Arab world faces growing water crisis

Posted: 24 February 2003

Northern Africa and Western Asia (Arab countries) are among the areas of the world facing the most serious water shortages, according to UN experts quoted by Jumana Al Tamimi, reporting from Amman for the Gulf News.

"Of course the situation will aggravate with time," Elias Salameh, a veteran water researcher and hydrology professor at the University of Jordan said. While available amounts of water are limited, the rate of population growth is high in the Arab countries, and a noticeable expansion in agricultural sector was recorded during the past few decades.

The population of the 22 Arab countries, according to UN reports, is expected to reach 359.95 millions by the year 2010 up from 281.22 millions in 2000, assuming that total fertility and life expectancy at birth remain constant. By 2020, it is expected to reach 459.23 millions.

Moreover, the "fragile situation" of water resources scarcity is aggravated by the fact that over 60 per cent of the area's resources originate from outside the region: mainly Turkey and Ethiopian Plateau, said experts. For instance, Iraq and Egypt receive, respectively, 66 per cent and 98 per cent of their waters from other countries.

As for other countries, the percentage is 34 per cent for Syria, 36 per cent for Jordan, 77 per cent for both Sudan and Mauritania. Israel receives 35 per cent of its water supply from aquifers recharged in West Bank and another 30 per cent from territories occupied in 1967, added Salameh in a study he conducted recently.

The same study showed a wide gap between the domestic daily water use per capita in different countries. It ranges from 85 litres in Jordan, and 125 litres in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt, to nearly 165-250 litres for every European and 500-600 litres for every Northern American.

Water deficit

The current consumption of water in the Gulf region, where many desalination projects were established, is lower than before. From nearly 1000 cubic meters of water a year in the 1950s, the individual share is estimated at present at about 325 cubic metres, said Walid Zeibari, head of the Programme of Deserts and Arid Lands Sciences at the Higher Studies faculty of the Arabian Gulf University in Manama.

He estimates the water deficit in the Arab Gulf countries at 16 billion cubic metres, and said this would have an impact on the quality of ground water. "There is a need to move toward an economic Arab integration, among all Arab countries, to accomplish food integration and reduce the burden on the scarce water resources in the Gulf region", Zeibari believes.

Nearly 65 per cent of Arab farming depends on rainfall. Food production in several countries in the region, however, has been affected by drought in the past few years. Experts and agronomists have been calling for better use of modern technology in farming and irrigation as one mean to help solve the problem.

Water council

He also called for more research aiming at improving the technologies for desalination projects at cheaper costs. "In some areas, desalination becomes necessary" said Salameh. However, he stressed that such a solution should take into consideration its economic feasibility, whether it is being used for domestic, agricultural or industrial purposes.

While there is a need to provide Arab individuals with essential water supplies to "live a healthy civilized" life, industry has a higher return than agriculture when it comes to water consumption, Salameh added. Moreover, shared water resources in the Middle East and Northern Africa should be allocated to the riparian states in a fair way through negotiations in order to avoid any future conflict.

Meanwhile, Secretary-General of the Arab League, Amr Mousa, said recently that the league is looking into the establishment of a higher council for water, to draw a comprehensive Arab vision to water issue, and provide members with the expertise and needed studies. The league established a centre for water studies in Damascus last year.

Source:Gulf News (Bahrain), 16 February, 2003