Taking on the water crisis in the Middle East

27 November 2018

Arguably the least water-secure region in the world, the Middle East faces exceptional water-related challenges for the foreseeable future. Although there is no single cause for or solution to the crisis, taking a deeper look at the issues and working together must be part of the way forward. 

Understanding the regional challenges

Rapidly rising populations and economic development are leading to a greater demand for water, placing the planet’s resources under increasing stress. This scarce resource is also unevenly distributed around the world, with the Middle East region being one of the most water-challenged. In fact, a 2015 report by the World Resources Institute found that of the 33 likely most water-stressed countries in 2040, 14 are in the Middle East.

Water scarcity occurs when demand for freshwater exceeds supply. It can be characterised by three main dimensions: the physical availability of water, the level of infrastructure development that controls storage, distribution and access, and the institutional capacity to provide water services.

In the Middle East there are many factors contributing to water scarcity. Firstly, the region experiences arid conditions, low rainfall and high levels of evaporation, leading to limited naturally available water resources. But it’s not just a lack of resources. The region is also confronted with challenges including socio-political factors, transboundary issues, pollution, poor water management and misuse.

The impact of human migration

Adding to the water scarcity challenge in the Middle East is the increasing number of people migrating within the region in recent years, in large part due to food and water shortages, climate change, and war. Regardless of the causes, the movement of people on such a massive scale increases the stress on the region’s already water-scarce host countries. An example of this is Jordan, one of the most water-poor countries in the world. Hosting one of the largest formal settlements, the Zaatari refugee camp, puts additional strain on the country’s already limited resources. The UNHCR reports that the camp currently accommodates nearly 80,000 ‘persons of concern’. In 2016, to meet their needs, three internal water wells were established along with a wastewater treatment plant. Though necessary from an aid perspective, it is unclear what long-term impact these sorts of responses will have on local groundwater supplies.

And Zaatari is just one example. According to the UNHCR, there are currently over five million registered refugees from Syria across the Middle East. But in reality, there are higher numbers of refugees who are not statistically accounted for living outside of established camps. That puts an even greater burden on existing water infrastructure and resources across the region. And although it’s debatable whether water has directly led to large-scale civil conflicts like Syria, it clearly plays a role in the destabilisation of the entire region.

Governance and transboundary issues

Water scarcity in the Middle East region is not simply a matter of physical water shortage. It can also be linked to, among other things, a lack of good governance structures and poor resource management. Water shortages, allocation and improper management in many cases have led to communal discrimination, discontent against the government, and violent clashes. Good governance of the resources can increase water use efficiency and is necessary in order to manage the effective and equitable allocation between existing uses and the growing needs of urban and industrial sectors.

Another challenge is the issue of transboundary waters. One country where this continues to be a critical issue is Egypt, as it relies almost entirely on the Nile for its water supply. The Nile basin is considered to be one of the hotspots in terms of transboundary tension between riparians, according to Zaki Shubber, IHE Delft Lecturer in Law and Water Diplomacy. For a long time, Egypt has objected to infrastructure development projects by its upstream Nile neighbors (particularly Ethiopia and Sudan) out of the fear of decreased water flow and quality. But because of socio-political and economic factors, Egypt is currently in a weaker position for negotiation.

When looking at the case of Nile waters, Shubber also points out that these issues don’t just exist between states. “If you look at the definition of diplomacy, it’s for pretty much any interaction between individuals or parties or entities,” she says. “In water diplomacy you can look at the transboundary level and the local level because if you look at conflicts around water you realise very quickly that there are more conflicts at a local level than at the international level. And the intensity of conflicts is higher at the local level because people are more engaged and more willing to defend the water that they need.”

Seeking solutions

Examining the causes can help with finding feasible and appropriate solutions. Numerous technologies are being researched and implemented to address water scarcity. In the Middle East the use of desalination, the process of converting seawater into potable water, is on the rise. But it comes at a high price. For example, the Sorek desalination plant in Israel was built with a $400 million (USD) investment. It is estimated to serve 20% of municipal demand, but the process is still more expensive than almost any other way of supplying fresh water because of the quantities of electricity required.

Wastewater treatment technologies are another, generally more cost-effective solution. According to Dr. Peter van der Steen, Associate Professor of Environmental Technology at IHE Delft, Jordan is a good example of wastewater reuse. He estimates that 90 per cent of wastewater is collected and treated, the majority of which is then used for irrigation. “The water from Amman and also from cities in the north is all channeled into a dam which collects the treated wastewater and is mixed with natural stream water,” he says. “From there it’s transported to the Jordan valley, where it’s used for agriculture. The water quality is good enough to grow lettuce and tomatoes.” One of the challenges of wastewater reuse, however, is that it’s not culturally accepted everywhere. For religious reasons, treated wastewater may not be considered clean enough for human consumption.

Beyond technology, there are other ways to improve the efficiency of how existing water is used. Reducing consumption and waste, finding more efficient methods of irrigation and improving methods of water distribution could all have a positive impact on water scarcity.

Working together on a way forward

Whether the challenges be environmental, social or political, tackling the issues around water scarcity requires innovation and cooperation. As part of the DUPC programme, a partnership with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, IHE Delft is contributing to progress. The emphasis of this collaboration is on establishing local partnerships with organisations, public authorities, research institutes and universities, building on the existing capacity of each country.

One project aiming for direct impact is Water and Sanitation Solution to the refugees: two cases from Jordan and Palestine (WASAR). Being led by Dr. Maher Abu-Madi, Associate Professor, at Birzeit University in Palestine, it’s an example of partnership in action. The team is comprised of researchers from Birzeit University, Al-Balqa’ Applied University (Jordan), and IHE Delft working to improve living conditions for Palestinian refugees through better water supply and sanitation services.

For people in refugee camps, living conditions are harsh, especially in relation to health-water-sanitation. High population density coupled with inferior water supply and sanitation services and constitutes a serious threat to public health and the environment. The WASAR project aims to turn lessons learned into guidelines that will help governments, NGOs, and aid agencies in adopting low cost and integrated solutions for water supply and wastewater treatment in the refugee camps.

Another project with a less mainstream approach is The Open Water Diplomacy Lab. The project examines how politics, science and the media impact conflict and cooperation around the Nile in Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. According to Emanuele Fantini, project leader and Senior Researcher at IHE Delft, the aim is to bring journalists and researchers together, engaging in conversations. “There is a growing awareness of the importance of communication around the world, and there’s a need for training on science communication in the [Nile] region,” he says. Science can bring solutions, he explains, but it’s not always easy to convey the complexity of the message. And journalists often feel they don’t know how to get enough data or that they don’t understand it.

When you want to convey a scientific message, Fantini emphasised you should not forget the way people think about issues is shaped by the broader political context. But it’s not just politics shaping the way people think. There are other factors playing an important role like religion, history, movies and music. “What we are trying to do is to unpack this idea about the debate on sharing and distribution of water within the countries,” says Fantini. “By looking at these kinds of issues, we reflect on what could be a constructive way of reporting.”
Water scarcity is likely to be a challenge for the Middle East as long as the planet exists. Simply put, new sources of water must be created, while current water resources must be maximised. And though there is no one perfect solution, trying to understand the broader context of water issues and cooperating on solutions can be a way forward.

Water scarcity in the Middle East is a key theme of the DUPC programme and is jointly coordinated by Naser Almanaseer from Al-Balqa' Applied University in Jordan and IHE Delft staff. A complete overview of projects addressing water scarcity in the Middle East can be found here.

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