Global Policy Forum

Coping With Scarce Water in the Middle East and North Africa

World Bank
March 11, 2007

Download Making the Most of Scarcity: Accountability for Better Water Management Results in the Middle East and North Africa

Roof-top water storage tanks are ubiquitous in Amman, Jordan, where water service lasts only two hours a day. And residents of arid Yemen use only 2 percent of the water consumed by the average person in other parts of the world. Much of Yemen's water is mined from rapidly depleting underground aquifers. Yemen and Jordan have the most severe water shortages in the Middle East and North Africa. And even the most casual observer knows water is scarce throughout the entire Middle Eastern region. But a new World Bank report says the region's less-than-abundant water supply need not spell widespread hardship in future.

Countries can cope if they change policies that currently encourage inefficient land use, overuse of nonrenewable water resources, pollution, ecological damage, and poorly maintained infrastructure, says Making the Most of Scarcity: Accountability for Better Water Management Results in the Middle East and North Africa, the Bank's first report on the subject in 10 years. . One reason for elbow-room: 85 percent of water is used for agriculture. The region has as much irrigated land as the United States, and a lot of it is used for crops that are more easily grown in other places and imported.

Governments and policy-makers are also increasingly willing to tackle water problems as the true costs of pollution and water scarcity become apparent, says Julia Bucknall, Lead Natural Resources Management Specialist and report co-author. Algeria, Egypt and Morocco, for instance, spend between 20 and 30 percent of their budgets on water. And the report estimates water-related environmental problems cost many countries between .5 and 2.5 percent of GDP a year. These ecological costs "show in very simple terms the costs of water pollution…and have had a big impact in terms of changing investments in water treatment," says Bucknall.

2050 Outlook

Nearly 80 percent of all the water that falls in the Middle East and North Africa is used, according to the report. That's in stark contrast to other areas of the world, such as Latin America, the Caribbean and Sub-Saharan Africa, which use only about 2 percent of available water in their regions. The already heavy usage of water in the Middle East and North Africa doesn't leave a lot of room to accommodate an expanding population or the effects of climate change, which could help cut the amount of water available per person in half by 2050. Increasing scarcity will force the region to narrow water uses, predicts the report.

"They're going to have to use the water for the things that generate the highest amount of money and employment" rather than for crops like wheat that are more cheaply and easily grown elsewhere, Bucknall says. The region, with its abundant sun, would do well to concentrate on such cash crops as grapes, tomatoes, melons, and strawberries and increase trade with Europe, she says.

"We are certainly not suggesting that the choices involved are easy. They involve painful changes," she adds. "Yet the alternative is worse. Making difficult policy choices now will allow water to continue to provide services, livelihoods, jobs and environmental benefits for the future."

Mustapha Nabli, Chief Economist for the Bank's Middle East and North Africa region, chaired a panel including regional experts that expressed the need for timely action to build on existing initiatives and improve water accountability.

"Water management institutions need to adapt to the needs of the 21st century; allowing people to become more involved in voicing demand for better services, monitoring the quality of resources and protecting them from pollution and in contributing fully to the major and hard decisions that need to be made," Nabli says.


Despite problems, most countries made progress in the last 10 or 15 years, Bucknall says. Many are investing in technology such as sophisticated irrigation systems that use water sensors per row of crop to reduce water usage, or cheaper, increasingly efficient desalination plants that are becoming viable options for less-wealthy countries. Many countries are also managing water resources more efficiently by decentralizing water decision-making, and even privatizing irrigation (Morocco). But some are also dealing with infrastructure that has deteriorated over the years, partly because not enough water has flowed through it, or that does not deliver water where it needs to go.

Many of the answers to the region's water problems rest on changes to non-water policies, says Bucknall, such as agricultural price supports that keep some crops artificially profitable, or energy subsidies that make pumping water from aquifers deep underground artificially cheap. Bucknall says that policymakers from ministries of irrigation, housing and urban development, water resources, environment and energy can increase their impact if they "remember the effects of things outside water."

"It's important for water people to be scanning the horizon for policy changes that are going to have a major effect on water, and to time reforms for when there is political acceptance for them," she says. The report, the fifth in a series of reports highlighting key challenges facing the Middle East and North Africa, is being released today in Cairo, Egypt, at an event sponsored by the Arab Water Council, and in Tunis, Tunisia and Tehran, Iran, in May.




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