The Middle East's delicate balance of trade: exporting oil and importing water
So how has a region that water experts say ceased to have enough water for its strategic needs in1970 proved so resilient to water scarcity?
“Trade is the first means of being resilient; it’s the process that enables an economy to be resilient. The ability to trade effectively depends on the strength and diversity of the economy,” Anthony Allan from King’s College London and the School of Oriental and African Studies told IRIN.
That does not literally mean that countries import water directly; it is rather that because so much water is used, not for drinking, but for agriculture (around 90 percent), by importing food staples like wheat you are in effect importing water, something Allan calls “virtual water”.
As a result, the region’s growing population imports around a third of its food - a figure that shoots up in the Gulf states where arable land is negligible.
But while such resilience may “miraculously” solve extreme water scarcity and make life that exists today possible in the Middle East, it can create its own vulnerabilities; countries need economies that can generate enough foreign currency to pay for imports.
That may be easy in oil-rich countries with small populations like the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, but it is far more difficult in places like Egypt, which struggles to find the reserves to pay for wheat imports for its 84 million citizens in a context of declining crude oil exports and a slump in tourism.
Such trade “resilience” is also largely unaffordable in a place like Yemen - the region’s poorest country, which has 25 million people in an extremely water scarce (and hence food scarce) environment.
Each Yemeni only has access to about 140 cubic metres of water annually and the capital, Sana’a, is on track to be the first in the world without a viable water supply.
An uncertain future
While trade, an abundance of historically cheap food on international markets, and for some oil - sold at high prices - have combined to create an unexpected resilience in the face of water scarcity, such lessons may not travel well in the developing world.
Trade may have reduced dependency on local water supplies, but it has shifted dependency to international markets and exposed people to fluctuating world prices.
It has also hidden the gravity of the water scarcity situation in the Middle East and made it easier to neglect the development of other solutions to a problem that shows no sign of going away.
A recent study of NASA satellite data published last month found that parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran along the Tigris and Euphrates river basins had lost 144 cubic kilometres of water from 2003 to 2009 - roughly equivalent to the volume of the Dead Sea.
An analysis of the data published in the Water Resources Research journal attributes about 60 percent of the loss to the pumping of groundwater from underground reservoirs - reserves people fall back on when rivers dry up.
Underground reserves can only last so long, and importing ever increasing amounts of food to feed a growing population is not an option for poorer countries.
Resilience and efficiency
Nevertheless, there are other lessons in water scarcity resilience from the Middle East - either measures that have been shown to build resilience, or that water experts have come to understand would improve the strength of the system to further shocks if they were broadly implemented.
Some of these solutions are not new.
For a start, though the region may be drying, it has been dry for a long time.
“Water scarcity is not new to the region,” Hamed Assaf, a water resource management specialist at the American University of Sharjah in the UAE, told IRIN. “It has been the norm for thousands of years and people have adapted their survival strategies to changes in rainfall and temperature,” he told IRIN.
With scientist predicting an increase in extreme weather events, adaptability has become increasingly important. It is also true that there remains a degree of unpredictability in the system, particularly in Egypt where it is not clear if future rainfall will increase or decrease.
Resilience is about being strong in the face of whatever happens. And in any situation, strong water systems make the most of what they have - including through treating and reusing waste water like at the Al Gabal Asfar water treatment plant in Egypt.
One old technique is rainwater harvesting. “In Jordan there are indications of early water harvesting structures believed to have been constructed over 9,000 years ago,” Rida Al-Adamat, director of the Water, Environment and Arid Regions Research Centre at Jordan’s al-Bayt University, told IRIN.
Jordan harvests 400-420 million cubic metres of water annually, according to Ministry of Water and Irrigation spokesperson Omar Salameh.
“We have 10 major dams with a total capacity of 325 million cubic metres, in addition to hundreds of sand dams in different locations to develop local communities and recharge groundwater.”
Water harvesting can be done at the household level especially in areas that get enough rainfall during the rainy season. “If your area gets 500mm of rain per year, you can collect enough water for household use,” said Assaf.
“In Lebanon, people used to build ponds to collect water during winter and use it later on for irrigation and breeding animals,” said Assaf.
“The main idea of water harvesting is to increase green water or soil moisture… Farmers in the region used to build small sand barriers on slopes to prevent the water from going down and thus recharge the area. Then they used to plant in the areas behind the barriers,” he added.
A key aspect of efficient water use is data collection - important for sound water management at the country level.
“As the saying goes: what you cannot measure you cannot manage,” Heba Yaken, water and sanitation operation analyst at the World Bank office in Cairo, told IRIN. “It is important to know how much you are consuming in order to manage it in a good way.”
Jordan, which some say has one of the most monitored water scarcity situations in the world, has gained widespread recognition for its data collection.
“Jordan’s data is relatively well organized, especially when it comes to agriculture. The volume of water consumption is precisely known in every area. They have installed measuring tools in every area so they know what kinds of crops are being cultivated and the amount of water they consume,” Hiba Hariri from the Arab Water Council told IRIN.
Data-sharing in the region is limited, according to Yaken. “Countries are not as transparent as they should be,” she said.
A whole range of solutions are being piloted and recommended in the Middle East.
In Egypt, the Arab Spring has encouraged farmers to become more outspoken in demanding their water rights, says Yaken from the World Bank.
Farmers have come together in “water users’ associations” to help manage supplies and become more aware of water scarcity issues.
“Farmers are now responsible for the `mesqas’ [canals]”, Yaken told IRIN.
“People at the tail of the `mesqa’ don’t get as much water as the people upstream. People are receiving much more training so that they can manage those disputes between the different farmers, and different demands,” she said.
Elsewhere, capacity building is being carried out by the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ), which is running a climate change adaptation scheme designed to help Arab states climate-proof water systems.
While trade provides substitutes for much agricultural water use, the remaining 10 percent of water needs are increasingly being met by desalination, half of which globally is carried out in the Middle East.
Recent years have seen a large increase in desalination, clearly useful in a region without any landlocked countries, but it is an energy-intensive phenomenon almost entirely powered by fossil fuel power, which raises other environmental concerns.
Saudi Arabia uses 1.5 million barrels of oil a day to power its desalination plants, although it is looking to develop solar-powered plants.
Solar is a largely unexplored option for desalination, but also for increasing the efficiency of water systems, through technologies like solar-powered water pumps.
But although desalination may become an increasingly affordable, and renewable, solution, water experts say it can only be used as part of wider reforms.
A more resilient water system will also need adaptions on the demand side, including more efficient consumption of water, as well as cooperation between countries on the sustainable use of current resources.
“The problem is that we have short-term plans that change with the change of personnel or ministers,” said Hariri from the Arab Water Council.
As climate change and population growth increase pressure on water systems, the MENA region will need to be increasingly efficient in its use of water - and may have lessons for other parts of the world.