June 22, 2016

Making the Desert Bloom? Water and Food in the Middle East and North Africa

By Emma Herman, BA Candidate at the University of Chicago and Intern with the Council’s Global Food and Agriculture Program

As a substance that naturally flows independently of national borders, water—one of our most basic needs—is uniquely positioned to serve as both a catalyst for cooperation and a source of conflict between states. Particularly in the highly-charged environment of the Middle East, where borders are simultaneously enduring and ephemeral, questions of water security are of fundamental strategic importance. Rankings from the World Resources Institute predict that thirty-three countries will face extreme water stress by 2040; of those thirty-three countries, fourteen are located in the Middle East. Thanks to the natural environment—characterized by arid conditions, low rainfall and high rates of evaporation—these countries are among the most water-scarce worldwide. Such factors compound the region’s vulnerability to the effects of climate change and the pressures exerted by population increases, a vulnerability exacerbated by the impacts of war and conflict on infrastructure and development. 

Source: German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources

In 2010, the United Nations declared access to clean water and sanitation as a human right, integral to the realization of all other human rights. Lack of access to water resources can contribute to food insecurity and economic instability, directly and indirectly fueling social and political unrest. Water and food—two assets necessary for human survival—have already been militarized by the Islamic State. Ongoing conflict in Syria has triggered massive population displacement, the consequences of which have placed enormous pressure on food supplies and water and sanitation infrastructure in neighboring states like Jordan and Lebanon. Last but not least, the interconnected, globalized nature of world affairs means that the broader effects of water scarcity in the Middle East are not limited to the region. In its 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, the US Department of Defense declared the effects of climate change (increasing water scarcity among them) to be “threat multipliers:” factors that contribute to creating social, political, and environmental, and economic conditions in which violence and terrorism can thrive.

The Role of Agriculture in Water Shortages 

Regional violence and climate change are not, however, the only causes of the Middle East’s water shortages: agricultural irrigation accounts for a whopping 85 percent of regional water withdrawals. Poor water management practices in the agricultural sector are heavily responsible for the unsustainable depletion of the region’s freshwater resources. Estimated water losses are high—up to 60 percent—thanks to inefficiencies in irrigation and domestic water infrastructure. These high levels of usage do not leave much room for flexibility or error in addressing any sudden disasters, natural or otherwise.

In turn, the availability of water acts as a limiting factor on agricultural production, creating an increasing gap between food production and consumption. The limited amount of arable land and the scarcity of water create a situation in which food shortages are a constant concern, leading many countries to rely heavily on food imports. The region’s high level of dependence on food imports increases its level of food insecurity, leaving countries vulnerable to supply chain interruptions and global food crises—record-high world food prices have been cited as an “aggravating factor” behind the 2011 uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Last but not least, rapidly increasing urbanization has not only fueled greater demand for water and threatened to overwhelm existing urban infrastructure, but also contributed to the increasing sprawl of urban areas and the corresponding loss of arable land.

Internally, water supply systems in many MENA states remains highly centralized, with little to no private-sector participation, and inefficiently managed. Revenues from water often do not reflect its real economic cost, due to a combination of government subsidies, non-paying customers, and low tariffs. In addition to political barriers to private sector involvement in water supply, these cost recovery problems provide an economic disincentive to potential investors. Though raising the price of water could help recuperate costs and would more directly communicate its true value, such a step would disproportionately impact the poorest and most vulnerable populations, limiting their access to fresh water and disrupting their economic livelihoods. In return for a decrease in water subsidies, governments could provide subsidies to farmers for the construction of more efficient irrigation systems while working to improve the efficiency of water supply systems to minimize water loss in transport. Governments should also embark on educational programs and initiatives to increase awareness of water scarcity and to teach citizens more efficient water use practices.

Regional Cooperation for Enhanced Water Management

Water scarcity is an important limiting factor on agricultural production and the institution of better water management practices to enable growth will be acutely needed as the region’s population continues to increase. From 1965 to 1997, the amount of land under irrigation in the MENA region nearly doubled; the population did double between 1970 and 2001. Rather than focus on developing policies to promote the conservation of resources, states have historically relied upon large-scale projects, such as desalination plants and dams, aimed at increasing water supplies. The Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE use approximately 60 percent of the world’s desalinated water. Desalination is a valuable tool but cannot be the sole means of addressing the pressures of water scarcity. Exclusive emphasis on the development of these technologies does not address the issue of demand management, especially in the agricultural sector.

Instead, regional collaboration and cooperation will be key to sustaining water resources and improving food security for all. In 2014, the annual FAO Regional Conference for the Near East focused heavily on the Regional Water Security Initiative, which aims to promote the sharing of successful policies and strategies between member countries. The Nile Basin Initiative, launched in 1999, is a regional partnership of the ten Nile riparian countries. Because so much of the region relies on transboundary resources, such partnerships for reform will be necessary if the region’s states are to tackle their collective water challenges. Most currently existing agreements on water sharing and use are bilateral or trilateral; no comprehensive agreement between all riparian states exists. Political conflict and social instability diminish the political will available to form such agreements, undermining the resilience of all affected populations. Such agreements, however, are a necessary tool for the effective management of shared resources.

Sustainable water governance for the future requires technical capability and infrastructure investment, but also transnational and cross-sector partnerships. Responsible states in the Middle East must realize that their mutual interests in sustainable water resource management can ultimately only be fully addressed through such alliances. States that fail to act cooperatively face not only external threats from their neighbors—disputes over water rights and sharing were among the causes of the Six-Day War in 1967—but also internal threats to their security, from thirsty and starving populations. Technological solutions can only do so much: robust policies and programs must be instituted, particularly in the agricultural sector, to lower usage and improve distribution efficiency. The development of integrated multilateral partnerships will need to be a central component of confronting these challenges.  


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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