Droughts in the Middle East are here to stay. So how do we manage them?

Living in a water-scarce world requires three strategies

Al Ain, United Arab Emirates - Reporter: N/A: Shams dips his hands into the falaj at Al Ain Oasis. Tuesday, December 17th, 2019. Al Ain Oasis, Al Ain. Chris Whiteoak / The National

With an unprecedented number of droughts afflicting every corner of the world this year, it is clear that even the swiftest efforts to curb more variable rainfall and rising temperatures will be too late to prevent future water shortages.

A new report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, shows clearly the scientific evidence of the changes over the past five decades, and predicts a future where droughts will increase in intensity and frequency in many parts of the world. This week, at Cop26 in Glasgow, the consequences of drought have been an important area of discussion.

And while climate action remains essential to reduce the severity and frequency of extreme weather, the most drought-threatened countries – including Morocco, Lebanon and Jordan – urgently need new strategies and technologies to cope with and pre-empt water scarcity.

For these countries that are already among the most water stressed in the world, and home to only 2 per cent of global renewable water, living with the real and constant threat of future droughts means rethinking water management in its entirety.

Countries across the Middle East and North Africa must draw on the Arab tradition of careful water stewardship to move from crisis management to proactive management, making use of new tools to keep the taps flowing.

The value of water has always been appreciated in the region, and this is reflected in cultural as well as practical measures. The falaj system of water sharing, for example, as seen in Al Ain the UAE, has always been important, both to supply water as well as to grow food. The engineering of the water tunnels and distribution channels ensured just enough water was carefully allocated to meet the needs of the local community but did not deplete resources.

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In many countries, there is no official definition for when to declare a drought

With today’s increasing scarcity, the approach used for managing droughts must combine understanding the environment and the people, alongside adopting advanced technologies and good water governance.

By adopting the "three pillars of drought management", the region can reduce the need to hold back water for agriculture in order to preserve it for commerce, tourism and sanitation.

The first pillar is accurate drought monitoring that can alert governments and authorities of the risk of a drought in time to take steps to manage its impact. Accurately predicting weather conditions beyond 14 days remains a huge challenge for even the most powerful computer models, but this data is critical for those managing water, particularly in farming.

Recent advances in technology have made it possible to use predictions, generated by some of the biggest global modelling centres, and tune them using artificial intelligence methods with recent, on-the-ground climate data so that they better represent the local conditions. This approach is still being tested in Morocco, Jordan and Lebanon but early indications are that going forward this will help manage drought.

Farmers ride a donkey-cart past dead palm trees in Morocco's oasis of Skoura, a rural oasis area of around 40 square kilometres, on January 27, 2020. For centuries, Morocco's oases have been home to human settlements, agriculture, and important architectural and cultural heritage, thanks also to trans-Saharan trade caravan routes. Long a buffer against desertification, they have gone through cycles of drought in recent decades and are now "threatened with extinction", Greenpeace has warned, due to the impact of high temperatures. In most of the Skoura oasis, the ground is dry and cracked.  / AFP / FADEL SENNA

The importance of early warning systems and mapping was reinforced during Jordan’s drought this year, when the government was able to identify affected farmers and make welfare payments to offset losses.

The second pillar is understanding who, how and what droughts affect so that mitigation measures can be directed appropriately, according to need and impact.

Agriculture, for example, is often the first sector to suffer from water shortages. But the expansion of indoor farming and hydroponics, as the UAE has prioritised, can help bring down water needs so that food production can continue even during periods of drought.

Finally, the third pillar brings together the first two – to develop a proactive drought plan in partnership with different government departments and agencies, who agree on their unique roles, responsibilities and actions before droughts happen.

In many countries, there is no official definition for when to declare a drought or a framework for different authorities to act. This means drought risk response and relief are not determined by verifiable evidence. As a result, affected communities risk being overlooked and resources misdirected.

Practically, governments and water agencies need better data and channels of communication to understand the looming risks to each resource and the possible consequences on the wider ecosystem.

Such drought plans can be continually updated based on research that tests and develops more drought-tolerant technologies and solutions to mitigate the impacts of future events.

In agriculture, it is important for farmers to be able to anticipate weather conditions up to the next three months. Initiatives like the USAID-funded Mena drought project, implemented by the International Water Management Institute, are using AI-enhanced methods and developing tools for seasonal forecasting, to fine tune global data sets to the local conditions.

Such modelling can help underpin management strategies, including holding back water during floods to replenish reserves, known as managed aquifer recharge. This is becoming increasingly popular in the region and can address the scarcity of groundwater as well as some of the complexities of managing water rights across borders.

Extreme and frequent droughts are here and are likely to stay, causing devastation in terms of food security, economic security and national security, especially for countries across the Middle East that are already vulnerable and exposed.

Policymakers must turn to science and research to make informed decisions about rapidly evolving circumstances to have the best chance of living with droughts now and in the future.

Published: November 8th 2021, 4:00 AM
Rachael McDonnell

Rachael McDonnell

Rachael McDonnell is deputy director general at the CGIAR International Water Management Institute