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General summary

Climate, geography and population
Water resources
Water withdrawals
Irrigation potential
Water managed areas and irrigation
Indicators of irrigation intensity
Irrigated crops
Salinization, drainage and environment


The Near East region (grouping the countries represented in the FAO Regional Office for the Near East) extends from the Atlantic Ocean (Mauritania and Morocco) in the west to Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan in the east and from Turkey and Kyrgyzstan in the north to Somalia in the south. It falls between longitudes 17 west and 80 east and latitudes 43 north and 2 south. In May 1996, it comprised 29 countries with a total area of 18.5 million km (Table 11), which is about 14% of the total area of the world (including the interior lakes).

For the purpose of this study, the 29 countries have been grouped in five sub-regions based primarily on geographic conditions and, as far as possible, on hydro-climatic homogeneity. These subregions, presented in Figure 1, are here referred to as Maghreb, North-eastern Africa, Arabian Peninsula, Middle East and Central Asia .

Climate, geography and population

Because of the aridity prevailing in the region, the Near East is the poorest region in the world in terms of water resources, globally and per inhabitant, even when considering the contribution of rivers flowing from the bordering and more humid regions of tropical Africa (the Nile) or Himalayan Asia (the Indus).

However, the water resources distribution within this vast area, extending over three continents, is far from being uniform: land relief, location with respect to the sea, latitude and resulting hydro-climatic conditions, diversity in hydrographic and geological structures, and matching or mismatching of the river basins with the national territories, all give rise to extremely different water situations.

Many countries in the region are characterized by long coastal boundaries. The coasts are located on the North Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. In addition, several important interior seas can be found in the region: the Black Sea to the north of Turkey, the Caspian Sea to the north of Iran and to the west of Turkmenistan and the Dead Sea to the west of Jordan. The Aral Sea is not bordering the Near East region, but the northern part of Central Asia is located within the Aral Sea basin. Only three countries, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, are landlocked.

Several international rivers cross the Near East Region (Figure 2). The most important rivers are the Nile in North-eastern Africa, which originates outside the region in the Equatorial Lake

Plateau and the highlands of Ethiopia, the Euphrates and the Tigris in the Middle East, the Amu Darya, the Syr Darya and Indus in Central Asia (the latter originating outside the region in the Himalayas). Smaller rivers, like the Jordan and the Orontes in the Middle East, also play a fundamental role in international relations regarding water resources.

The area extending between the Atlantic Ocean and the Persian Gulf is covered with vast deserts. The Great Desert (the Sahara), extending between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea, comprises large parts of the Maghreb and North-eastern Africa. The area extending between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf includes the Rub Al Khali (Empty Quarter) desert in the south of the Arabian Peninsula and the Badiat-EI-Sham desert in the north of the Arabian Peninsula and the south of the Middle East. In Central Asia, a large part of Iran is covered with desert, as is the case for the southern part of Afghanistan and the south-western part of Pakistan. The Kara Kurn desert comprises 80% of the total area of Turkmenistan.

Many mountain ranges can be found in the Near East Region. In the centre of the Great Desert, several mountains appear, with the highest peak at an elevation of 3 000 metres at Tebetsy Mountain in Libya. In addition to these internal mountains, there are mountain ranges running parallel to the coasts of the Mediterranean and Red Seas. The Atlas mountain range occupies the north-westem corner of the Maghreb, with its peak in Morocco at an elevation of 4 165 metres. In Lebanon, the Lebanon mountain chain has its highest crest at just over 3 000 metres. In Yemen, there is a mountain peak at an elevation of 3 268 metres; in south-eastern Turkey, at an elevation of 4 135 metres. The peak of the Zagros mountain chain in Iran reaches 4 432 metres. The highest peak of the Hindu Kush range on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan reaches 7 690 metres (Tirichmir). In the north-eastern part of Central Asia, the Himalayan mountain ranges have peaks reaching almost 8 000 metres.

The total population of the region was about 561 million in 1995, of which almost 52% rural. Population increased by 2.7% between 1994 and 1995, ranging from 2.2% in the Maghreb and Northeastern Africa to 3.1 % in Central Asia. During the last 10 years (1985-1995), average annual population growth was 3.0% in the Near East Region as against 1.7% in the world. Over 43% of the population of the region is concentrated in Central Asia, which occupies 21 % of the total area of the Near East; 25% of the total population lives in Pakistan alone, which occupies only 4% of the total area. Population density is lowest in the Maghreb, with 12 inhabitants per km, and highest in the Middle East, with 71 inhabitants per km. The least densely populated country is Mauritania, with 2 inhabitants per km. Malta and Bahrain are the most densely populated countries, with 1 158 and 811 inhabitants per km respectively, followed far behind by Lebanon and Pakistan, with 288 and 177 inhabitants per km respectively. All the remaining countries have less than 100 inhabitants per km (Table 12).

Water resources

In this study, a distinction has been made between renewable and non-renewable water resources. The following indicators have been compiled or estimated for each country. Internal renewable water resources (IRWR) is that part of the water resources generated from endogenous precipitation. It is computed by adding up surface runoff and groundwater recharge occurring inside the countries' borders. Special care is taken to avoid double counting of their common part. Total renewable water resources refers to the sum of IRWR and incoming flow originating outside the countries' borders. A distinction is made between natural flow (NRWR), computed by assessing the long-term yearly average of flow without any human-induced abstraction, end actual flow (ARWR), which is the maximum theoretical amount of water actually available for a country. Actual flow takes into account abstraction in upstream countries and the volumes allocated through formal or informal agreements or treaties between countries. The IRWR figures are the only water resources figures that can be added up for regional assessment and they have been used for this purpose.

TABLE 1 - Sub-regional distribution of the renewable water resources

Region Area Population '95 Annual precipitation Annual internal renewable water resources
thousand inhabitants mm km mm km as % of
m per
Maghreb 5 777 71 544 86 495 8 48 9.8 677
North-eastern Africa 4 168 100 856 306 1 275 10 43 3.4 427
Arabian Peninsula 3 103 39 110 79 246 2 8 3.1 197
Middle East 1 512 106 635 421 637 162 245 38.4 2 294
Central Asia 3 926 243 316 304 1 195 138 541 45.3 2 226
Total Near East 18 486 561 461 208 3 848 48 885 23.0 1 577
World 134 223 5 716 407 820 110 000 298 40000 36.4 7 0
N. East as % of world 13.8 9.8   3.5   2.2   22.5

Note: Rainfall figures have been estimated for Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan

While the Near East covers 14% of the total area of the world and contains 10% of its population, its water resources are only about 2% of the total renewable water resources of the world. Further to this, large differences exist between the five sub-regions, as is shown in Table 1. The Maghreb, North-eastern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula have very limited water resources, with less than 10 mm annually on average and suffer severe water scarcity, with values per inhabitant varying between 200 and 700 m/year. In contrast, the Middle East and Central Asia show much higher values, mostly thanks to the abundant flows generated in the mountainous areas of Turkey and in the Himalayas.

The internal renewable water resources per inhabitant in the Near East are among the lowest in the world. The average for the region is 1 577 m/inhabitant per year, as against over 7 000 m/year per inhabitant for the whole world. It ranges from near 0 for Kuwait, which has practically no internal renewable water resources, to about 10 000 m/inhabitant per year for Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (Table 13). For 16 out of the 29 countries the internal renewable water resources per inhabitant are below 500 m/year and for 11 of them even the total actual renewable water resources are below 500 m/year (Figures 3 and 4 and Table 2).

For only four countries (Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan) the internal renewable water resources per inhabitant are above 2 000 m/year and three of them act as 'water towers' for the region, with large amounts of water flowing to downstream countries. They are: Turkey (the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers mainly), Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya). Two countries, Syria and Sudan, are intermediate countries in that they depend to a large extent, around 80%, on upstream countries for their renewable water resources (mainly the Euphrates from Turkey and the Nile from Ethiopia)' but on the other hand they are located upstream from other countries depending on the same rivers (Iraq and Egypt respectively). Five countries depend for over 90% on other countries for their renewable water resources: Turkmenistan, Egypt and Mauritania for surface water and Kuwait and Bahrain for groundwater. To a lesser extent, but still over 50% dependent on other countries are Somalia and Iraq (Figure 5 and Table 3).

Non-renewable groundwater

Several countries, that have few renewable water resources, overlie important non-renewable (fossil) groundwater basins, partly shared with neighbouring countries. In several countries (Saudi Arabia, Libya or the United Arab Emirates) by far the largest part of the total water withdrawn is fossil water, as seen in the next section (Table 6). However, although groundwater reservoirs may allow storage of huge quantities of water accumulated during the pluvial periods of Quaternary, its development cannot be considered sustainable in the long term, as the lack of present recharge would result in the slow depletion of the aquifers. Moreover, the water level decline and the resulting increase of the cost of pumping, as well as the deterioration of the water quality in some areas may also make the abstraction of fossil water less attractive with time.

TABLE 2 - Countries with IRWR below 500 m/inhab. per year (1995)

Country Internal renewable water resources per inhabitant m/year Actual renewable water resources

per inhabitant m/year

Countries with IRWR < 500 and ARWR < 500:
Kuwait 0 13
Bahrain 7 206
Malta 42 42
United Arab Emirates 79 79
Qatar 93 96
Libya 111 111
Jordan 124 161
Saudi Arabia 134 134
Yemen 283 283
Tunisia 396 463
Oman 455 455
Countries with IRWR < 500 and ARWR > 500:
Egypt 29 926
Mauritania 176 5 013
Turkmenistan 244 17 321
Syria 477 1 791
Algeria 498 512

TABLE 3 - Countries with a renewable water resources dependency ratio above 50%

Country Internal Renewable Water Resources million m/year Actual Renewable Water Resources million m/year Dependency ratio*
Main source of incoming water
Kuwait 0 20 100.0 Groundwater from Saudi Arabia
Turkmenistan 1 000 71 000 98.6 Amu Darya river
Egypt 1 800 58 300 96.9 Nile river
Bahrain 4 116 96.6 Groundwater from Saudi Arabia
Mauritania 400 11 400 96.5 Senegal river
Syria 7 000 26 260 80.3 Euphrates, Tigris rivers
Sudan 35 000 88 500 77.3 Nile river
Somalia 6 000 15 740 61.9 Shebelli, Juba rivers
Iraq 35 200 75 420 53 3 Euphrates Tigris rivers

* The dependency ratio is equal to the part of the renewable water resources which originates outside the country

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