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Interview with Middle East water expert

DUBAI, 28 Dec 2005 (IRIN) - Water availability in the Middle East will continue to remain problematic and a potential source of conflict, according to water expert Dr Walid Saleh.

Dr Saleh has worked with the United Nations University/International Network on Water, Environment and Health in Abu Dhabi since 1996.

In excerpts from an interview with IRIN, he said while some efforts were ongoing to improve supplies, better water management was essential.

QUESTION: How severe is the problem of water scarcity in the Middle East?

ANSWER: It's widely recognised that the Middle East North Africa [MENA] region is by far the driest and most water-scarce in the world, and that this is increasingly affecting the economic and social development of most countries in the region. MENA has 5 percent of the world's population with less than 1 percent of the available freshwater resources.

Today, average per capita water availability in the region is about 1,200 cubic metres per year, while the world's average is close to 7,000.

The annual water availability in the region ranges from a high of about 1,800 cubic metres per person in Iran to less than 200 cubic metres per person in Jordan, the West Bank/Gaza and Yemen. By 2025, regional average water availability is projected to be just over 500 cubic meters per person per year.

While conventional water availability remains relatively constant, the demand is increasing sharply as a result of population growth, increases in household income and irrigation development. Population growth and rapid development are constantly placing increasing demands on the limited water resources.

It is estimated that the need for water supply in the region will increase from 170 billion cubic metres in 2000 to 228 billion cubic metres in 2025.

Q: Why is the Middle East's problem particularly serious?

A: Ninety percent of the region is classified as arid and hyper-arid. The region has low average rainfalls, high summer temperatures and high evaporation and transpiration rates. The limited surface water has to be shared between different countries. Groundwater, the main source of water in many countries, is also being extracted well beyond its renewal rate in some areas.

In some cases, governments are tapping into fossil groundwater resources and, where feasible, have initiated sea water desalination projects. But worsening water quality further reduces the availability of freshwater suitable for domestic and agricultural use and increases the cost of treatment and reuse.

Increased water contamination due to inadequately treated wastewater is also affecting public health - particularly of children - in rural areas, where access to clean water and sanitation is still lacking in most countries of the region.

What's more, the water resource situation is becoming bleaker due to droughts occurring with greater frequency and of longer duration. Droughts have affected almost every country in the region over the past decade.

Q: What are the major problems resulting from water scarcity?

A: Unless improved water management plans are put in place, a series of water-related issues will interact to cause major environmental problems in the future.

These issues include an escalating demand for water; the deterioration of water quality; inefficient methods of wastewater treatment and solid waste disposal; and escalating conflicts over shared surface and groundwater resources if agreements are not reached on equitable allocation.

Q: Which countries in the region are worst affected and why?

A: Jordan and Yemen are the worst affected by water scarcity due to their limited water resources, limited rainfall and lack of finances.

While water resources in Jordan have fluctuated around a stationary average, the country's population has continued to rise. A high rate of natural population growth, combined with massive influxes of refugees, has transformed the comfortable balance between population and water in the first half of this century into a chronic and worsening imbalance in the second half.

The situation has been exacerbated by the fact that Jordan shares most of its surface water resources with neighbouring countries, whose control has partially deprived Jordan of its fair share of water.

The most serious problem in Yemen, meanwhile, is the rapid depletion of groundwater resources. Almost all the important groundwater systems in Yemen are being over-exploited at an alarming rate.

The socio-economic consequences are dramatic and will make groundwater too expensive for use in agriculture in the future. The agricultural economy based on groundwater irrigation is doomed to collapse if water resources are not adequately controlled.

Q: What current means are being employed to address the issue?

A: Several countries have embarked on reforming their water sector and some others have made a good start. Many countries, in partnership with donors and financial institutions, are taking steps in water sector reforms. A shift in thinking and action in water management is slowly taking place in the region.

Q: What methods would be more effective in improving the situation?

A: Despite the efforts being made, the complexity of the water and environmental issue calls for a stronger commitment, especially with regard to legislative frameworks, resources allocated to ensure environmental protection, coordination between policies and strategies and the availability of a comprehensive environmental database.

Water will continue to be a major challenge in the MENA countries. In order to remedy this, governments need to make additional efforts to ensure greater cooperation among their ministries and agencies.

The impending crisis requires a new strategy to alleviate the impact of development activities on freshwater resources and to identify a means of reconciling competing demands for water.

Q: How big a factor is pollution in the shortage of water in the region?

A: The main challenge for the sustainability of water resources is the control of water pollution. Pollution of ground water with heavy metals, the loss of natural ecosystems, the depletion of ground water, pollution of water bodies, and the salinisation of soils are all factors contributing to water scarcity.

Q: What are the solutions to the problem of water pollution?

A: The treatment of industrial and domestic wastewater. Also, advocating organic farming and limiting the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to reduce crop, soil and water pollution.

Q: How committed are the region's governments to finding a permanent solution?

A: Generally, all governments in the region are committed to water reforms. However, the level of commitment from one country to another varies depending upon available solutions and finance.


The above article comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2004

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