Water availability in the Arab region is a critical issue as the region has 5 percent of the world’s population having access to merely 1 percent of the world’s total water resources. According to United Nations estimates, around 12 Arab countries suffer from severe water shortages. The per capita availability of renewable water resources is less than 500 m3 per year. In order to resolve this critical situation, many projects in the Arab Strategy for Water Security (2010-2030) support efficient management and use of water resources.
Regional Water Scenario
Agriculture accounts for 85 percent of total fresh water consumption in the Middle East, while its share in the total gross domestic product (GDP) roughly exceeds 8 percent. The major factors responsible for the rise in water consumption and depletion of freshwater resources are
- High standards of living
- Increasing urbanization and industrialization
- High population growth rate
- Failure to adopt basic water conservation principles
- Insufficient energy for seawater desalination
- Regional conflicts resulting in mass flow of internal migrants
- Lack of public awareness
Perennial rivers contribute around 70 percent of freshwater resources in Lebanon and Jordan. On the other hand, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates and Yemen are dependent on surface water and seasonal rivers. For rest of the countries in this region, one third of water demand is met by groundwater resources. The continuous extraction of groundwater at an unsustainable rate is leading to water scarcity at the national as well as regional levels thus fueling conflicts. Infact, rising demand for water in Yemen, due to population growth and poor water management, is responsible for almost 80 percent of internal conflicts in the country.
Water availability has become a serious issue in West Asia due to population explosion, climate change, droughts, desertification and scarce rainfall. The success of water-related strategies depends on political, financial and human commitments. A UNEP report estimates that water resources area in West Asia is likely to drop to 20 percent over the next fifty years due to multiple factors, such as climate change.
The importance of regional efforts to integrate water issues in national and international policies is indispensable as it will help in finding necessary mechanisms to reduce potential crises generated by water shortages, such as the water stress that hit northern Iraq in 2005, causing the displacement of more than 100,000 people.
Food security is also at stake as the Arab region relies on scarce water resources for irrigation, heavily imports major food resources or invests in agricultural lands in other parts of the world. Therefore, regional cooperation is an urgent need of the hour to ensure water and food security in the Arab world.
UNEP’s Call for Action
To face the critical need for water, UNEP has developed a water policy at the request of governments around the world. This policy provides the guidelines for water policies to achieve the objective of equitable and sustainable water consumption as well as combating climatic and human factors that contribute to drought. Moreover, United Nations has launched Global Environment Monitoring System (GEMS) Water Programme which is endorsed by one hundred countries worldwide, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and Iraq. The GEMS program promotes freshwater quality data and information exchange and enhances capacity building of developing countries to monitor and assess water quality at national and regional levels.
At the global level, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has taken action to assist one-third of the world’s population fighting to survival because of water scarcity. Each year, 1.5 million children die because of water scarcity or diseases caused by water pollution and lack of sanitation.
Conventional large-scale desalination is cost-prohibitive and energy-intensive, and not viable for poor countries in the Arab world due to increasing costs of fossil fuels and its depletion. In addition, the environmental impacts of desalination are considered critical on account of emissions from energy consumption and discharge of brine into the sea. Therefore focus should be given to developing desalination mechanisms using alternative energy.
Water is the elixir of life. The fight for water has become a fight for survival in the Middle East. UNEP calls on Arab states to take swift action to implement plans for integrated water resources management, including demand management of available water resources, adoption of new technologies, and promotion of water conservation for domestic, industrial and agricultural uses. By preserving water, we join the United Nations Environment Programme in the implementation of Future We Want movement, to ensure that no one suffers or dies due to non-availability of water in any part of the world.