Region's fortunes caught up in the tides of fresh water

The GCC countries are almost entirely dependent on costly desalination, damaging ecosystems by making the Gulf increasingly hot and saline.

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In the Syrian desert, on the road from Damascus to Palmyra, stands the impressive Harbaka Dam. Built by the Romans in the first century BC, it watered fields, a palace and bathhouse.

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But between 100 and 700 AD, rainfall in the eastern Mediterranean dried up, weakening the empire's grip. The Persians and then the Arabs, societies well adapted to desert climes, gained supremacy and amid the ruins of Roman rule, a Persian poet wrote: "The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Caesars."

In the now silted-up dam, only shallow pools of water gather after infrequent rainstorms.

As in the past, so again today. Water is at the nexus of four trends that are shaping the Middle East: political transformation; soaring food prices; growing energy challenges; and climate change.

Rising food prices were a factor in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. Policymakers' concerns about food security have intensified, as the Gulf in particular imports nearly all of its needs.

Since 1980, Saudi Arabia spent at least US$100 billion (Dh367.29bn) in subsidies to become the world's sixth-largest wheat exporter, the required irrigation consuming the equivalent of six years of the flow of the Nile. In 2008, faced with dwindling groundwater reserves, the kingdom ended the policy.

In Yemen, groundwater is being extracted 50 per cent faster than it is replenished. Diesel subsidies encourage over-pumping from wells, and 40 per cent of water goes to irrigate the stimulant qat, not food.

Two centres of the current Syrian protests are the southern breadbasket Hauran region, around the city of Deraa, and the north-eastern Kurdish area. Both have been badly hit by long-running droughts, which were neglected and mismanaged by Damascus.

Ethiopia's plans to build a dam on its section of the Nile, announced in March, raised concerns in Egypt, and the independence of South Sudan further complicates sharing of the Nile's waters.

Disputes over another historic river, the Jordan, are one aspect of the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict. The famous Dead Sea, into which the river runs, has fallen by 22 metres since 1970 due to over-extraction of water from the Jordan.

The GCC countries are almost entirely dependent on costly desalination, damaging ecosystems by making the Gulf increasingly hot and saline.

Desalination's energy demands put an increasing stress on gas supplies, leading to consideration of nuclear and even coal power.

Despite this, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait have among the highest per person water consumption in the world.

There are four actions the Middle East can take to head off a water crisis.

First, eliminating subsidies to make the real cost of water clear to users. Those affected by rising prices can be compensated through direct payments and financial support for efficiency improvements, as tested in India. This is the sine qua non for all other policies.

Second, improving efficiency. Reminders of ancient societies' ingenious use of water in an arid climate stand all over the Middle East.

The narrow canyon that forms Petra's entrance funnels water into the ancient city, while the citadel in Amman has a large cistern to catch rainfall.

The qanat of Iran, and its Emirati/Omani equivalent, the falaj are long underground channels, painstakingly engineered and dug to bring water from the mountains.

There are many modern equivalents of such approaches. Efficient dishwashers use 3,500 litres a year each household less than a standard machine; and 19,000 litres less compared with washing by hand.

Low-flow taps and shower heads cut water consumption by 70 per cent. "Grey" water, such as run-off from sinks and showers, can be used to flush toilets or for garden irrigation. Chemical additives reduce the amount of watering required on roads to keep down dust.

Agriculture, the biggest water consumer, can benefit from simple improvements such as fixing leaks, introducing drip irrigation and shifting to less water-intensive crop varieties.

Third, improving supply. Reverse osmosis desalination is much less energy-intensive than the thermal methods (essentially, boiling water) that predominate in the Gulf.

Using waste heat from power stations in combination with reverse osmosis is more efficient still, while nanotechnology offers some new approaches.

The Gulf should be the centre for research on new desalination methods. Why is there no progress towards solar desalination, at first sight the ideal technology for the region?

Fourth, on the longest time scale, playing a constructive role in global efforts to tackle climate change.

Severe droughts and changes in river runoff could tip the balance in unstable neighbours, such as Yemen, Iraq and Pakistan.

Many in the Middle East have forgotten their ancestors' skill at surviving in a desert climate. The region needs to rediscover the true value of water.

Robin Mills is an energy economist based in Dubai, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis and Capturing Carbon