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  • Writer's pictureMahima Shanker

Middle East and Water Stress

Water Stress in the Middle East - Precarious situation

Less than 3 decades back, Lake Urmia was the Middle East's largest lake, with its banks a thriving centre of tourism, hotels, restaurants, etc., boosting the local economy. Since the 1990s, however, Lake Urmia has more than halved in size -- from 5,400 square kilometres to about 2,500 square kilometres -- according to the Department of Environmental Protection of West Azerbaijan, the Iranian province where the lake is located. Boats that used to ferry tourists to and from little islets in the lake are grounded now because the lake is fast becoming a salt plain! [1]

Homes even in the capital city of Jordan, Amman, receive water once or twice a week. Jordan had much less rain in 2020 than it did the previous year, putting more than a quarter of water resources at risk and halving drinking water sources.

Iraq’s Sirwan river has been drying up. People have started leaving nearby villages because of this. The river provided livelihood to the villagers in the nearby village of Imami Zamen. Fishermen have had to stop fishing, most of the village's 70 resident families have left, the village primary school has been closed [2]. Moreover, the summer of 2021 was recorded as the second-driest season in 40 years.

This year, Syria also faced its worst drought in 70 years [3] - more severe than the one in the period 2006-2009, which, many believed, was one of the factors responsible for the civil war in the country!

Farmers in Yemen have increased the depth of the water wells on which they live by approximately 50 meters during the past 12-13 years, but the amount of water accessed has decreased by two-thirds. [4]

These are just a few instances that highlight the severity of the water crisis in many parts of the Middle East -- water is just running out.

The MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region is reportedly the most water scarce region in the world; over 65% of the most water-stressed countries in the world are in the Middle East and North Africa. The region houses 6% of the world's population but comprises of only about 1.4% of the world's water resources. The average per capita share of total renewable freshwater in the region was about 600 m3 in 2016, as compared to the global average of about 6000 m3. [5] As many as 13 countries in the MENA region were benchmarked for "absolute water scarcity" in 2014, as per data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN [6].

Why is the Middle East more vulnerable to water stress?

There is a multitude of causes for the current water situation in the region. Population increase, climate changes, mismanagement of water resources and, to some extent, lack of cooperation on water sharing among neighbouring countries are some of these causal factors.

The latter part of the 20th century witnessed a rapid increase in population growth in the MENA region. The region added about 280 million people in 50 years as the population increased from around 100 million in 1950 to around 380 million in 2000, at a rate of 3.8% - higher than any region in the world.

Increase in Global Population 1950-2000

Apart from a steep population rise, the Middle East is supposed to be warming two times the global average. Countries like Kuwait, Oman, Iran, the UAE and Saudi Arabia recorded temperatures greater than 50 degrees Celsius in the summer of 2021. It is believed that the region will be hit the hardest by climate change [7]. As it is, only 2% of the Arab region is covered by wetlands, nearly 95% of which are vulnerable to climate change [8].

The chief source of water in more than 50% of the middle Eastern countries is groundwater, but it has been depleted at an alarming pace. The region has the highest per capita rates of freshwater extraction in the world (more than 800 m3/year) and currently exploits over 75% of its renewable water resources. To cite an example, the water table in the UAE has dropped about one meter per year over about the last 30 years. At this rate, the UAE is projected to deplete its natural freshwater resources in about 50 years [9].

Studies show that between 2002 and 2009, the region lost enough water from groundwater, soil, snowmelt and reservoirs to fill the entire Dead Sea — about 144 cubic kilometers, the majority of which was from aggressive extraction of groundwater. Worryingly, despite the region being arid, some of the more prosperous countries of the region have among the highest per capita water consumption rates in the world. Bahrain uses 220% of its available renewable water reserves, compared to 943% in Saudi Arabia and 2,465% in Kuwait. [10]

According to a new UNICEF report entitled ‘Running Dry: the impact of water scarcity on children in the Middle East and North Africa’ [11], another key factor contributing to this unprecedented water stress situation is rising agricultural demand and the expansion of irrigated land using aquifers. While globally, agriculture accounts for an average of 70% of water use, it uses nearly 85% water in this region. The overuse of water through heavy irrigation in agriculture is affecting the countries' already scarce water resources.

While most causal factors for water scarcity are common to the region as a whole, some are country specific. Unilateral initiatives by governments have impacted the supply of water available to their neighbours. Construction of dams and reservoirs by some countries restricts water flow in neighbouring downstream countries, leading to conflict.

None of the Middle Eastern Countries enjoys water surplus except perhaps Turkey [12]. In view of the region’s crisis with respect to current water resources, the Middle East needs more than one solution to ensure a water positive situation in the future.

Impact of water stress

Lack of fresh water by itself is the most deleterious effect, considering the value of water as a life-giving resource. Apart from this, water scarcity also implies food insecurity. This, in turn, is likely to increase or even begin conflicts in the region.

Water scarcity directly reduces agricultural output, since water is a key input for farming, therefore the agriculture sector is the worst hit. In addition, there are spillover effects from agriculture to the rest of the economy. Many industries in manufacturing and services sectors i.e., electricity companies, petrochemical facilities, hotels and restaurants, to name a few, will not be able to operate at full capacity with less access to water [13].

On the social and health front, 90% of the children in the MENA region live in areas of high or extremely high-water stress; this is very likely to affect not only their health, nutrition and mental development but also their future livelihoods. According to a World Bank Study, “the region has the greatest expected economic losses from climate-related water scarcity, estimated at between 6 and 14% of GDP by 2050 [14].”

What lies ahead

As per current predictions, per capita water availability in the MENA region is set to fall by 50% by 2050, and the region may be affected by more frequent and severe droughts and floods, caused by climate changes.

While governments and policy makers in the region are taking urgent steps to remedy the problem, the question is whether current measures are adequate to counter the looming threat of severe water stress over the region, and what else can be done? In order to guarantee a sustainable water positive future, it is important to first ensure peace, cooperation and inclusiveness. Governments, researchers, think-tanks, businesses and individuals need to come together and work out the solutions. There will not be a ‘one size fits all’ solution, but clearly, the use of innovation, technology and ‘out of the box’ thinking would be required to reverse the current crisis. Multiple innovative, sustainable and scalable solutions to the water problem are required to secure a better future for the MENA region.


[1] Source: [2] Source: [3] Source: [4] Source: [5] Source: [6] Source: [7] Source: [8] Source: [9] Source: [10] Source: [11] Source: [12] Source: 267262498_Middle_East_Chronic_Water_Problems_Solution_Prospects [13] Source: [14] Source:

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