Home NewsAfrica Poor water management costs Middle East & North Africa $21bn per annum

Poor water management costs Middle East & North Africa $21bn per annum

The inadequate supply of water and sanitation is costing the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region around US$21 billion per year in economic losses, according to a new World Bank report.

Beyond Scarcity: Water Security in the Middle East and North Africa says that of all the challenges the Middle East and North Africa faces, the region is least prepared for water crises.The risks and opportunities relating to water security in the region have never been greater. Describing the Middle East and North Africa as “a global hotspot of unsustainable water use”, the report says that in some countries, more than half of current water withdrawals exceed sustainable limits. The region is using far more water than is available on a renewable basis.

Increasing consumption, paired with undervalued water, inadequate governance arrangements, and weak enforcement is leading to the depletion of water resources — especially groundwater — at an unprecedented rate. Unmanaged trade-offs in the water-energy-food nexus are also contributing to an overexploitation of water resources.

Improving the way in which water is stored and delivered to users of irrigation water could lead to an estimated $10 billion welfare gain annually, the report says.

If all the available surface water allocated to agriculture in the Middle East and North Africa could be stored and delivered efficiently to irrigated agriculture, agricultural production would increase by 1% to 8% and the variability in production of some commodities would decrease.

Measures to improve management and distribution of scarce water resources now vital for region’s growth and stability

The report is warning that measures to improve the management and distribution of scarce water resources are now vital for the region’s growth and stability.

However,the report draws on regional and global examples to show that limited water resources need not restrict the region’s future, but that a combination of technology, policy and management can convert scarcity into security.

Offering a comprehensive analysis of one of the region’s most significant challenges, the report examines the sustainability and efficiency of current water resources management, the challenges to maintain and extend access to affordable water services, and the growth of water-related risks and the adequacy of the actions taken to address them.

“If we think of water resources as a bank account, then the region is now seriously overdrawn,” said Hafez Ghanem, World Bank Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa.

“Drawing water from rivers and aquifers faster than they can be replenished is equivalent to living beyond one’s means, and it undermines a country’s natural capital, affecting longer-term wealth and resilience. But there are solutions, and they start with clear incentives to change the way water is managed.”

Over 60% of the MENA region’s population lives in areas with high or very high surface water stress, compared to a global average of about 35%. Yet despite water scarcity, the region has the world’s lowest water tariffs and, at 2%, the highest proportion of Gross Domestic Product spent on public water subsidies.

Low service tariffs discourage efficient use of water

The report suggests that low service tariffs discourage efficient use of water and that increasing water service fees would signal the true value of the dwindling resources and encourage conservation. It could also provide financing for water resources protection, infrastructure maintenance, and ensuring equitable and reliable service delivery.

“Along with better water management, there is room for increasing the supply through nonconventional methods such as desalination and recycling,” said Guangzhe Chen, Senior Director of the World Bank’s Global Water Practice. “Fortunately, many countries have demonstrated success in implementing innovative programs to reduce the amount of treated water that is lost through leakages before it reaches the customer, as well as producing nonconventional water. The cost-effectiveness of these technologies is also rapidly improving, changing the landscape of options for the next generation of water management.”

Potential for wastewater recycling has yet to be fully exploited in the region

The potential for recycling has yet to be fully exploited in the region. Currently, more than half of the wastewater collected in the MENA region is returned to the environment untreated, resulting in both health hazards and wasted water resources. But positive experiences in Jordan and Tunisia show that wastewater can be safely recycled for use in irrigation and managed aquifer recharge. These new technologies combined with new policies can chart a course toward water security, the report says – but it will need to be driven by a commitment at all levels of society: from women and young people at the household and community level, to governments ready to cooperate at the regional level.

Climate change poses another set of pressures – the report warns that the negative impacts of climate change on water availability call for urgent action to allocate and use water more wisely. Climate change is also bringing about more frequent and severe extreme climatic events. This will in turn increase drought and flood risks, which will harm the poor disproportionately.

Moving forward on critical agenda requires action at a number of levels

The complexities of the water-food-energy nexus, climate change, droughts and floods, water quality, transboundary water management, and the management of water in the context of fragility, conflict, and violence compound the challenge of water scarcity.

Meeting these challenges will depend as much on better governance of water resources as on more and better resource endowments, infrastructure investments, or technologies. 

Water governance issues — in particular, the failure to create incentives that signal extreme water scarcity and promote water conservation — are identified as the common denominator of water management in the Middle East and North Africa.

Moving forward on this critical agenda requires action at a number of levels, the report says, including:

Existing regional networks of public officials such as the programs and councils supported by the League of Arab States and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations are key to developing the political commitment for needed policy reforms and public and private investments.
At the technical level, governments need to work with the private sector and participate in regional exchanges among water professionals, such as the Arab Countries Water Utility Association, which provide opportunities to learn and share good practices on water solutions.

Click here to download the full report Beyond Scarcity: Water Security in the Middle East and North Africa 

Click here to download report overview in Arabic

Click here to download report overview in English

Click here to download report overview in French

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