increasing point of contention in recent years with tensions escalating.

As regional water scarcity is set to intensify, what should be done to address water security issues?

Firstly, given the commonality of the challenges, fostering collective efforts is necessary.

Climate-related water security economic losses in the region is estimated to be 6-14 per cent of GDP, according to the World Bank – one of the greatest expected economic losses. These losses and scarcity poses a credible threat to the region’s socioeconomic stability and development.

With around 60 per cent of region’s surface water resources being transboundary and all countries sharing at least one aquifer – the importance of coordinated action and closer engagement cannot be emphasised enough.

What will this look like in practice?

Well, more stakeholder convening is needed to narrow the gap. Existing initiatives such as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Water Council, the Arab Ministerial Water Council and the Arab Water Forum may be best placed to address these challenges.

Going forward, 2020 presents a window of opportunity for effective water diplomacy and engagement. This starts will a collaborative approach to effective water management, water governance and transboundary water cooperation. Identifying key entry points through informal and formal platforms could help with the formulation and co-design of policies that could benefit millions across the region.

Second, innovative water and climate financing mechanisms should be explored.

Before that happens, the exact scale of capital needed to ensure the region’s water security has to be known. Once needs have been identified, appropriate funding sources should be explored and matched.

Also, investing in mitigation and adaptation activities should be a priority as water management remains a critical issue – as shown by the frequency of droughts and floods across the region.

To finance these activities there will be no one-size-fits-all approach. Country-driven assessments will be important to the development of a wider regional strategy.

Third, in order to respond to this imperative, promoting environmental stewardship and creating understanding of the issues will help.

Public awareness programmes highlighting the benefits of water conservation efforts will go a long way in raising consciousness among citizens.

To move beyond scarcity, better access to information on water-related issues would encourage citizens to actively participate in water management and conservation efforts.

Governments should also provide support to civil society and nongovernmental organisations as they can play an important role in creating awareness campaigns and sharing good practices.

Given the urgency of the crisis, a move away from reliance on governments alone to solve the crisis to creating an ecosystem that encourages public participation in innovative ways is needed.

Although countries in the region should jointly focus on these priorities to drive progress, acknowledgement of the urgency of the issue and renewed political will should be at the top of the agenda.

The region needs to realise the severe risks involved to any changes in the supply and demand of water. As the effect of climate change worsens, water security can quickly turn into a national security issue.

Recognising the linkages and the shared challenges should encourage advanced cooperation and progress across borders for what could be an opportune time for millions across the region.

Safeguarding water is thus becoming more important than ever and now is the time to address common challenges.

Maram Ahmed is a Senior Fellow at SOAS, University of London