The Near East Region is the most water scarce in the world. It covers 14% of the total area of the world and contains 10% of its population, but its renewable water resources are only around 2%. Sixteen countries have less than the critical threshold of 500 cubic meters of water per person per year. This situation stems from the prevailing harsh climatic conditions which make more than 90% of the region in the semi-arid to desert categories. The issue of water scarcity is further exacerbated by a high dependence on water resources that originate outside of the region. Growing population and its needs for food and drinking water, coupled with a short vision on regional water planning and management, have resulted in an unbalance between water supply and demand. Pollution, climate change and frequent severe droughts are making the problem more serious and the future uncertain. Water resource scarcity and unbalance between supply and demand are leading to high competition for water and, consequently, to greater risks of food insecurity in the region.
Agricultural land represents only 8-10% of the total area and its production remains tributary of irrigation for the most part. However, only 32% of the agricultural land is irrigated and contribute more than 50% of the total agricultural production. Agriculture accounts for 90% of the mobilized water resources with the latter representing over 60% of the total potential water resources of the region. Sudan, Oman, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria allocate more than 90% of their resources for agricultural use. Saudi Arabia (89 %), Morocco (88), Lebanon (67%), Jordan (70%), Turkey (74%). Malta allocates only 25% of its water for agriculture (Annex 1).
The importance of agriculture in the economy is indicated by its significant contribution to the gross domestic product of the region (from 5% in Cyprus to over 40% in Sudan, with an average for the region of 25%) and the provision of job opportunities to 37% of the labour force. It also accounts for the total export earnings of the region (4%) and allows other socio-economic and environmental benefits.
Irrigation increases cropping intensity and contributes to expansion in cropped areas. It increases yields, stabilizes output, enables crop diversification, reduces risk and increases farm incomes and employment. Through its influence on agricultural incomes, irrigation has a multiplier effect on non-farm incomes. It contributes to food security and poverty alleviation. By improving agricultural productivity, irrigation contributes significantly to overall growth and development (FAO, 2001).
While determining the precise share of production gains attributable to irrigation is almost impossible, without the advances in irrigation technology and extraordinary investment in irrigation expansion by both public and private sectors, the Green Revolution would probably have had a much smaller impact (Barker and Van Hoppen, 1999). With the exception of the most favoured rainfed areas, the Green Revolution occurred only on irrigated land (Seckler, 1999).
The Green Revolution helped more than double the aggregate food supply in Asia over a 25-year period, with only a 4 percent increase in the net cropped area (Rosegrant and Hazzell, 1999). It also contributed to significant national economic growth and saved large areas of forests, hillsides and other environmentally fragile lands from conversion to agriculture.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of irrigation has been in keeping food affordable to the poor. Between the 1960s and the 1990s real grain prices fell by approximately 50 percent as production growth continued to exceed population growth. Although subsidization of food grain production by developed countries played a part, the Green Revolution was largely responsible for this decline (Barker and Van Hoppen, 1999).
In 1995/97, the total irrigated area in developing countries amounted to about 197 million ha (three-quarters of the world's irrigated area). Seventy-four percent of this irrigated land is in Asia, 14 percent in the Near East/North Africa, 9 percent in Latin America and 3 percent in sub-Saharan Africa. In view of this and the fact that the annual growth of irrigated area in developed countries fell to 0.2 percent in 1990-97, it is reasonable to conclude that events in developing countries will continue to dominate the world irrigation scene (FAO, 2000a).
In the Near East region, irrigated agriculture plays a major role in the industrialization process with the production of food and cash crops (wheat, rice, cotton, sugarcane, fruits and vegetable) and dairy cattle. During the 60s and 70s, the region benefited from technological development of the Green Revolution through improvements in self-reliance of agriculture and food products due to significant increases in cropping intensities and crop yields. This was also supported by ground water development. Later during the 80s, the agricultural water management programs in the member country also contributed towards increase in agricultural productivity and productions. In the last 50 years, the productivity was almost doubled due mainly to the Green Revolution and the improved agricultural water management. This was very much true for the cereal crops like wheat, rice and maize where yields were doubled.
When considering all forms of irrigation including spate and non perennial irrigation, the irrigated area has increased from 9 mha in 1950 to about 58 mha in 2000. This increase over 50 years was a major factor in increasing agricultural productivity and productions. Presently, the total water use for the agriculture sector in the region is around 560 billion m3 (bcm). The increase in production was mainly due to increase in water availability from both surface and groundwater sources. Water contributed more than any other input factor to the food security.
With a population estimated at more than 660 million inhabitants today, and expected to reach 790 million by the year 2010, the demand for food products is expected to continue to grow. Thus, unless there are significant improvements in agricultural productivity and total production at least in the same order of magnitude as those recorded during the Green Revolution period, the region will face sever food shortage. The imbalance between supply and demand of basic agricultural goods is expected to increase in the future, which will threaten the food security objectives of many countries.
In developing countries together, irrigation serves about one-fifth of all arable land, accounts for some 40 percent of all crop production and almost 60 percent of cereal production. Recent analyses suggest irrigated agriculture will account for 38 percent of the total increase in arable land and for more than 70 percent of the increase in cereal production between 1995/7 and 2030 (FAO, 2000a).
The problems associated with irrigation systems and their management as well as with the availability of non-water inputs are the main causes for low productivity of the agriculture base. The benefits of irrigation per unit area are fully recognized under arid environments as little would grow without irrigation. Yet the irrigation sector has become increasingly the target of criticism and is considered as the main cause for productivity problems in agriculture because of water scarcity, inefficiency, inequity and sustainability issues.