Poverty, repression, decades of injustice and mass unemployment have all been cited as causes of the political convulsions in the Middle East and north Africa these last weeks. But a less recognized reason for the turmoil in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen, Jordan and now Iran has been rising food prices, directly linked to a growing regional water crisis.
The diverse states that make up the Arab world, stretching from the Atlantic coast to Iraq, have some of the world’s greatest oil reserves, but this disguises the fact that they mostly occupy hyper-arid places. Rivers are few, water demand is increasing as populations grow, underground reserves are shrinking and nearly all depend on imported staple foods that are now trading at record prices.
For a region that expects populations to double to more than 600 million within 40 years, and climate change to raise temperatures, these structural problems are political dynamite and already destabilizing countries.
In recent reports they separately warn that the riots and demonstrations after the three major food-price rises of the last five years in North Africa and the Middle East might be just a taste of greater troubles to come unless countries start to share their natural resources, and reduce their profligate energy and water use.
“In the future the main geopolitical resource in the Middle East will be water rather than oil. The situation is alarming,”
“Unless there is a technological breakthrough or a miraculous discovery, the Middle East will not escape a serious [water] shortage,”
Autocratic, oil-rich rulers have been able to control their people by controlling nature and have kept the lid on political turmoil at home by heavily subsidizing “virtual” or “embedded” water in the form of staple grains imported from the US and elsewhere.
But, now the price of food hits record levels and the demand for water and energy soars.
Water is a fundamental part of the social contract in Middle Eastern countries. Along with subsidized food and fuel, governments provide cheap or even free water to ensure the consent of the governed. But when subsidized commodities have been cut, instability has often followed.
Water’s own role in prompting unrest has so far been relatively limited, but that is unlikely to hold. Future water scarcity will be much more permanent than past shortages, and the techniques governments have used in responding to past disturbances may not be enough.
The problem will only get worse. Arab countries depend on other countries for their food security – they’re as sensitive to floods in Australia and big freezes in Canada as on the yield in Algeria or Egypt itself.
In the Arab countries’ food imports cost $30bn. Then, rising prices caused waves of rioting and left the unemployed and impoverished millions in Arab countries even more exposed. The paradox of Arab economies is that they depend on oil prices, while increased energy prices make their food more expensive.
The region’s most food- and water-insecure country is Yemen, the poorest in the Arab world, which gets less than 200 cubic meters of water per person a year – well below the international water poverty line of 1,000m3 – and must import 80-90% o f its food.
“Water shortages have increased political tensions between groups. We have a very big problem,”
Two internal conflicts are already raging in Yemen and the capital has been rocked by riots this month. “There is an obvious link between high food prices and unrest [in the region]. Drought, population and water scarcity are aggravating factors. The pressure on natural resources is increasing, and the pressure on the land is great.
Other Arab countries are not faring much better. Jordan, which expects water demand to double in the next 20 years, faces massive shortages because of population growth and a longstanding water dispute with Israel. Its per capita water supply will fall from the current 200m3 per person to 91m3 within 30 years, says the World Bank. Palestine and Israel fiercely dispute fragile water resources.
Algeria and Tunisia, along with the seven emirates in the UAE, Morocco, Iraq and Iran are all in “water deficit” – using far more than they receive in rain or snowfall. Only Turkey has a major surplus, but it is unwilling to share. Abu Dhabi, the world’s most profligate water user, says it will run out of its ancient fossil water reserves in 25 years; Libya has spent $20bn pumping water from deep wells in the desert but has no idea how long the resource will last; Saudi Arabian water demand has increased by 500% in 25 years and is expected to double again in 20 years – as power demand surges as much as 10% a year.
Meanwhile, says the UN, farm land is becoming unusable as irrigation schemes and intensive farming lead to water logging and desalination.
Some oil-rich Arab countries are belatedly beginning to address the problem. Having drained underground aquifers to grow inappropriate crops for many years, they have turned en masse to desalination. More than 1,500 massive plants now line the Gulf and the Mediterranean and provide much of North Africa and the Middle East’s drinking water – and two-thirds of the world’s desalinated water.
The plants take salty or brackish water, and either warm it, vaporize it and separate off the salts and impurities, or pass it through filters. It’s an expensive, energy intensive and greenhouse gas-emitting way to get fresh water, but costs.
Solar-powered plants are being built for small communities but no way has been found to avoid the concentrated salt stream that the plants produce. The impurities extracted from the water mostly end up back in the sea or in aquifers and kill marine life.
Only now are countries starting to see the downsides of desalination. Salt levels in the Arabian Gulf are eight times higher in some places than they should be, as power-hungry water plants return salt to an already saline sea. The higher salinity of the seawater intake reduces the plant’s efficiency and, in some areas, marine life is suffering badly, affecting coral and fishing catches.
Desalination has allowed dictators and elites to continue to waste water on a massive scale. Nearly 20% of all Saudi oil money in the 1970s and 80s was used to provide clean water to grow wheat and other crops in regions that would not naturally be able to do so. Parks, golf courses, roadside verges and household gardens are all still watered with expensively produced clean drinking water. The energy – and therefore water – needed to keep barely insulated buildings super-cold in Gulf States is astonishing.
Water awareness is definitely, member of an eco club at the large Indian school in Abu Dhabi. “People were amazed when we showed them how much they use in a day. We stacked up 550 one-liter bottles and they refused to believe it. Now schools are competing with each other to reduce water wastage.”
More than 2,000 mosques in Abu Dhabi have been fitted with water-saving devices, which are saving millions of gallons of water a year when people wash before prayer. Other UAE states are expected to follow, but not drinking water!
Wars can and will erupt because of water. Using groundwater for agriculture is risky. If it doesn’t harm us it will harm other generations. Jenny WaterMicronWorld
http://www.watermicronworld.com .