FAO Regional Office for Near East and North Africa

The Regional Initiative on Water Scarcity for the Near East and North Africa

The NENA region is the world’s most water-insecure region with water scarcity growing and water quality deteriorating. The demand for fresh water is continuously on the rise, driven by a range of factors, such as population growth, increasing food demand, changes in dietary patterns towards more animal-based proteins, urbanization, and overall socio-economic development. At the same time, the availability of fresh water is continuously declining due to reduced and variable rainfalls, inefficient water use and water quality degradation.

The scarcity and degradation of natural resources – whether land, water and biodiversity resources – are among the most important risks to food security, nutrition and well-being in the region. Access to water services remains poor in rural areas, which affects equitable and inclusive human development and undermines the resilience of rural communities. Population growth and climate change further increase the vulnerability of the NENA region and exacerbate productivity losses and degradation of natural resources.

Agriculture, which remains a vital social and economic sector in most NENA countries, is using 85 percent of available fresh water resources in the region and is the sector suffering most from water scarcity, with major consequences for food security and the rural economy. Rural communities suffer subsequent effects on their health, nutrition and future mental and physical development, with the most marginalized communities experiencing the greatest impacts.

Arab countries have made progress in the management and efficient use of water resources, but these improvements are not proportionate with the real dimension of the challenge. Unless water is managed sustainably, efficiently and equitably, the NENA region will struggle to make progress towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on poverty reduction (SDG 1), food security ( SDG 2), water and sanitation for all (SDG 6) and climate action (SDG 13).

The Water Scarcity Initiative: a partnership to strengthen water resource planning and management in the NENA region

In order to help NENA countries address food and water security challenges, FAO RNE and its partners established the Water Scarcity Initiative (WSI) during the first edition of the NENA Land and Water Days, held in Amman, Jordan in December 2013. The Regional Initiative was created on the premise that water and food security involves complex and overlapping multi-sector and multi-stakeholder forms of decision-making. Drawing on this, partners acknowledged that there was a strong advantage to strengthen coordination and build partnerships to respond to water scarcity in the region.

FAO RNE and a number of partners signed a "Partnership Pledge" expressing their “strong interest and willingness to work together, drawing on [their] collective knowledge and resources, in an effective, action-oriented and result-based Regional Partnership, to support the implementation of relevant collaborative strategies”, such as the Arab Strategy for Water Security (2010-2030) and the Strategy for Sustainable Arab Agricultural Development (2005-2025) . The Regional Initiative was endorsed by the ministers of agriculture at the 32nd session of FAO Regional Conference for the Near East in February 2014 in Rome and by the Arab Ministerial Water Council of the League of Arab States in May 2015.

WSI focus areas of work

  • Supporting water and food security strategic planning through strengthened governance of the water sector and enhanced coordination between the water and agricultural sectors
  • Improving water resource planning and management in both rainfed and irrigated farming systems and along the good value-chains
  • Supporting the development of non-conventional water use (treated wastewater, desalinated water and brackish water)
  • Promoting resilience to shocks and stresses, with a strong emphasis on climate change impacts, including droughts
  • Promoting methodologies and tools to monitor, benchmark and report on water consumption, water productivity and water efficiency in order to measure results in support of policies and decision-making processes.
The Water Scarcity Initiative in practice:

The multiple challenges facing the NENA region require continuous coordination between partners, exchange of knowledge and joint activities to ensure synergies and enhanced impact. In this context, the WSI partners have established a Regional Collaborative Platform organized in four thematic clusters to address the initiative’s focus areas of work: (i) resilience and climate change adaptation, (ii) water productivity tools and analytics, (iii) non-conventional water resources and (iv) water governance. Members of each thematic cluster meet three times a year, gathering a critical mass of knowledge and expertise from specialized organizations and member countries. These regular meetings also create opportunities to develop joint projects between partners to deliver a positive impact in water management in the region. This is the new direction WSI partners are now lined up to work towards.

At the global level, the water and food security challenges call for strengthened planning and coordination among various actors and stakeholders in the water and agriculture sectors. To support these efforts, FAO RNE has established the inter-Regional Technical Platform on Water Scarcity (iRTP-WS) to provide effective integrated solutions for coping with water scarcity at the global level. Our current partners include governments, United Nations agencies, research centers, academia, and private sector entities specializing in water, agriculture and climate related topics.

  • In response to the challenges associated with water and food security in the Arab Region, FAO RNE in collaboration with ESCWA has been offering support to the League of Arab States on enhancing the coordination and the coherence of agricultural and water policies.
  • These joint efforts have led the League of Arab States to strengthen coordination between the water and agriculture sectors by establishing a “Joint Water-Agriculture Ministerial Council”. The first Joint Meeting of Arab Ministers of Agriculture and Water was held in Cairo on 4 April 2019 during the fifth edition of the NENA Land and Water Days . The joint ministerial resolution adopted the Cairo Declaration which acknowledges the necessity of enhancing coordination and policy coherence between the water and agriculture sectors.
  • The resolution provides for the creation of a “High-Level Joint Technical Committee” which acts as a technical advisory body to the Joint Water-Agriculture Ministerial Council. The fourth meeting of the High-Level Joint Technical Committee meeting was held in Cairo on 18 October 2022, alongside the fifth edition of the Cairo Water Week. The progress achieved and recommendations resulting from this fourth Technical Committee meeting are summarized in the latest outcome document.
  • The resolution also provides for the establishment of a “Joint Technical Secretariat”, comprising the Arab Organization for Agricultural Development (AOAD) and the Technical Secretariat of the Arab Ministerial Water Council. The Joint Technical Secretariat, FAO RNE and ESCWA work closely with the High-Level Joint Technical Committee to put the Cairo Declaration into practice. In this regard, the Joint Technical Secretariat, with assistance from FAO RNE and ESCWA, has developed an action plan to operationalize the Cairo Declaration and has developed Guidelines to improve water resource allocation for agriculture. Both the Guidelines on improved water allocation for agriculture and the Action plan to operationalize the 2019 Cairo Declaration were endorsed by the Joint Water-Agriculture Ministerial Council on 27 January 2022. FAO RNE and ESCWA continue to support the League of Arab States with a focus on non-conventional water (reuse of treated wastewater and desalination) and the pilot application of the guidelines on improved water allocation at country level.

The NENA region being one of the most land and water scarce region in the world, the preservation of land and water resources is of critical importance to ensure food security and address the increased food demand. The 2021 SOLAW report for the NENA region is the first edition presenting and analyzing the state of land and water resources for food and agriculture in the Arab region. It aims at providing policy makers, institutions and other stakeholders a comprehensive overview of the current situation for land and water and the effect of climate change and urbanization on food production, in order to raise governments’ and public awareness and facilitate informed decision-making.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development requires a ‘transformational’ change in managing strategic resources, such as water, land and energy. Data collection, management and analysis are of paramount importance to support the strategic planning of these resources and provide the evidence base needed for policy formulation. In this regard, water accounting and water auditing, remote sensing for evapotranspiration determination, and monitoring of crop water productivity are some of the advanced tools and methodologies that the Regional Initiative is promoting to provide a comprehensive understanding of the availability and access to water resources and support an efficient, equitable and sustainable use of water resources.

Capacity development has been a cross-cutting component of the Water Efficiency, Productivity and Sustainably Project (WEPS), through the organization of regional and national meetings and the implementation of webinar series facilitating discussions on innovative topics such as water accounting and auditing, water productivity, crop mapping or remote sensing determination of evapotranspiration. The collection of recorded webinars is available on the website of the iRTP-WS.

Facts and Figures
  • The Near East and North Africa fresh water resources are among the lowest in the world: eight countries feature in the world’s top 10 highest levels of water stress and water resources have decreased by 2/3 during the last 40 years and are expected to fall over 50 percent by 2050
  • Over 60 percent of renewable water resources in the region flows from outside national and regional boundaries
  • The region exhibits a high dependency on transboundary groundwater
  • Agriculture in the region uses approximately 85 percent of the total available freshwater, above the global average of 70 percent.
  • The region is the world’s most land-scarce, where per capita availability of agricultural land averages around 0.3 ha. 
Working Towards
Four Betters
  • Better production
  • Better nutrition
  • Better environment
  • Better life

SDG1 (poverty reduction), SDG2 (food security), SDG6 (water and sanitation for all) and SDG 13 (climate action).

FAO Regional priority

Greening agriculture, water scarcity, and climate action


Mohamed Al Hamdi

Senior Land and Water Officer, Delivery Manager of the Regional Initiative on Water Scarcity