Solutions to water challenges in the Middle East and North Africa region


Q&A with Pasquale Steduto this World Water Week

A FAO-supported dairy farmer gives water to her cow in Yemen. @FAO/Chedly Kayouli

The Middle East and North Africa is the world's most water-scarce region and the situation is worsening due to the impacts of conflict, climate change and economic downturn. The water crisis threatens the region’s stability as well as its human development and sustainable growth. 

Pasquale Steduto is FAO’s Delivery Manager for the Water Scarcity initiative in the Near East and North Africa.  Here he discusses the region’s water scarcity challenges, and the vital role of sustainable water management for building resilience, sustaining peace and improving people’s livelihoods and well-being.

Q: Just how bad is the water crisis in the region, and what are the main drivers?

Water resources per capita in the region account for just one-sixth of the global average and they continue to dwindle. Every country in the region is experiencing groundwater depletion, with overall very high rates of withdrawal of both surface and groundwater. This means agriculture is struggling to compete for water with industry and other sectors. 

In addition, the climate, which is largely arid to hyper-arid and highly variable, is changing, with drought becoming more frequent. 

Countries in the Middle East and North Africa have been at the forefront of developing practices and institutions to manage scarce water resources in arid climates. However, in some countries distortions in policies and institutions have resulted in the failure of water management systems to signal any potential water shortages. 

In some cases, they have encouraged over-exploitation of resources by failing to implement incentives to curb water consumption and promote conservation. 

As a result, the current water crisis has reached unprecedented levels and requires coordinated responses across the region.

Left: Displaced civilians flee fighting with their livestock in Iraq. @FAO/Cengiz Yar Right: Rehabilitating the Al Jazeera irrigation canal in Iraq as part of an FAO cash for work project. @FAO/Cengiz Yar

Q: What is the link between water scarcity and fragile environments marked by conflict and displacement?

Fragility has become the reality in several countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Armed conflict and forced displacement are taking an enormous toll on human lives, with the region accounting for about 60 percent of the estimated global total of battle-related casualties since the turn of the millennium.

Fragility also exacerbates the region’s water problems. Even before the recent political turmoil, several countries in the Middle East and North Africa were struggling to manage their water resources sustainably and efficiently and to expand coverage of water supply and sanitation services. Now conflict combined with some institutional obstacles has contributed to an intensification of water challenges and a deterioration of water services.

For example, in Syria - once one of the region’s top Millennium Development Goals performers - the recent conflict has pushed more than 3 million people into poverty. Deteriorating access to water and sanitation services has led to increased incidence of waterborne diseases. As a result, the mortality rate of children under five due to diarrhea has increased threefold since the start of the conflict.

In Yemen, over 10 million people, about 46 percent of the total population, are considered to be food insecure, and about 12 million people lack access to safe water or sanitation.

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. We need to break this vicious circle to ensure recovery, peace, food and water security and sustainable development in the region.

A Palestinian herdsman watering his donkey at a rehabilitated cistern. ©FAO/Marco Longari

Q: What needs to happen to better address water-related challenges, especially in countries affected by conflict and displacement?

Where conflicts begin to dissipate, the restoration of basic water and sanitation services should become a priority. In the recovery phase, water for agriculture is important as it provides for people’s livelihoods.

Addressing water and fragility challenges requires combining an immediate response to people’s basic needs with a long-term approach aimed at building resilience to shocks and protracted crises. The latter should rely on sustainable, efficient and equitable water resources management and service delivery.

Investment in innovative policies and practices is also pivotal as research, technology development and transfer can provide further improvements to water efficiency and crop productivity in the region. It can also greatly increase the resilience of rainfed agricultural systems, for instance by promoting land conservation and reclamation practices.

More importantly, working together within countries and across boundaries is essential. Collective action and partnerships are essential given the scale and commonality of the challenges, the relatively small size of many of the countries in the region and the transboundary nature of important issues like climate change and shared water resources.


Above: See an innovative approach to water challenges in Yemen.

Q: What is FAO doing to address water scarcity in the region? Could you give us some examples?

FAO’s Water Scarcity Regional Initiative (WSI) supports countries in the region to strategically plan their water resource management and allocation, review their water, food security and energy policies, formulate effective investment plans, modernize governance and institutions, account for transboundary surface and ground water and adopt good agricultural practices.

One FAO project in Yemen is helping farmers take advantage of dam water to improve sustainability and give women more opportunities to participate in decision-making processes. FAO has been supporting the establishment and reorganization of more than 35 Water User Associations in the capital Sanaa to better regulate water consumption, helping them with funding, equipment. In the process, these associations provide space for new thinking like resolving tribal disputes over water.

The Sanaa Basin Project is an example of how FAO supports different types of activities – aimed not only  at meeting the immediate food and nutrition needs of millions of Yemenis, but also facilitating projects that can positively impact the restoration of the country’s overall agriculture infrastructure.

Another FAO project in the West Bank and Gaza Strip focused on supporting efficient irrigation systems and addressed poor management and inefficient use of water resources by repairing damaged  irrigation systems. This has improved access to clean water for irrigation and put an end to social conflicts over water usage.

FAO’s project rehabilitated more than 30 water conveyance systems in the West Bank, improving the efficiency of almost 150 kilometers of water piping for domestic and agricultural use. As a result, farmers once again could access sufficient water, ensuring equitable distribution. Water loss through leakages was eliminated and the use of untreated wastewater for irrigation purposes was curbed.

The project has enabled around 200 farming families in An-Nassariyeh to increase their production, cut  costs and avoid using unsafe contaminated water. In addition to mitigating social, economic and environmental impacts on communities, the pipe rehabilitation work led to the creation of seasonal jobs for at least 2,000 agricultural workers in the West Bank.

Find out more: