The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is the most water-scarce region in the world. Nearly two-thirds of the population there are living in areas that lack sufficient renewable water resources to sustain current levels of activity and growth. Weather patterns are becoming increasingly erratic, populations are growing, and transboundary tensions have recently abounded. When combined with these factors, constrained access to water is set to lead to greater instability in the region.
This is likely to take the form of: increased population movements within, across, and out of the region, including towards Europe; domestic social unrest; conflict between neighbouring countries; and an even more degraded natural environment. But it is not just a question of geography; it is a question of governance and politics too. Few governments in the region have put in place and implemented sound plans to mitigate the worsening impact of this water scarcity. Most actually continue to incentivise high levels of water usage through low water pricing. While some countries have taken positive steps towards addressing aspects of this problem, too many remain prone to adopting quick fixes.
There is nothing inevitable about this situation. To resolve it, states in the MENA region must pursue an integrated and holistic approach to managing both water demand and supply; they must create contingency plans that can meet future challenges. The story will not be the same for every country: the region is diverse and each government will have to find its own way forward. In doing so, they will need to take into account geographical, economic, and demographic differences when formulating water policies.
Apart from Israel and the oil-rich Gulf states, countries in the MENA region need to lobby for development funds to enhance the efficiency of their water infrastructure. The EU’s development funds can play a critical role in underpinning the water sector in these countries. They already do in some areas, as seen in EU-funded projects for water management in Jordan. Public-private partnerships can play a key role in this area, whether this is for technical expertise, such as the Arab Countries Utility Association, or for funds. The EU can also use its bilateral relations with MENA governments as leverage to encourage such development in these countries.
Water scarcity throughout the MENA region has led to multifaceted and interrelated problems that national governments have only had very partial success in dealing with. Worryingly, water scarcity and water insecurity have the potential to exacerbate these problems and to increase instability. Of course, from a European perspective, instability in the MENA region rarely remains confined there.
As a result, European governments, the European Union, and MENA countries should all now work to get ahead of this problem by agreeing and implementing thoughtful and effective policies to mitigate the detrimental impact of water scarcity. Understanding the dynamics within each country will be crucial, as will devising solutions that help governments stabilise their water resource management and thereby avert instability in the societies they seek to govern.
‚Testing the Water: How Water Scarcity Could Destabilise the Middle East and North Africa‘ – Policy Brief by Tareq Baconi – European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR.