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Source: Small Island Developing States

Water is at the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Securing water for people, productivity and the environment is a necessary condition for sustainable growth, ending poverty and hunger, and fully achieving the SDGs. Despite progress, billions of people still lack access to safe water, sanitation and hand-washing facilities.

Today, many countries are at risk of running out of water, especially in the Arab region – the most water scarce region in the world – with water availability now cited as one of the greatest risks to business continuity and growth. UN-Water warns that progress on clean water and sanitation (SDG 6) remains uneven and that we are not on track to reach the 2030 Agenda. Failing to achieve water security will jeopardize the whole of the SDGs.

Diminishing Water Resources: A Risk to Growth and Security

Arab countries cover 10% of the world’s area and are home to 6% of the world’s population but receive less than 2% of the world’s renewable water supply.[1] Two-thirds of the Arab region’s water supplies (163.2 BCM) originate outside the region.[2] Consequently, Arab nations need to import more than half of their food; they are among the greatest importers of cereal in the world.

Water resources in the Arab region are being depleted by rapid population growth, the accompanying demands of urbanization, and irrigated agriculture. Moreover, climate change, bringing greater climate variability and more frequent and severe droughts and floods, will exacerbate the already precarious situation created by chronic water scarcity.

The Arab region is considered one of the world’s poorest regions in terms of water availability and globally, is most likely to suffer from water crises. Over the next 20 years, freshwater per resources per capita are estimated to keep declining steadily unless a fundamental shift occurs.

Yet, the Arab world is undertaking the least planning and preparation to combat this coming crisis, especially those countries where limited financial capacity couples with limited water resources. Political turmoil and civil wars that prevail in some countries of the region exacerbate the situation. This in turn fuels political unrest, demonstrations and protests at the national level due to lack of water, or at the regional level due to tensions resulting from shared water basins across the Middle East. The Tigris and Euphrates basin (Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran) and the Nile River basin between Egypt and the rest of the riparian’s countries of the blue and white river basins of the Nile, as well as the Jordan River basin (Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine)[3] are salient examples.

Development priorities must be defined and appropriate investment in water resources determined if Arab countries are to have a chance at “leapfroging” their water institutions and infrastructure so as to avoid the mistakes of the past.

Because the dominant threats to water security vary geographically and over time, water security is not a static goal. It is a dynamic process affected by changing climate, political set up, economic growth and resource degradation. Moreover, as social, cultural, political, economic priorities and values evolve, water security will evolve with them. Thus, development priorities must be defined and appropriate investment in water resources determined if Arab countries are to have a chance at “leapfroging” their water institutions and infrastructure so as to avoid the mistakes of the past. Such objectives are achievable subject to additional focus on sound economic and financial principles. But it must be recognized that the Arab region will have to do more with less, given its complex water challenges, population growth, influx of refugees, food security demands, over-consumption of water resources and the impacts of climate change.

Going forward, we need a new paradigm to achieve water security – one that depends on greater than ever cooperation at all levels and integrated partnerships focused on a sustainable future for the region.

To achieve the water SDG, a paradigm shift in the Arab region means:

  • Changing the way we manage water today (from a linear system of use and disposal to a circular economy model; from infrastructure delivery to more resilient infrastructure; to value water; and to diversify water resources);
  • Changing the way we finance water (engaging the private sector, water pricing, reducing the high level of non-revenue water in the region);
  • Changing the way we collaborate at different levels (leaving no one behind, shifting from silos of water management to a system thinking approach – the nexus approach -, regional cooperation and agreements); and
  • Changing the way we design our policies (regulations and laws regarding water resilience, water security at national and regional levels, inclusive polices).

There are strong synergistic linkages between water, growth and security policies in the Arab region. If countries adopt water policies that support growth – and several countries have already done it – rather than ones that risk jeopardizing it, the resulting growth could, in turn, eventually resolve the region’s water needs. However, this requires a new and radical approach to water resources management.

Yet, financing water development and delivery is not a panacea. To be effective, it must be complemented by tangible policy improvements on the ground. Arab countries will need to strengthen the capacity of their institutions for better management and development of water resources.

Both Arab countries and the international community need to comprehend water as a political, economic and security issue in the region. They need to understand that water plays a profound role in the future growth and development of the region and take more concerted actions now.

All of the above and much more will be discussed and deliberated on during the 5 November 2019 session titled, ‘Water Security for Sustainable Development in the Arab Region,’ to be held during the 3rd Arab Sustainable Development Week organized by the League of Arab States.


[1] The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN(2013). AQUASTAT database; Rome, Italy.

[2] Third State of the Water Report for the Arab Region

[3] The Political and Economic Consequences of Groundwater Depletion in the Arab Region, by Dr. Hazim El-Naser; July 2019.

Prof. Jamal Saghir, former Director and Chair at World Bank Group’s Boards for Energy, Transport and Water

Eng. Hassan Aboelnga, Advisory Board Member of Middle East Water Forum (MEWF)

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