Saturday, 30 April 2011

Water and development in the Middle East and North Africa


The issue of water in the Middle East and North Africa region is significant because of its extreme scarcity. This poses economic, political and military challenges exacerbated by inefficient use and overconsumption in some areas. Per capita water consumption in the Arab world is far below world averages, yet the growing population and income of the region will inevitably lead to higher demand. Supply restraints raise the issue of how to balance consumption between economic (mostly agricultural) and human use.


Water consumption in the region is dominated by agriculture with 88% of total water consumption, 8% domestic use and 4% industrial use[1].  Agricultural predominance is explained by the inexorable need to irrigate the small amount of cultivatable land intensively. The proportion of GDP gained from agriculture in the wealthy Gulf States is proportionately tiny, yet uneconomic, capital intensive methods of water extraction such as desalination are nonetheless continued for reasons of food security and self-sufficiency. This indicates that the Gulf states view water as a strategic asset. The region as a whole suffers from an inability to fulfil its domestic food needs, although this has to do with a variety of reasons, such the lack of available agricultural land, desertification, urbanization and high population growth.

 It is generally true that the oil exporting states do not possess adequate water resources for agriculture whilst the converse is true of the non-oil states. In the oil states, large scale agriculture is impossibly expensive and unsustainable and so water should be used for industrial development, which is viable in view of the finances available in the wealthy oil states. Desalination remains an option for these states for generating water for industrial use, but not in the poorer countries as it is too capital intensive.

desertification in Iraq
Irrigation has helped increase agricultural output tremendously in countries such as Egypt and Morocco and has added to economic growth and development through the exportation of cash crops. Dam construction projects have intensified for this purpose.

Water used for domestic or industrial use has a higher economic value than agricultural use, which means as the price of water increases, farmers will be less able to pay for water in comparison to those who buy it for commercial or domestic reasons. As an inevitable result of rapid population growth and increased demand, less and less water will be available for farmers and hence for agricultural use (without large subsidies). Given the importance of irrigation in MENA, the economic and social consequences could be disastrous. The countries that have a large number of people in agriculture (e.g. 75% in Yemen (Richards, Waterbury)), will face large scale unemployment as production falls, food prices increase due to continued demand and scarcity of produce, and the need to import foodstuffs will result. Hence the pursued policy of food self-sufficiency is illogical. It is expensive and unsustainable. In fact, the lack of water resources necessitates the dependence on importing food imports even though this policy could be seen as destabilizing from a military/ strategic perspective. However, the export earnings from industrial development will pay for the needed food imports if water usage is indeed directed to industry.

Saudi fields can exist in the desert only with intensive irrigation

If the wealthier states that can afford massive water subsidisation continue to supply it in such a way, they risk irreparable decline in water supplies due to excessive and inefficient exploitation. Saudi Arabia has subsidised domestic wheat production up to 1000% above world market prices (Richards, Waterbury). These policies, spurred by lobby groups, prevent greater efficiency.

A greater emphasis on efficient water management technologies and regional cooperation is vital in sustaining agriculture in parts of the region that have adequate water resources. Large state involvement in agriculture has resulted in policies ignorant of international trade. The ideal development strategy for most of the region is non-agricultural development with the diversion of water resources to commercial and domestic use as this represents a higher return of investment than agriculture.


[1] Sectoral water use in MENA, 2000- source- FAO online, 2005, in A Political Economy of the Middle East, Richards and Waterbury

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