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Not a Drop to Drink - Why water supplies in the MENA Region are getting scarer

Source:Knowledge Wharton     Date:2011-11-25
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Djamel Latrech, programme director at the Observatoire du Sahara et du Sahel (OSS), a nonprofit environmental monitoring organisation

Djamel Latrech, programme director at the Observatoire du Sahara et du Sahel (OSS), a nonprofit environmental monitoring organisation

THE numbers are enough to raise alarm bells: The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region faces a 10% to 25% decrease in rainfall. Combined with rapid population growth, water availability is predicted to drop from 1,100cubic meters per person per year now to 550 cubic meters by 2050.Water scarcity is nothing new for MENA. It's been a feature of the region for millennia. But with the demographic boom of the 1970s, the focus on water shifted from securing supply and harnessing temperamental rainfall to curbing demand. The trouble is that whilst supply was mostly a technical issue resolved through cunning engineering, demand is a socio-economic constraint and a political hot potato.

Entering the debate about water resource management in MENA is like opening a Pandora's box: The social, economic, political and environmental considerations are endless and yet inextricably linked. So much so that policies that might not seem to have anything to do with water – say, deciding which industry to nurture, the types of crops to grow or even the tariffs to charge – can have a far greater impact on water resources than water policies themselves.

The biggest culprit in that respect is agriculture, the livelihood of much of the region's poor: It absorbs 85% of the water consumed in the MENA region. Unfortunately, many of the crops grown in the region – cereals, fodder and potatoes, to name a few—have low value. Politics' influence on the sector is also hard to ignore. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, many MENA countries enthusiastically promoted food security as a way to maintain both social stability and international standing.

At the height of its wheat production days in the 1980s, Saudi Arabia was the world's sixth biggest wheat exporter. But achieving that ranking came at a price. Wheat is grown using non-renewable groundwater resources and with irrigation efficiencies as low as 45%. The World Bank calculated that the value of excessive groundwater withdrawals cost a Middle Eastern country the equivalent of 1.2% to 2% of its GDP. Throw in the cost equivalent of another 0.5% to 2.5% of GDP for water-related environmental problems (increased soil salinity, pollution and so on) as well as the business risk of scarcer supplies (such as the increased cost of drilling, pumping and water treatment), and there are plenty of reasons why good water management is an economic necessity.

Much Resistance, Little Awareness

But in the MENA region, coming to grips with water management is proving easier said than done. It has taken Djamel Latrech, programme director at the Observatoire du Sahara et du Sahel (OSS), a nonprofit environmental-monitoring organisation, the past 10 years to raise awareness about the unsustainable levels of withdrawals from the North-western Sahara Aquifer System (NWSAS), a vast reserve of fossil water spreading across one million square kilometres of Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Withdrawals have now levelled off, and in 2007, the three countries agreed to jointly manage the aquifer.

Latrech is now about to launch his most sensitive work yet—a study looking at how water is used in agriculture. "We would not have been able to do this study four years ago. There was too much resistance and not enough awareness for us to start questioning the status quo," he says. "But with globalisation, the debate on climate change and the work we have done, attitudes are changing." The ultimate goal of OSS' work on NWSAS is to rationalise the use of fossil water. This raises all sorMax 90 Winter Sneakerboot

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