Policy and integrated management Environment

Posted June 1996

Water Resources Issues in the Arab States Region

by Alain Marcoux
Senior Officer, Population and Environment
Population Programme Service (SDWP)
FAO Women and Population Division
from the paper "Population Change-Natural Resources-Environment Linkages in the Arab States Region" (FAO, April 1996)


See also: Environment Specials
  • Global climate maps
  • Organic agriculture
  • Integrated coastal area management
  • Biodiversity in agriculture
  • Earth Summit+5
  • Agroclimatic concepts
  • Remote sensing
  • Maps of the World Food Summit
  • Sea-level rise and agriculture
  • Population growth "is at the heart of the problem of semi-arid development. The fundamental importance of water both for habitability and for rural access to biomass for food, fodder, fuelwood and timber makes water scarcity a crucial problem in the struggle for a higher quality of life of poor rural populations". Where habitability is reduced by water shortages, emigration is a habitual consequence (Falkenmark, 1990).

    The seriousness of the water resources issues in the Arab states region is well known:

    "The tightest situation faces the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Out of twenty countries in the region, eleven are already using more than half their water resources. Libya, and all the Arabian peninsula save Oman, are using more than 100 percent. They are relying on expensive desalinization of sea-water, or drawing on underground reserves of fossil water that cannot be replenished. And populations in the region are projected to double, treble or in some cases more than quadruple before stabilizing" (Harrison, 1992).
    Situations in 2025 have been projected (Engelman and LeRoy, 1993) using the classical scale of levels of competition for water. Results show that: Country studies confirm this picture. In Jordan, it has been estimated that, as the population continues to grow and industry and agriculture continue to develop, demand for water will exceed availability in the near future (Ahmad, 1989). An important factor is the geographical distribution of population: while domestic needs are intrinsically modest (a few cubic meters per person per annum) the concentration of population through urbanization has created problems - this is the case in the Amman-Zarqa area where some 60 percent of the national population are concentrated.

    In Qatar, water scarcity is identified as the main problem - in the absence of permanent surface water, agriculture is almost entirely dependent on irrigation from pumped groundwater. It is estimated that Qatar aquifers will be depleted in 20 to 30 years at recent rates of groundwater withdrawal. Further, with increasing urban and rural development, groundwater pollution (viz. nitrates) is a clear probability (UNEP, 1987). By and large, similar considerations apply to all countries in the region.

    Water scarcity is not the only problem. Pollution - with its implications for human health - usually is part of the water resources issue, and can indeed be the main problem. Syria is a case in point: the insufficiency of sanitary sewage disposal systems and increasing dumping of industrial wastes have damaged the Euphrates, Oronte and Barrada river basins. In addition, overpumping of aquifers for irrigation has brought about saltwater intrusions in the coastal plains.

    Let us consider the respective roles of agriculture, industry and domestic uses of water, as reported in the Table below.

    Distribution by sector of annual water withdrawals in the Arab States region (percent)
    Saudi Arabia45847
    Source: World Resources Institute

    The region is characterized by:

    The implication of these patterns is that there still is quite some potential for increases in water demand, as economies diversify and living standards rise. Unless large gains are made in efficient use of irrigation water and conservation or rehabilitation of damaged irrigated areas, the crunch is likely to severely damage economic competitivity in addition to health and the quality of life.

    Egypt: a short country profile

    Egypt is an extremely arid country with limited land and water resources. Less than three percent of its area is cultivated because of water shortage. The Nile is the country's basic life-sustaining system, but the available water is already fully utilized, mainly for agricultural and human use.

    Water quality problems arise easily given this "saturation". Salinization and waterlogging affect the productivity of crop land. Aquifers are threatened with salinization and pollution. Irrigation canals and drains increasingly suffer from weeds and the accumulation of pesticides. Urban areas and archaeological sites are affected by rises in water tables due to poor drainage. Industrial wastewater and urban sewage are discharged into drains with little or no treatment because of the shortage of wastewater treatment capacity (and of operation and maintenance problems in existing plants). Effluents thus endanger the health and welfare of hundreds of thousands of people. WHO statistics show about 90,000 annual recorded deaths linked to water-borne diseases.

    Egypt also suffers from air pollution problems in the main urban areas, where over half of the population resides. Concentrations of carbon monoxide, lead and sulphur dioxide in these areas and other mixed residential-industrial areas are well above acceptable levels. Due to widespread energy inefficiency, carbon dioxide emissions are unnecessarily high. The concentration of airborne dust in Cairo exceeds international standards by a factor of 10. In industrial areas it reduces solar radiation, damaging local vegetation. By damaging limestone monuments, air pollution also affects the country's rich cultural heritage.

    The economic consequences of these problems are great, especially for the primary sector. Over one million hectares of irrigated land suffer from salinization, meaning huge losses in forgone output. Fisheries output is reduced in some areas and has generally decreased in value because of excessive contents of toxic substances. Urban drinking water treatment is becoming increasingly costly. And the tourism potential is affected as the cultural and natural heritage deteriorates.

    One should also mention a number of problems which threaten biological diversity. Oil pollution damages coastal resources (coral reefs, mangroves, fisheries, birds, beaches etc.) both along the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Tourism also has been seen (e.g. on the Red Sea or in the Aswan area) to cause habitat degradation if not properly managed.

    The role of population growth in some of these processes is unquestionable. Land degradation, for instance, has much to do with accelerated agricultural intensification and "the pressure of an increasing population combined with the scarcity of cultivable land, leading farmers to ask more of the land than it can yield" (Kishk, 1986). And the pressure increases all the more rapidly as the spatial growth of human settlements, especially cities, takes a direct toll on the surrounding land resources: based on FAO data it has been estimated for instance that "between 1973 and 1985 Egypt lost 13 percent of her farmland to urban sprawl" (Harrison, 1992). It is commonly said that the land developed thanks to the Aswan Dam merely compensates for that lost to urbanization. In effect, Egypt's arable and permanent crop land in 1993 (2.8 million hectares) was the same as in 1974-76 and less than that in 1969-71 (FAO, 1995).

    Of course, impact on the environment varies from one category of population to the other, depending on lifestyles. Overall, however, the mere increase in concentration of human numbers in urban areas overwhelms existing infrastructures and absorbs more and more investment resources.

    Egypt exemplifies, on a large scale, many of the population-environment problems of the region, especially those arising from population pressure on natural resources. It might seem that the countries with an oil-based economy are much better off; but in reality, the populations of those countries - relatively small but concentrated in the vicinity of industrial sites - suffer disproportionately from the impact of industrial activities on a fragile natural environment. All have in common the severe problem of water resources.


    Ahmad, A.A. (1989): "Jordan environmental profile: status and abatement". "State-of-the-Environment Reports". Amman, USAID.

    Engelman, E. and P. LeRoy (1993): "Sustaining water. Population and the future of renewable water supplies". Washington, Population Action International.

    Falkenmark, M. (1990): "Rapid population growth and water scarcity: the predicament of tomorrow's Africa", in: "Resources, environment and population". (K. Davis and M.S. Bernstam, eds.), pp. 81-94. Supplement to "Population and Development Review", vol. 16.

    FAO (1995): "Country tables. Basic data on the agricultural sector". Rome. Harrison, P. (1992): "The third revolution. Environment, population and a sustainable world". London, I.B. Tauris.

    UNEP (1987): "State of the environment: national reports - 1. Qatar". Nairobi.

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