Water Scarcity in MENA and Diplomatic Problems
Water stresses can no longer be bottled up. The Middle East has been one of the first to experience a rude awakening to the reality of climate change. Staying afloat seems harder than ever. Without water, there is no humanity.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is home to "6% of the world's population and yet has access to a mere 1% of the world's fresh water supply" (Zafar, 2020). The naturally arid region, with low rainfall and high temperatures, has historically suffered with water scarcity. However, the combination of population growth and the mismanagement of natural resources through failed government responses, has exacerbated the impact of anthropogenic climate change in the region. This has placed an enormous strain on the already limited water supply, leaving a shocking "13/19 countries with water scarcity" (Barton, 2020). Water is crucial for life, but more importantly the economy – at the end of the day, money makes the world go around. Water is often overlooked and yet plays a fundamental role in our environment; economy, particularly the agriculture and petroleum sector; and in vital daily activities. More alarming still, is the role of water scarcity and climate change in catalysing war and the catastrophic economic effects, clearly illustrated in the Syrian Civil War. This disparity between supply and demand needs to be addressed now; the clock is ticking.
Impacts of climate change are distributed unevenly and the MENA will be disproportionately affected. This includes the increasing likelihood of a scorching climate and abundance of droughts. Temperatures are expected to rise by "7% across the region and by 2050, heatwaves will classify 20% of the year" (Lelieveld et al., 2016). This will critically affect health and levels of productivity on a regional scale, harming their competitiveness and assertiveness in the global economic system. Furthermore, a combination of shifting weather-rainfall patterns and the increased capacity of the air to hold more water fundamentally disrupts the input of precipitation into the region. Droughts will not only become 3 times more likely (Kelley et al., 2015), but the duration and severity will worsen too. Some geographers argue that MENA is reaping what they sowed, by contributing "9% of global CO2 emissions despite only home to 6% of the global population" (CO2 Emissions | Global Carbon Atlas, 2020).
However, one thing is clear, the impacts will be catastrophic, and action needs to be mobilised now.
Intensified water scarcity has numerous economic impacts across the region. The burden of demand-pull inflation on water is felt mainly by the "17% of the population under the poverty line" (Poverty Analysis, 2019). With restricted water access leaving some households to receive as little as "80 litres of water per person per day; equivalent to the water used in one washing machine load" (OHCHR, 2020). Not only are daily activities such as showering, cooking and washing affected, but this forces many to use water from potentially contaminated sources. This fundamentally worsens standards of living, health and inequality within and between countries such as UAE and Syria.
Despite agriculture compromising only "13% of the MENA's economy, 85% of freshwater usage is spent on agriculture" (Figueroa, 2020). This illustrates the unbalanced allocation of water and highlights the underfunded water irrigation infrastructure which is causing large wastage. This is further exacerbated via desertification and more frequent droughts, "resulting in 75% of farmers experiencing crop failures in 2012" (Plumer, 2020). With such minimal crop yield, farmers are unable to earn an income, causing structural unemployment across the agricultural sector. With reduced harvests, scarcity causes an inflation in food prices which again disproportionally affects the poor. Ultimately, this results in mass malnutrition and famine. Furthermore, with unemployment in villages from crop failures, mass rural to urban economic migration occurs, resulting in further stress on water resources.
With water being a key input into the economy, the agricultural is not the only sector impacted by water scarcity; the energy economy, too, has taken a huge punch to the gut. Water is essential in the petroleum distillation process and so, increasing water scarcity directly increases production costs. Higher oil prices will reduce MENA's competitiveness, devastating the region's economy. MENA is particularly vulnerable to this, due to their heavy reliance on oil as shown by "the 9.6M barrels distilled a day" (OPEC, 2020). Water shortages will inevitably bring the economy to the brink of collapse.
Role of the government
It is crucial to understand the role of the government – especially in Syria – in controlling water scarcity and the issues that follow, e.g., economic collapse, unemployment, famine, lower life expectancy, desertification, and conflict. Without effective government action and co-operation, the water crisis will never be corrected.
The failure of national government policies across the region, combined with limited regional co-operation, greatly exacerbates the issue. This can be seen through the lack of investment in agricultural infrastructure, such as irrigation methods; corruption and avoidance in parliament has inevitably led to the continued mismanagement of water intensifying water scarcity; and geopolitical tensions. With limited regional co-operation towards action in addressing water scarcity, states have started to obtain and secure water supplies at the expense of others, increasing the likelihood of conflict. Iraq's water supply has fallen by "80% due to a combination of both climate change and the construction of 22 dams along the Tigris & Euphrates river" to secure Turkey's water supply (Goering, 2020). The subsequent deepened water scarcity, along with salination and desertification, was responsible for damaging "25,000 hectares of arable land per annum" leading to a food crisis and diminishing agricultural export revenues (Water-Shortage Crisis Escalating in the Tigris-Euphrates Basin – Future Directions International, 2020). Hartog cements the relationship between geopolitical tension as a result of water scarcity and conflict within the region: "the failure to correct water scarcity and infrastructure will directly threaten Iraq's already fragile peace" (Water wars: early warning tool uses climate data to predict conflict hotspots, 2020).
The MENA region is naturally hot and dry, and therefore droughts and water scarcity has always been present. However, the failure of the government to respond to water scarcity has resulted in inflated water prices with economic and social repercussions; unemployment and malnutrition, to name a couple. Climate change will continue to highlight and worsen such issues. The governments of the region must take collective action. If we continue participating in this dangerous game, the geopolitical tensions within the region will inevitably lead to frequent conflict over water and inevitably, war. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Syrian civil war: climate change did not cause the war but through intensifying already present issues, climate change and water scarcity catalysed the civil war.
It is not all doom and gloom, I promise! Climate change has given the MENA countries another attempt at regionalism and co-operation between the nation states, enabling benefits to be felt both as a collective unit and on an individual scale as well. The solution could not be clearer: addressing water scarcity needs to be prioritised. Achieved through political transformation – increased transparency, enhanced discussion with funding towards water scarcity coupled with stricter regulation, and reduced corruption – along with simple yet effective modernisation of agricultural technology, particularly irrigation. Anthropogenic climate change has significantly disrupted the regional water cycle, intensifying the already present water scarcity and likelihood for conflict. The system's equilibrium can only be restored through a co-ordinated response in the MENA countries, requiring the norms of 'Arab nationalism' to be put on the back burner. As seen in Syria, immediate action is essential because as soon as conflict starts, solutions are near impossible to implement.
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