Effective water management crucial for future of Arab world

Dec 01, 2013 12:00 AM

There is a growing consensus throughout the Arab region that the Arab people are facing a new shift in their relationship with the natural world. If the last 70 years were the oil era, the coming years will certainly be characterized by how successfully we will benefit from one of the most important natural resources — water.


This week, the UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Arab States (RBAS) will issue a new report on the future of water in the Arab region titled “Water Governance in the Arab Region: Managing Scarcity and Securing the Future.” In brief, the report notes that the future will be determined by the ability of Arab countries to introduce radical enhancements to their water resources management. During the last decades, oil and gas wealth has helped achieve a high level of modernization, which included an unprecedented improvement in the Human Development Index (HDI) rankings in the Middle East. However, preserving the sustainability of the achieved advancement requires dealing with the issue of water as painstakingly and meticulously as we did with energy resources, or maybe even more. The Arab region may have the world’s largest oil reserves, but at the same time, it has the lowest levels of water supply, the report affirms.

The report also affirms that water challenges facing the Arab region are an integral part of a wide range of issues that are of crucial importance nowadays, such as the decrease in agricultural production, youth unemployment and even civil unrest in the region. The majority of the difficult dynamics facing the Arab region is related, one way or the other, to the water issue.

Although the water issue poses a real challenge in all communities around the world, it holds in the Arab region a decisive importance whose deep implications are felt by everyone. Statistics and figures show that seven out of the world’s 10 most water-stressed countries are in the Arab region. Globally, the average citizen has access to an amount of renewable potable water 16 times that available to the Arab citizen. In other words, the share of the Arab citizen does not exceed 6% of that of his global counterpart.

Furthermore, one-third of the water supply in Arab countries comes from rivers flowing from outside the region. In fact, the situation in the Arab region is bordering on a severe crisis. Some Arab countries have indeed run out of renewable potable water supplies, while other countries are expected to follow suit in the coming decades.

The water deficit, however, is only one part of the story. The report, drafted by a group of international and Arab water experts, explains that the tragedy lies in the way of dealing with this precious resource through approaches lacking future visions and proper planning. In many Arab countries, groundwater resources are exploited beyond their natural replenishment rates. In addition, the Arab region’s most water-stressed countries register the highest water consumption rates. As a result, water levels — already low due to the dry climate — are slumping given the decisions taken as individuals and communities in regard to water use.

Demographic factors exacerbate the difficulty of this challenge. The population in the Arab region has nearly tripled since 1970, climbing from 128 million to more than 360 million. According to the United Nations, the Arab region is expected to have 634 million inhabitants by 2050, nearly doubling its current population. Also by 2050, three out of four people in the Arab region will be living in urban areas, while nearly half of the population lives in rural areas today.

Moreover, climate change negatively affects the water sector, increasing the frequency of droughts and floods. The latter usually exceeds the absorptive capacity of national and local water networks. This is a matter that should be taken into consideration when planning and developing policies.

Today, addressing the challenge of water scarcity through comprehensive and integrated approaches has become a stressing and urgent issue. The Arab world is rife with scientists, officials, businessmen and civil society representatives striving to create and implement many solutions that are needed to defuse the crisis of water, and aiming at laying a strategic foundation for the use of water in a more just, effective and sustainable way. What we lack in the Arab region though is the effective mix of the political administration that puts the water issue at the top of its priority list and the institutional capacity that ensures a more efficient use of water resources.

The report affirms that the future of water in the Arab region relies on bringing about a radical change in water management, dubbed “water governance.” In other words, resolving the current water crisis requires reinforcing technical capacities and national institutions, and developing mechanisms to bolster integrity and accountability in the water public services. It also requires additional funding: a new report issued by the Development Islamic Bank (IDB) showed that Arab countries needed to invest $200 billion in infrastructure in the coming years to meet the growing demand on water.

To move forward in addressing the water crisis, it is important to adopt comprehensive approaches that deal with the relationship between water on the one hand and health, education, poverty reduction, environment protection, job opportunities, food security and energy provision on the other. This also requires more political attention and commitment, even amid the current tense political ambiance that is taking its toll on the region and imposing various challenges. Therefore, there must be an increasing cooperation between countries of the region and neighboring countries so as to share water according to the needs of every country in a way that achieves the best interest of all parties.

This is why the UNDP is operating in 18 Arab countries to make progress toward enhancing water management through its work in sharing knowledge, building capacity and linking stakeholders to necessary resources. This is being done to secure a better water future as part of UNDP’s broader activities, which aim at supporting sustainable human development throughout the Arab region. In many countries, UNDP programs have indeed helped yield tangible results. However, there is still an urgent need for hard work. In this regard, the RBAS is always ready to redouble the efforts.

Working toward improving water resources management cannot be separated from the challenges the Arab region currently faces in moving toward a democratic rule. The voice of the people is still heard throughout the Arab region, calling for justice, equality, increased accountability regarding the use of public resources and a bright future for their children, communities, countries and the region. The components and dynamics of this shift are various and closely correlated. If the Arab region wishes to achieve its current or prospective aspirations, improvement of water governance proves crucial. It is time for all concerned parties in the Arab region to prioritize water management. Channeling focus solely toward oil is no longer enough.

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