Investing in Water around MENA

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There is a looming water crisis that is beginning to manifest itself in very serious ways across North Africa and the Middle East (MENA) regions. The general public seems oblivious to the threat and national ministries often seem to be looking the other way, but the data is there now:

According to NASA, we are experiencing the worst drought in 900 years as mentioned by HRH Princess Sumaya of Jordan at the opening of the first AMWAJ (“waves” in Arabic) forum in Amman on 28-29 November 2016 about advancing sustainability and entrepreneurship around MENA.

Latakia, western Syria coast on the Mediterranean. Source: Adel Samara

Latakia, western Syria coast on the Mediterranean. Source: Adel Samara

MENA is the most water-scarce region in the world. Water availability per person per year has declined sharply over the last 50 years and is today a tenth of the average global water availability. In Jordan, water availability declined from 3,600 cubic meters per person/year in 1946 to 128 cubic meters today.

This is a drastic and worrying decline and yet many people in the MENA remain unaware of the water crisis – of its causes, its long-term impacts and why certain viable solutions are not being implemented. What are some of the solutions?

Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs)

On a big scale (starting with at least $100 million), “PPPs are on the rise and come in many forms”, stated Koussai Quteishat, former Jordanian Minister of Water, at the 2nd UfM Regional Conference on Governance & Financing for the Mediterranean Water Sector in Tunis on 5-6 December.

“PPPs are complex structures that only work in specific circumstances”, claimed Marcos Martinez from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) who gave two PPP success stories: As-Samra Wastewater Treatment Plant in Jordan and the New Cairo Project in Egypt.

Incidentally, at the AMWAJ forum in Amman, Revolve led a field trip to As-Samra WWTP in partnership with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) to show young professional journalists, researchers and policy-makers how the ‘complex structure’ works.

As-Samra channels the ‘grey’ (sewage) water from Amman towards Zarqa. The natural gradient gravity flow turns a turbine that generates electricity to power the Jordanian capital. The waste water is then treated and sent on for irrigation purposes in the agricultural fields around Zarqa.

The complexity arises in the financial meanders of the PPP: As-Samra consists of a grant from the U.S. government, a loan from a consortium of banks via the Arab Bank, and the As-Samra Project Company that is paid for its services by the Jordan Ministry of Water for the provision of ‘clean’ water.

The Water-Migration-Employment Nexus

It’s all about clean water; about how to provide it to more and more people; and who provides it at what cost and price. Just as the “final objective of PPPs is creating positive social impact”, as mentioned by Mr. Quteishat, so the reform of the water sector is meant to benefit society at large.

According to Bruno Denis from the European Investment Bank (EIB), 1.5 billion euros was invested in southern Mediterranean countries in 2015, 10% of which went to water and sanitation projects. And there remains a colossal need to revamp aging infrastructure that suffer from disrepair and leakages.

Irrevocably, this will mean involving the private sector more. “This does not mean the privatization of water services,” stated Marie-Alexandra Veilleux-Laborie of EBRD Tunisia. It means helping authorities provide better basic water services, such as potable water to its citizens at an affordable price.

Investing in water is a massive long-term endeavor. It involves upgrading thousands of kilometers of tubes and pipes, but ultimately it means improving environmental standards, and in the process, it has the tremendous potential of creating many jobs (see the 2016 UN Water for Jobs report).

Coined by the Global Water Partnership (GWP) – Mediterranean, we are seeing the emergence of a new nexus that revolves around addressing the pressing need to provide water security to southern Mediterranean populations to slow migration flows to Europe by creating more employment.

The Mediterranean water challenge is a Malthusian trap: with rampant population growth and depleting resources, demand is now outpacing supply; plus political instability, neighboring conflicts, general job malaise, prolonged droughts across MENA… and everyone seems to be waiting for the rain.


Writer: Stuart Reigeluth is founder of Revolve Media and vice-president of Revolve Water. This article first appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt) and Gulf News (UAE), and as the editorial of the Winter issue #22 of Revolve Magazine.

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