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Arab water: reform or perish

Arab water: reform or perish

 By Najib Saab, Issue 143, February 2010.

The Arab world is facing thirst and hunger unless rapid and effective measures are taken to address the water scarcity dilemma. Even if all available water resources were utilized, Arab countries are today under the water stress level, and they will face by 2025 the stage of "acute water scarcity" which is less than 500 cubic meter per capita per year. In many countries this is already below 100 cubic meters, which can be only described as ‘below thirst level'.

Is it acceptable that groundwater should be exploited until the very last drop, often in futile projects under the pretext of greening the desert? Is it logical that the level of water consumption per capita in some Arab countries that are most water scarce, is among the highest in the world? Is it sensible that more than 80% of available water supplies in the Arab region are used in irrigation, often in practices that waste more than half the used amount? The outcome of such unsustainable policies is the loss of major elements of water security as far as those countries are concerned, while failing to achieve the promised ‘food security'.

One of the telling examples of the existing conflicts between rapid economic development and scarce water resources is the boom in the creation of golf courses in certain desert countries in the region. Actually most of the existing and planned golf courses are in Egypt and the Gulf countries, where water resources are already dwindling even according to the humble regional standards. The expansion of water consuming projects like grass golf courses cannot continue without proper monitoring, especially with the meager investments in developing water desalination technologies in a sustainable manner. In most cases, golf courses in the region are irrigated with desalinated sea water, treated domestic wastewater, or by a mix of both sources. The requirements of each golf course in the region are estimated at 1.3 million cubic meters annually, an amount that is sufficient for covering the water consumption of 15,000 people.

The use of such huge quantities of water for luxury projects in a desert raises strong doubts about the sustainability of development and how these projects result in takeover of the water needs of local communities and future generations. This is a luxury that is definitely unsustainable, as priority for the allocation of available water resources, including what come from wastewater treatment plants, should be given to human use and food production.

The situation that we face is crystal clear: the portion of water available for an Arab individual is shrinking due to population increase, while water resources themselves are dwindling due to pollution and climate change. The main rivers in the Arab world, the Nile, Euphrates and Tigris originate from sources outside the region. The major groundwater basins are shared as well. Above all, the traditional water resources are already known and almost completely exploited.

Demand for water is surpassing the supply and the situation will become more severe in the future. The adoption of programmes for increasing water efficiency and reducing pollution is a necessary step but it is not enough. The demand will remain, in most Arab countries, more than what traditional sources supply, even if they were all used with utmost efficiency. What is required urgently is developing technologies to desalinate water that are appropriate to Arab environment, and building  local capacity for the production of the equipment needed. This will also include the introduction of solar energy to a large extent in the desalination of sea water and saline or brackish groundwater.

It is essential to implement programmes for the treatment and reuse of domestic and industrial wastewater, so that no drop is wasted. Let's take Japan for an example, where treated water is reused 10 times before being disposed off. Arab countries with rainfall should start immediately to collect rainwater either in mountainous lakes or even on the roofs of houses and buildings. In the context of food production efficiency, Arab countries should calculate production based on the yield provided by each cubic meter of water instead of each hectare of land. Such issues and others are to be discussed in the third annual report of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) that is currently being drafted by a group of prominent Arab researchers, to be presented during the forthcoming AFED General Assembly in October 2010 in Beirut.

There is no solution apart from adopting integrated and more efficient management systems for scarce water resources before we are struck by thirst and hunger.

Arab Environment in 10 Years
ARAB ENVIRONMENT IN 10 YEARS crowns a decade of the series of annual reports produced by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) on the state of Arab environment. It tracks and analyzes changes focusing on policies and governance, including level of response and engagement in international environmental treaties. It also highlights developments in six selected priority areas, namely water, energy, air, food, green economy and environmental scientific research.
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