Rising alarm over global scarcities

The Arab world confronts the energy-water-food nexus.

As pressure increases to produce more food for an increasing number of people, there are concerns the growing demand for water and land resources for biofuel crops may come at the expense of food crops.
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As the world's population expands, competition for food, water and energy will intensify, sending up prices for basic commodities. Hunger will increase, and waves of migrants will flee the worst-affected areas.

That was the warning Sir John Beddington issued in 2009 when he was chief scientific adviser to the UK government. He predicted a "perfect storm" of food, water and energy shortages breaking in about 2030.

"Can we cope with the demands in the future on water? Can we provide enough energy? Can we do it, all that, while mitigating and adapting to climate change? And can we do all that in 21 years' time?" Sir John asked two years ago at the annual London conference of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, a sustainability think tank.

The trouble is, the global tempest is brewing years ahead of forecast and is even now unleashing a foretaste of its fury on the Middle East.


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While the unrest spreading through the region has developed from unique combinations of political, economic and social factors in each affected country, anger over rising food costs is a unifying force. Rising domestic energy prices caused by shrinking state subsidies have also stoked popular dissatisfaction, while regional water shortages loom as never before.

Several Arab governments, alerted to the security threats posed by resource scarcity, have recently moved to enhance their buffer of key commodities in a region that imports more than half its food, including staples such as wheat, rice and maize.Last month, Jordan cut taxes on food and fuel. Saudi Arabia announced plans to double the kingdom's wheat reserves to 1.4 million tonnes, or enough to satisfy demand for a year.

This month, the director general of the UAE's National Crisis and Emergency Management Authority said a proposal to build emergency reserves of food, water and medicine would be submitted to the Cabinet in April. Abu Dhabi started building a strategic water reserve last year.

"The urgent measures taken by these Arab governments are necessary. But they remain short-term, while the problem is structural and will only get worse," Vicken Cheterian, a political analyst at Cimera, the Swiss international relations foundation, wrote last month.

"The dilemma of Arab economies is that they depend on oil prices, whether as oil producers or as countries dependent on petrodollar investments, while increased energy prices make their food more expensive."

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), the conundrum does not end there, as lifting the world's energy supply puts pressure on water and agricultural resources, which are in especially short supply in the Mena region.

"Tough trade-offs will increasingly be needed between energy, food and water in terms of resource allocation and planning," the WEF said in its latest global risks report, published last month.

"The key challenge is to incorporate the complex interconnections of this nexus of risks into response strategies that are integrated and take into account the many relevant stakeholders … Unintended consequences abound."

Those include the competing use of water and land resources for biofuel crops at the expense of food crops. The increasing use of water-intensive technologies to extract fossil fuels from unconventional deposits, such as gas shale and oil sands, is also setting off alarm bells.

Even in the Middle East, with its disproportionate regional share of the world's remaining conventional oil and gas reserves, producing states are turning to unconventional and marginal deposits to offset declining output from large, mature fields.

For the most part, that entails drilling more wells and using more water and energy just to maintain existing output. Armies of "guest workers" are also required to build the region's ever more complex energy projects. All those workers need food, water and shelter and often compete with the region's permanent residents for such resources.

The short-term outlook for solving such complex problems seems bleak: "Few governments are developing energy policy with a goal of not only enabling economic growth and reducing carbon emissions," the WEF notes.

What is worse, separate administrative bodies and policies for agriculture, water, energy and urban planning in most states undermine government efforts to manage the necessary trade-offs.

Longer term, signs of progress are emerging. The WEF cites the GCC investment in a regional electricity grid to improve the reliability of power supplies as an example of the type of "multi-stakeholder co-ordination" that could "significantly enhance resilience with regard to food, water and energy".

Given enough time, there is ample scope to increase crop yields and improve energy and water conservation, thus staving off a worldwide resources crisis, suggests Melissa Stark, the global head of the clean-energy practice of the management consultancy Accenture. A more competitive market for agricultural products, encompassing biofuel as well as food, is needed to spur such evolution, she argues.

"The food market wasn't enough to incentivise agriculture," Ms Stark said. "In the short term, you still need to protect people from higher food prices. Long term, you can have more food and more fuel."

A pressing question for some governments in this region is whether they can buy enough time.