Water in the Middle East and North Africa is a crisis waiting to happen. Four insights into the challenges and solutions to counter water-related challenges across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) with a leading global water specialist.endif; ?>
1. Are the region’s water resources being managed sustainably and efficiently?
The MENA region is a global hotspot of unsustainable water use. Using water unsustainably is equivalent to living beyond one’s means – withdrawing money from a bank account faster than it is being deposited. While each country has its specific challenges, groundwater is generally overused in the absence of alternative sources, or as a buffer against drought and it may not be apparent beforehand when this crucial resource might fail. Water quality in the region is degraded by unsustainable water consumption, brine discharge from desalination, pollution and untreated wastewater. About 55% of the wastewater collected across MENA is returned to the environment untreated, resulting in both health hazards and wasted water resources. And the region has some of the world’s highest losses of freshwater resources in its food supply chain on a per capita basis. A major part of the MENA water challenge lies in managing demands and putting the right incentives in place to save water. This management is essential to improving water services delivery and water resources productivity. The Middle East and North Africa is the most water-scarce region in the world.
2. Are water services being delivered reliably and affordably?
All countries should try to design affordable, equitable and sustainable water service fees and subsidy policies, which could help strengthen the social compact between governments and citizens. Improving the quality of water services will require improving data collection and monitoring. For example, monitoring the targets of the new SDGs (in particular SDG 6 on water) provides a tremendous opportunity to build a more evidence-based and comprehensive picture of the status of water services. In most MENA countries, average service costs exceed average service charges, indicating a lack of cost recovery which is essential to ensuring the long-term sustainability of water services provision. The region relies heavily on government subsidies to compensate the difference and usually wealthier areas benefit more from subsidized water than poorer neighborhoods. Overall, MENA has the highest proportion of GDP (2%) spent on public water subsidies and the world’s lowest water tariffs; this combination leads to excessive use of extremely scarce water resources. The MENA region has made major improvements and is among the best performers globally in terms of increasing access to improved drinking water supply and sanitation since 1990, yet in many areas conflict and violence have reversed this hard-won progress.
3. Are water-related risks being appropriately recognized and mitigated?
Growing water stress is the largest challenge with which MENA countries and citizens will be confronted. The tandem of climate change and population/economy growth will only increase the water stress of MENA cities and societies. Climate change increases the risk of floods and droughts that will most likely harm the poor disproportionately. Climate change-related sea-level rise also leads to the salination of deltas and aquifers in coastal areas causing disturbances in agricultural yields and drinking water. The subsequent inter-relations between the water-food-energy sectors pose difficult trade-offs that can result in unintended consequences. The League of Arab States has responded by recognizing, in its Strategic Framework for Sustainable Development (2014), the importance of multi-sectoral nexus approaches to solving complex water resource management problems. Geopolitically, since most surface and groundwater resources are shared and transboundary, there are many risks related to water security that require concerted action and constructive relationships among countries in the region to be mitigated. Fragility and conflict in the region thwart water security and water security in turn can compound systemic state fragility. Some 60% of surface water resources in the region are transboundary and all countries share at least one aquifer.
4. What are the opportunities and solutions for water security?
Some of the most notable water management innovations in the world are being implemented in the MENA region. Innovations include highly successful efforts to increase water use efficiency. Smart metering, for example, is being deployed to improve accuracy in billing, evaluate consumption and increase users’ awareness of their own consumption. Mobile-based systems also ensure improved customer service by allowing for real-time monitoring of water infrastructure. Mobile water payment options also can improve collection efficiency and increase utilities’ revenues, providing financial strength to extend services to the underserved. Public-private partnerships have also been implemented in the MENA region to tackle the operational constraints of water utilities. As-Samra wastewater treatment plant in Jordan is the largest and most successful in the region (for more details see 2016 Water Around the Mediterranean report). And innovations in Integrated Urban Water Management can contribute to improving the quality, reliability and sustainability of urban and agricultural water services. New approaches will encourage cities to create strong synergies within or outside the water basin – for example, through the development of wastewater recycling for agriculture or shared desalination within industries (for more details see the Water Scarce Cities initiative: www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2017/05/15/water-scarce-cities-initiative). The most important lesson from global and regional experience is that technology, policy and institutional management must evolve together to achieve water security.