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June 11, 2019

Renewable freshwater resource constraints constitute one of the most critical challenges to sustainable development and human security in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Climate change is expected to exacerbate this challenge. Regional climate models have indicated that the MENA region is exposed to significant adverse climate change impacts due to rising temperatures and associated changes in rainfall patterns and freshwater runoff in a region that is already considerably warm and largely arid most of the year. What is increasingly at stake is no longer just the available quantity of renewable freshwater, but also the security of its supply.

The MENA region’s renewable freshwater resource base is naturally quite limited. This is first and foremost due to the fact that the geographic area where the region is located is the most arid on Earth.

Most of North Africa is subject to the harshest desert climate on the planet—that of the African Sahara. In West Asia, the desert environment also predominates and dictates weather patterns in most of the Arabian Peninsula. Rainfall occurs in minor areas within these two sub-regions, mostly along narrow coastal shorelines. Brief seasonal snow cover is confined to few major mountain chains in Western North Africa and in Northern West Asia.

Hydrologically, the region is altogether endowed with as little as 1 percent of global renewable freshwater resources. Much of the renewable freshwater supply that the region relies on for its people’s survival and wellbeing, and for its development, is available to the region as surface freshwater flow that emerges in countries outside the region.

Notwithstanding this hydrological constraint, the region is home to a much larger percentage of the world’s population—about 6 percent, a situation that has created a challenging imbalance between the region’s naturally endowed freshwater resource base and the people who depend on it. About a century ago, the region had a much smaller population and therefore did not experience freshwater scarcity. Relatively speaking, freshwater was in fact plentiful.

Now this is no longer the case. Population growth has put increasing pressures on the natural renewable freshwater resource base while supplies have remained more or less constant. This has resulted in an increasingly diminishing per capita share of renewable freshwater resources in the region; it is now about one-tenth of the global average. When the average per capita share of freshwater falls below 1000 m3 a country is deemed to be freshwater-scarce and experiences recurrent shortages.  The average per capita share of renewable freshwater resources in the region is around 600 m3.

Rising pressures on the Middle East and North Africa’s limited renewable freshwater resource base have resulted in not only the steady decrease in the per capita share of this resource’s supply, but also in its increasingly reduced reliability. Rapid population growth, along with intensified agricultural and industrial developments and urbanization generally pursued without sufficient regulations for sustainable natural resource use in place have harmed the region’s freshwater resource base.

Unregulated developments have led to the overexploitation of freshwater resources, including the depletion of non-renewable ones. They have also resulted in the degradation of renewable and non-renewable freshwater resources. When the quality of freshwater resources deteriorates, they may no longer be fit for drinking or for the cultivation of food crops. The degradation of freshwater quality leads to a reduction in its supply quantity for important consumption purposes, deepening shortages and stress. 

Climate change is expected to exacerbate the rising scarcity of renewable freshwater resources in most sub-regions of the Middle East and North Africa. Increased temperatures have been projected throughout the region, leading to rising evaporation rates that reduce surface and ground water runoff, and freshwater availability generally. A reduction in rainfall to varying degrees has also been projected for most areas of the region, with minor exceptions.

Yet the freshwater dilemma that the Middle East and North Africa is facing is not merely about the growing scarcity of this vital natural resource: it is also about its security. The latter is broader than and inclusive of the former. “Scarcity” is concerned with the quantity of the renewable freshwater resource that is available—and of blue water specifically, which is the renewable supply of freshwater contained in surface and groundwater basins. “Security,” however, is concerned with this quantity, as well as with quality and stability, and how the risks and opportunities associated with its supply are managed. Renewable freshwater security is therefore of paramount importance for sustainable development and human security.

In the Middle East and North Africa, renewable freshwater security is a concern because the region naturally experiences the highest variability globally in rainfall occurrence—inter-annually, seasonally, and spatially. The variability and unpredictability of rainfall patterns in the region, including of its quantity and timing, and the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events including droughts and flash floods, are projected to increase due to climate change. The security of the Middle East and North Africa’s renewable freshwater is at risk.

Climate change’s impacts on freshwater security in the Middle East and North Africa are expected across the region. They will directly affect MENA countries that depend largely or entirely on internally generated renewable freshwater. Countries that rely on externally generated renewable freshwater resources have to take into consideration climate change impacts not only within their territories but also in external territories where such resources emerge. This creates an additional layer of complexity and uncertainty, involving extra-territorial factors, for policy-makers in these MENA countries to contend with.

Freshwater scarcity and security have to be properly managed in the MENA region. Non-climate stressors that are responsible for increasing freshwater stress and insecurity have to be mitigated. Alleviating some of the pressures that freshwater systems in the region are subject to is crucial to restore the quality of many of the region’s resources, and to arrest the fast rate by which resource scarcity is rising.

Safeguarding freshwater security is potentially a more critical challenge. Countries may be able to sustain stable development trajectories despite a certain level of freshwater scarcity as long as the security of the resource is maintained. Resource reliability is crucial for formulating and implementing long-term, efficient, and effective sustainable development policies. Ensuring renewable freshwater security in the Middle East and North Africa will be critical for maintaining human security and sociopolitical stability in the region.

Amal A. Kandeel is an advisor to international, government, and private organizations, and a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute.