Water scarcity in the Middle East: how the region is grappling with a resource crisis

From Iraq and Lebanon to Jordan and Egypt, The National's correspondents investigate the extent of the problem and where hope for change may lie

A young man walks on cracked and dried up soil at the Hawizeh marshes, which straddle Iraq's border with Iran, in October 2022. AFP
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In-depth: Inside the Middle East's water scarcity crisis

Of the 17 most water-stressed countries in the world, 11 are in the Middle East and North Africa, making it one of the most affected regions in the world.

Over the years, a lack of fresh water resources has been compounded by climate change, population growth, poor management and — in some places — conflict. It has reached a stage where it affects the daily lives and health of millions.

As the climate crisis accelerates, water scarcity in the region home to 360 million people is expected to worsen and disrupt economic growth. A report from the World Bank found that climate-related water scarcity may lead to economic losses of up to 14 per cent of the region’s total GDP over the next 30 years.

Technological innovations in some countries and improved water-management systems are helping to soften the blow. Other countries are seeking international collaborations, developing desalination plants, encouraging sustainable agriculture as well as water-recycling programmes.

But it is widely agreed that more co-operation and state-level management is needed to prevent a major water crisis in future.

The National’s correspondents across the region spoke to farmers, citizens, officials and agritech entrepreneurs to understand the extent of the issue and where hope for change may lie.

Iraq

The UN has identified Iraq as the fifth most vulnerable country in the world to climate change.

One of the most affected sectors by water scarcity in Iraq is agriculture, which makes up less than 4 per cent of the country's annual GDP of 208 billion (as of 2021) but is the main source of income for at least a third — or 14 million — of the nation's 44 million population.

Iraq’s two main sources of water, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which account for more than 90 per cent of the country’s freshwater reserves, have significantly declined over the years. The construction of dams and the diversion of water upstream in Turkey and Iran have exacerbated the situation, leaving downstream nations like Iraq with less water.

Mismanagement and pollution have also contributed to the crisis.

Some farmers have begun turning away from centuries-old irrigation techniques to more modern systems that reduce water use by almost half.

The government provides some support but farmers say not nearly enough to cover their needs.

Jordan

Jordan is one of the world's most water scarce nations. As little as 100 cubic metres of water is available per person per year — well below the 500 cubic metres that the UN classifies as “absolute scarcity”.

A growing population, mismanagement and climate change are putting further strain on dwindling natural water supplies.

In response, the government is seeking to build a multibillion dollar desalination plant using foreign investment, to funnel water from the southernmost city of Aqaba to the capital Amman.

The project provides some hope for the country but the tender process has been stalled for more than three years — all while authorities struggle with illegal water use, theft and leaks in the network.

Rainfall has also reduced over the years with farmers feeling the greatest effect, their production falling significantly due to the lack of water.

Some farmers have moved away from traditionally-grown, more water-demanding crops towards those that require less water, such as strawberries and dates.

Demand in the Gulf makes such produce more profitable for the farmers and puts less strain on the mostly desert, arid kingdom's water supply.

Lebanon

Last year, Unicef warned that the health of millions in Lebanon — a country of about six million — was at risk because of its water crisis.

It said state providers were unable to supply enough water “largely as a result of the power crisis” but also because soaring inflation — made worse since the start of the economic crisis in 2019 — means it is prohibitively expensive to maintain infrastructure and afford parts.

In smaller towns such as Baalchamy, south-east of Beirut, agriculture is suffering. The town was forced to take matters into its own hands — with the help and funding from the Japanese Embassy and a group from the American University of Beirut — to install solar panels on the public well.

In the village of Qab Elias, farmers said inconsistent and increasingly lighter rainfall was making each season feel “like playing the lottery”.

They said the lack of rain was forcing them to irrigate their crops with the limited supply of spring water provided by the municipality every nine to 12 days.

Egypt

More than 90 per cent of Egypt's 105 million population depend on the Nile for their freshwater needs.

But construction of a dam on the Blue Nile River upstream in regional rival Ethiopia threatens it with severe shortages.

Egypt has built dams of its own. In the south, Aswan Low Dam and Aswan High Dam were constructed to prevent the uncontrolled flooding of the Nile basin, create a reservoir of fresh water — Lake Nasser — and help to provide vital electricity to the massive nation.

But construction of the dams came at the expense of the Nubians in the south, who had to be moved to another area as their homes were lost to Lake Nasser.

The ethnic group continue to feel the pain of their loss and are working hard to ensure their culture lives on with future generations.

In the north, where a splinter branch of the Nile meets the Mediterranean Sea, the ancient city of Rosetta has also been disappearing under the water.

Before construction of the dams, natural sediments would travel up the Nile and be deposited along the banks, preventing any soil erosion. However, since the dams were built, Rosetta has lost up to 6.8km of land to the river, including all the buildings that stood there.

Now, the 550-year-old Fort Julien is also at risk, with only electric pumps keeping the water at bay.

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Updated: May 01, 2023, 12:29 PM