Middle East water scarcity tops agenda at US policy conference

Region is home to world's top 10 most water-stressed countries

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Water scarcity in the Middle East and North Africa was among the first topics to start the week-long Brookings Institute conference, entitled The Middle East and the New US Administration.

Water access and security in the Mena region is an urgent issue. It is home to the world's top 10 most water-stressed countries, according to the World Resources Institute.

The World Economic Forum estimates 60 per cent of the region's population have little or no access to potable water.

Panellist Nada Majdalani, the Palestinian director for EcoPeace Middle East, said the new administration in Washington provides hope for water co-operation in the region.

The Biden administration has a lot on their hands to defuse

Ms Majdalani said this was shown by the appointment of John Kerry as the US special envoy for climate and the White House move to re-enter the 2015 Paris Climate Accord.

“We are looking at a more fostering environment, potentially towards looking at climate change co-operation and cross-border co-operation, and fostering the mediation role and mobilising the financial resources either from the Gulf countries or from the US,” she said.

But Nadim Farajala, director of climate change and environment at the American University of Beirut, said the task was arduous.

But Mr Farajala said regional disputes over shared waterways was an area where the new administration had political influence.

“It is more destabilising than what people anticipated,” he said.

“So the Biden administration has a lot on their hands to defuse this and to work towards more of working within international norms in dealing with trans-boundary waters.”

The World Bank says the region also has the greatest forecast economic losses from climate-related water scarcity, with an estimated hit of between 6 and 14 per cent to GDP by 2050, even as cities develop and expand.

Mr Farajala said the region's increasingly urban population should be an important factor in the international community's environmental policy.

“More than 60 per cent of the Arab world lives in urban areas. This is a big number,” he said.

“The demands for water, even though they are less for agriculture ... the waste generated is much higher.

"This tends to breed tension and that tension then spreads into conflict. And this conflict then triggers other conflicts that transfer to other countries.”

Studies from the EU and the International Union for Conservation of Nature suggest water diplomacy and trans-boundary co-operation can be critical in forming solutions to water stress.

This has fuelled discussion on the effect of the Abraham Accord, which normalised relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

Israel has co-operated on regional water initiatives in the past, but there was no official GCC-Israel water agreements nor active water research co-operation between universities before the agreements were signed.

We cannot afford not to address decarbonisation and help countries to scale back and find alternative sources

Some experts predict there is now more room for co-ordinated start-ups and water management research.

But Ms Majdalani said those developments are only predictions.

“We haven't yet seen the direct and immediate impact [of the accord]," she said.

"But we would like to see down the road potentially more private sector engagement in green businesses in the region and potentially collaborations on technology transfer and know-how.

"That would actually put us in better shape for climate change adaptation and enable us to manage water resources in a more efficient way."

Mr Farajala said Washington’s renewed interest in climate issues could more broadly help its allies in the Gulf work towards the goals of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

“The Biden administration can work with its traditional allies, the Saudis, in allaying their fears and helping them transition and diversify their economy into something that is less reliant on total oil production,” he said.

“This is the big push that can happen. This is a big ask, a very big ask, but we cannot afford not to address decarbonisation and help countries to scale back and find alternative sources.”

Ms Majdalani said regional water and environmental policy experts held high hopes for the White House.

“We look at the Biden administration and its new vision and interest in climate change issues, and its new entry to the Middle East peace process as a key player ... at the diplomatic level, at the mediation level but also at the infrastructure-development level.

"So, there’s a lot to do, and all over the world we're expecting the new administration has something to give and to contribute.”