Effective water management in the Arab world is key to future growth and stability

Effective water management in the Arab world is key to future growth and stability

28/08/2018

Water scarcity in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region can either be a destabilizing factor or a motive that binds communities together, according to a new joint report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Bank, with the difference determined by the policies adopted to cope with the growing challenge.

The report, Water Management in Fragile Systems: Building Resilience to Shocks and Protracted Crises in The Middle East and North Africa warns that instability combined with poor water management can become a vicious cycle that further exacerbates social tensions, while emphasizing that the actions needed to break the cycle can also be essential elements for recovery and consolidating stability.

Launched today during a special session focused on MENA at the World Water Week conference in Stockholm, Sweden, calls for a shift away from current policies focused on increasing supplies toward long-term management of water resources. Ineffective policies have left both the region’s people and communities exposed to the impacts of water scarcity, growing ever more severe as a result of rising demand and climate change. More than 60% of the region’s population is concentrated in places affected by high or very high surface water stress, compared to a global average of about 35%. If left unchecked, climate-related water scarcity is expected to cause economic losses estimated at 6 to 14% of Gross Domestic Product by 2050, the highest in the world.

“Economic losses mean rising unemployment, compounded by the impact of water scarcity on traditional livelihoods such as agriculture,” said Pasquale Steduto, FAO Regional Programme Coordinator for the Near East and North Africa and co-lead author of the report, “the result can be food insecurity and people forced to migrate, along with growing frustrations with governments unable to guarantee basic services, which risks becoming another driver of the region’s widespread instability. The good news is that actions can be taken to prevent water scarcity and instability from becoming a vicious cycle, by focusing on sustainable, efficient and equitable water resources management and service delivery.”

A balanced approach will be needed that addresses the short-term impacts of water scarcity while investing in longer-term solutions, including the adoption of new technologies, as the basis for sustainable growth. An FAO project in Iraq is supporting resilience to drought by providing cash-for-work to internally displaced people and refugees. A World Bank financed water-treatment plant in Gaza aims to reverse years of neglect due to instability with the reliable supply of safe drinking water and the gradual replenishment of the aquifer with treated water. In Egypt, 10 percent of agricultural water is recycled drainage water, while Morocco plans to install more than 100,000 solar pumps for irrigation by 2020.

“Water scarcity always has both a local dimension, as it directly impacts communities, and a regional one, as water resources cross borders,” said Anders Jagerskog, World Bank Senior Water Resources Management Specialist and report co-lead author. “Addressing water scarcity is an opportunity to empower local communities to develop their own local consensus on strategies for addressing the challenge. At the same time, it is a motivation for strengthening regional cooperation in the face of a common problem.”

More than half of all surface water in the region are transboundary, and all the countries share at least one aquifer.  The long history of shared water management in the region demonstrates how water offers an opportunity to bring people together to solve complex challenges related to the allocation and delivery of water. Consultations at the local level coupled with the restoration of water services, can help rebuild the bond of trust between citizens and the government. Regional partnerships to manage shared resources is a step toward greater regional integration. The report emphasizes that while the policies are critical for effective water management, they are also vital contributions to long-term stability.

Key Findings

THE VICIOUS CYCLE OF WATER AND FRAGILITY

  • The Middle East and North Africa water challenges are intensifying. Rising demands, climate change, inter-sectoral competition and urbanization are exacerbating the region’s age-old water scarcity challenges. In some countries of the region, poorly adapted governance structures and distorted incentives mean that these challenges are largely left unaddressed and actions and policies are not sustained. Distortions in policies and institutions have created a system that does not recognize the value of water.
  • The scale of the challenge is unprecedented. Countries in the Middle East and North Africa have been at the forefront in developing practices and institutions to manage scarce water resources in the context of a largely arid and highly variable climate. However, the scale of the current water crisis is unprecedented and requires coordinated responses across institutions in many locations.
  • Failure to find solutions to water challenges aggravates fragility. Water crises strain the ability of individuals and societies to maintain livelihood security and political stability.
  • Fragility makes it harder to address water issues. Fragile situations – characterized by weak and ineffective institutions, histories of conflict, unsustainable livelihood systems and decaying or damaged infrastructure – compound challenges to sustainable water management.
  • The compounding nature of water and fragility gives rise to a vicious cycle. In this vicious cycle, fragility makes it more difficult for water management to be effective, in turn amplifying the negative political, social and environmental consequences of water-related challenges. At the same time, as water issues are left unaddressed, their impact increases, eroding government legitimacy and destabilizing fragile contexts.
  • Don’t blame the drought. We don’t claim that there are direct causal linkages between water crises, social tensions and unrest, migration, or other manifestations of fragility. But what is clear is that institutions and policy choices can mediate water-related impacts on people and economies. In the meantime, water-related challenges can amplify fragility risks when policy design and implementation do not adequately promote sustainability, inclusion and resilience.

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

  • Addressing water and fragility challenges requires a move from a focus primarily on immediate, reactive responses to a balanced long-term approach. This approach would build growth-oriented resilience to shocks and protracted crises focused on sustainable, efficient and equitable water resources management and service delivery.
  • Use decentralized, participatory approaches. Because of the essentially local nature of water and agriculture problems, community consultation, participation and ownership are vital, as is working with whatever local government may exist on the ground.
  • Invest in innovative policies and practices. Research, technology development and transfer can provide further improvements to water efficiency and crop productivity in the region.
  • Working together within countries and across boundaries is essential. Given the scale and commonality of the challenges, the relatively small size of many countries in the region and the transboundary nature of important issues like climate change and shared water resources, collective action and partnerships are essential.

BUILDING RESILIENCE: WATER MANAGEMENT TO PROMOTE PEACE AND STABILITY

  • Water management is conducive to stability and peacebuilding. Water and agriculture are key to recovery and stabilization and – ultimately – to peacebuilding. Water management offers the opportunity to empower communities and, more broadly, to develop inclusive institutions for responsible and transparent delivery of the resource.
  • Addressing short-term livelihood and food security needs is essential in the short-term. Building resilience in water and agricultural systems in fragile and conflict-affected situations requires both the short-term and the long-term to be considered in planning from the very beginning, thus bridging the divide between humanitarian and development efforts.
  • Sustainable water management is necessary for the long-term. During and immediately after conflict, interventions need to target water delivery services and ways to improve food security. One possible way to improve food security is by supporting smallholder crop and livestock production. Working with the private sector to restore basic access to water and sanitation to satisfy basic human needs and agricultural demands is a necessity.