Exhaustion of water darkens Arab region’s future

Al Hidd water plant in Bahrain,
the most water-stressed country
in the world. (Photo: Abe World!/
Flickr/Creative Commons)

The bad usage of water is depleting this scarce and vital resource in the Arab region, preventing the development of the countries and sinking the people’s hope of a better life, according to the Social Watch Report 2012, that will be launched this week in New York.

“Of all natural resources, water is the most strategic, and its mismanagement threatens the world’s population. Energy efficiency, water security, and food security are closely intertwined and cannot be viewed separately. This issue is pressing in the arid Arab Region, where most countries’ water supply depends on expensive energy-intensive processes,” warns the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) in one chapter of the Social Watch Report, titled “Sustainable development and a renewed Role for the State in the Arab region”.

“The global economy already suffers from production and consumption patterns that unsustainably exploit natural resources, leading to serious environmental and ecological problems and exacerbating inequalities among the peoples of the world,” adds the ANND’s study. “Such plunder remains dominant today, and problems such as climate change, soil degradation, and water scarcity emerged as global threats to biodiversity, food sovereignty and security, the livelihoods of various communities around the world, and overall right to development.”

Arab governments must “re-evaluate existing policies on water usage and energy generation” and “ensure that exhaustible resources are used in a just and sustainable manner,” concludes the ANND.

Next, some abstracts of national contributions to the report related with the exhaustion of water in the Arab world:


Bahrain: A degraded future

Any attempt to achieve sustainable development in Bahrain is doomed because the country’s water supply is running out. Although water is a non-renewable resource in this island kingdom, not only is it is being consumed in a most irresponsible way but also the limited supply is being polluted by industrial waste from the production of oil […]. These problems are aggravating inequities and social unrest, but the Government has no adequate response. […]

In a ranking of countries by the British risk analysis firm Maplecroft in 2011, Bahrain ranks as the most water-stressed country in the world, followed by Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Libya. This means it is most at risk of exhausting its water supply completely in the short or medium term.

The country’s biggest problem – and also the main obstacle to sustainable development – is the shortage of water. According to the International Water Poverty Index, a county is in a water scarcity situation if its supply is less than 1,000 cubic metres per capita per year; in 2007 Bahrain’s supply was only 470.3 cubic metres per person. […].

Rehan Ahmed – an environment expert from the Public Commission for the
Protection of Marine Resources, the Environment and Fauna – admitted that average water consumption per person was around 400 litres per day, which is far above the world average of 256 litres; Japan, for example, consumes only 60 litres per person per day. He noted that the water consumption rate is rising by 8–10% per year […].

In 1998 the amount of water from the main aquifer used just for crop irrigation came to an estimated 204 million cubic metres, but environmentalists consider it is unsafe to extract more than 100 million cubic metres per year because Bahrain’s average annual rainfall is less than 80 millimetres. [National report by Social Watch Bahrain.]


Iraq: The Tigris and the Euphrates are open sewers

After decades of war, neglect and mismanagement, Iraq’s social and environmental situation is critical. […] After the First Gulf War, the Saddam Hussein administration started a series of works aimed to dry the Mesopotamian Marshes region, a wetland zone located in the southern areas of the territory which provided habitat for peoples such as the Marsh Arabs […]. The draining of the marshes, in fact, started in the 1950s and continued to the 1970s to reclaim land for agriculture and oil exploration, but, during Hussein’s presidency, the works were expanded and accelerated, mostly as retaliation for the 1991 failed Shia uprising […].

The drying operations consisted mainly in the opening of three canals (the Third River, the Glory Canal and the Prosperity Canal, as they were called) built as a manner of redirecting waters from the Tigris to the Euphrates. By the late nineties, the Central Marshes became completely desiccated; in 2000 the United Nations Environment Programme estimated that 90% of the marshlands had disappeared.

The environmental damage was regarded as catastrophic. Bird migration areas were lost, and several plants and animals species endemic to the region became extinct. The salinity of the soil increased, resulting in loss of dairy production, fishing and rice cultivation, and over 19,000 km2 of the region became a desert. The majority of the Marsh Arabs were displaced to nearby areas, and an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 fled to refugee camps in Iran. After the 2003 US invasion, embankments and drainage works were broken open, and the marshes began to reflood, but the recovery – and the corresponding regrowth of natural marsh vegetation – was slow, and the most severely damaged sections of the marshes have yet to show any signs of regeneration. […]

The country presently faces severe soil, water and air pollution from toxic substances released by the destruction of military hardware and factories, according to the UNEP. (Also, the Tigris and the Euphrates – which provide most of the irrigation and drinking water) are now essentially open sewers plagued by industrial and hospital waste, fertilizer run-off from farming, and oil spills. [National report by Masarat for Culture & Media Development.]


Morocco: A thirsty future

Although Morocco is rich in biodiversity, this is now threatened, in large part because water resources are poorly managed; 35% of piped water is lost, and water stocks are being polluted with industrial and urban waste. Cultivable land is also compromised because of water shortages and soil erosion. These factors are seriously aggravating rural poverty […].

Moroccans today are facing a whole array of problems stemming from the exhaustion of resources […]. There is a serious imbalance between the increasing demand for fresh water and dwindling stocks of this resource, and to make matters worse forests and soils have been over-exploited, which means land that could have been used for agriculture is being lost. […]

The loss of cultivable land due to water shortages and soil erosion has a direct impact on rural poverty. Three of the 4 million people who are below the poverty line live in rural areas. Some 75% of the rural population depends on agriculture for a living, but the majority only has access to small, non-irrigated plots of land which have limited crop potential. […]

Morocco’s renewable water resources are limited for technical and economic reasons, and the amount that can actually be used has been estimated at not
more than 22,000 million m3/year, or a little over 730 m3 per inhabitant per year. […] There are cycles of severe drought that have serious consequences, both for the economy as a whole and especially for agriculture, the worst effect being a fall in the production of cereals. […]

Water resources are not being used or managed in a rational way, which has made for even greater scarcity. For example, the potable water pipes in cities are in such bad repair that 35% of the water in the system is simply lost. […] The pollution […] is exceeding the water system’s capacity to purify and renew itself. Water resources have already been severely damaged by repeated droughts and by modifications to natural water systems. In fact, water stocks are being consumed faster than they are being replaced, but demand from agriculture, industry and the population is increasing. A serious crisis is expected by 2020. [National report by Espace Associatif]


Palestine: Israeli occupation aggravates water scarcity

The disastrous conditions of the water supply facilities – mostly due to laws enforced during the 1967 Israeli occupation – poses an alarming threat to Palestinians’ well being. […]

Agriculture accounts for 70% of Palestine’s total usage of water, followed by domestic (27%) and industrial uses. According to a World Bank 2009 report, the residential water supply for the West Bank was estimated at about 50 liters per capita per day. In 2009, 60% of the population of the Gaza Strip lacked access to continuous water supply. In the West Bank, only 13,000 m3 (out of 85,000 m3) of wastewater was treated in 2009, while in the same year the amount was 65,000 m3 (out of 110,000 m3), in the Gaza Strip.

The same year, Amnesty International reported that up to 200,000 Palestinians in rural communities have no access at all to running water, and the Israeli army prevents them from even collecting rain water, while Israeli settlers have irrigated farms and swimming pools. In fact, the 450,000 settlers counted in this report use as much water as the total population of Palestine. In order to cope with water shortages and lack of infrastructure, many Palestinians have to purchase water of dubious quality from mobile water tankers, at very high prices.

In 1993, the World Bank […] described the provision of public services in the occupied territories as highly inadequate, since water, solid waste and wastewater facilities were practically non-existent. […]

When Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, it declared all water resources to be property of the State of Israel, and since then several military orders have minimized water development in Palestine, fixing pumping quotas, prohibiting rehabilitation of wells or drilling new ones without a permit and confiscating or even destroying all Palestinian pumping stations on the Jordan River. Israel, at the same time, increased its exploitation of the water resources of the West Bank, drilling 38 wells. As a result of this, by 1993 Palestinians had access only to 20% of the water of the aquifer system underlying the West Bank. [National report by the Palestine NGOs Network]


Yemen: Huge investments required to save water resources

Yemen’s population is being impoverished, political corruption is rife, agriculture and food production is feeble, the economy is overdependent on oil, water resources are scarce, and all this has been aggravated by a general state of insecurity brought on by anti-Government demonstrations and the threat of total collapse. […]

Only 3% of the land is fertile enough for agriculture and this sector is fraught with difficulties like the serious depletion of water resources […]. Agriculture’s low growth rate, only 3%, is due not only to its small size but also to the exhaustion of water resources and delays in implementing a plan to reduce the amount of land devoted to khat [a stimulant that is very popular in East Africa and the south of the Arabian Peninsula]. At the moment some 25% of agricultural land is sown with this crop and it consumes 30% of water in this sector, and the target is to reduce its share to 10% of the land and water.

The National Water Strategy administration has calculated that to meet the country’s needs the water sector will require investment of around 4,430 million dollars over the next ten years. The Government has tried to raise these funds from donors like the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, but this body has made a series of conditions including improving administrative capability to process the aid, implementing good practices, and that water reserves must be managed in a rational way. […]

The water sector is in serious difficulties caused by lack of finance, and if it is to reach its targets it will need an enormous injection of funds. The main problems are that fresh water is in short supply, pollution levels are rising, there are floods, the dry season is getting longer, drought is affecting more areas, there is increasing competition for water from all sectors of society, access to potable water and sewage services is limited, and the institutions that organize and administer this resource are feeble and fragmented. [National report by the Human Rights Information & Training Center]

More information:
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