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884 million of people worldwide do not have sufficient access to drinking-water and more than 2.6 million do not have access to simple sanitations. Each year about 2 million people die from the effects of unclean water, most of them are children.
The 28th July was the day when the United Nations declared the access to clean water as a human right. This anchoring in the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ has a strong symbolic meaning and therefore a wide influence on politics of various countries.
Water resources in the region of the Middle East are scarce by nature. Competition over consumption of shared resources is thus predictable. This essay will show that accessibility and safety of clean water are major concerns all over the world and especially in the region of the Middle East.
The first section deals with some geographic aspects as the environmental and climatic conditions. It shows how geographic aspects influence the availability of water and gives an overview about the allocation of water resources as the most limited natural resource in the West Asian region.
Secondly, the essay describes the economic and social impacts of the water crisis. It will describe how health risks may arise from consumption of unclean water with toxic elements. Water shortages also constrain the agricultural and industrial productions and therefore the water supply has effects on the economic sectors of the concerned countries as well.
The last part deals with options to manage the water problem. Possible solutions will be discussed and evaluated. It shows the forecast of water supply in some years and gives reasons why governments need to act quickly to avoid a deep crisis in already some years.
Geographic aspects of the region
2.1 Climatic conditions
The Middle East comprises two sub-regions: “the Arabian Peninsula (Bahrain, Kuwait Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen) and the Mashriq (Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, and West Bank and Gaza). It is surrounded by four marine water bodies: the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf).”
The Middle East is dominated by arid and semiarid areas, with major regions of extreme aridity. Those climes are characterized by definition as areas of high water shortages, whereat in arid regions high evaporation rates are common.
A steppe climate predominates in the northern part of the region, with hot summers and cold winters. The southern and central parts are characterized through extreme dryness with very hot summers and mild temperatures during winter. The Arabian Peninsula belongs to this part. In the whole region of the Middle East water is a very scarce resource. In most countries of the region desertification, water stress and droughts are common.
Summer temperatures do not vary significantly across the Middle East. Generally the temperature rises to around 30°C, but in the deserts (e.g. Saudi Desert) it can get even warmer with about 45°C.
In most parts of the region rainfall is very little and is depending on the season. Usually most of the precipitation occurs during winter in the Middle East. The southern part of the Arabian Peninsula constitutes an exception with summer rains. Regular annual rainfall varies from 0mm to 200mm. Just in the northwestern parts on the Mediterranean Sea the rates surpass 500mm and more.
2.2 Surface water resources
Surface water is exceptionally restricted in the Middle East due to high evaporation and generally low rainfall. But almost all of the accessible surface water is used and supplies together with springs around 35% of total water use in the region.
Most of Middle Eastern surface water stems from its three main surface sources: the Nil, Tigris-Euphrates and Jordan River systems. The countries of the Arabian Peninsula are potentially poorer in surface water resources than the Mashriq area. This region has a number of seasonal rivers and two shared rivers (the Tigris and Euphrates). In contrast to the Mashriq countries the Arabian Peninsula has only some irregular seasonal flow of wadis and only a limited number of springs.
In most of the regions surface water drains to the Red, Dead or Mediterranean Seas. The Jordan River presents the most important dewatering system in the region. It has it source in the Lebanon Mountains and flows into the Lake Tiberias. In very dry years an overexploitation of the water resources was observed with the cause that the sea water table reaches already a critical value. Fortunately wet year can adjust the balance. The available surface water in the Jordan Valley is almost emptied so that just small amounts of water arrive at the Dead Sea. This is another reason for damage “by lowering the Dead Sea level which has fallen down more than 20m in the last twenty years.”
2.3 Groundwater resources
The apparently most important source of water in the Middle East is wells and springs. More than 50 percent of water supply is provided by them for total water consumption. Groundwater is contained in water-bearing permeable rocks called aquifers from which water can be extracted via wells or springs. Through seasonal rainfall in semiarid areas aquifers are on and off recharged. The recharge quantities depend on relief and the climatic conditions. Naturally ten to thirty percent of the rainfall in the Middle East contributes to the recharge of groundwater. In the Libyan Desert or the Arabian Peninsula as examples for some arid areas fossil groundwater resources provide important additional amounts of water.
“Groundwater resources in West Asia in general and on the Arabian Peninsula in particular are in a critical condition because the volumes withdrawn far exceed natural recharge rates. Groundwater is being extracted much faster than its renewal rate, as a result water levels in the shallow aquifers are continually declining.”
Socio – Economic Impact of the Water Crisis
3.1 Importance of Fresh Water Supplies
The availability of water as a natural resource has always been a challenge to the civilization of the Middle East. Climatic conditions have influenced politics and activities in the region. The lack of water even restricts the economy, the development of the society and its wellbeing and also endangers political stability within the states of the areas and between neighbors. In other words: “Easy access to water is not an end to itself, for any society, but a means to other ends: health, industrial and agricultural production.”
The situation in the Middle East has exacerbated with the increasing demand for freshwater as a consequence of increasing population. The greatest consumer of water supply in the region is agriculture. Nevertheless, each human being needs about two to five liters of fresh water per day, only for pure surviving. And the personal demand on water has increased with the development of modern civilization. The smallest fraction constitutes the need of drinking water, much more is necessary for the personal hygiene, the cleaning of household and other application for privacy issues.
3.2 Water Quality and its Effects on Health
Poor water quality is not only a matter of taste – it has serious effects on human health. Water quality problems emerge from the discharge of industrial and human wastewater. Due to inappropriate agricultural practices aquifers are polluted by irrigation backflows. The lack of adequate sewage infrastructure is a difficulty which causes water pollution and health problems. Sewage is often discharged into open pools where water can easily reach groundwater and aquifer systems. Consequently, water supplied to households contains bacterial elements and therefore has to be chlorinated. Chlorination in that extent already exceeds the recommended limits and becomes another health issue. The salinity of water is another problem facing the region.
3.3 Impacts on Agriculture and Industry
About 85 percent of the region’s water is used by the agricultural sector. Through “non- water policies such as agricultural price supports that keep crops profitable or energy subsidies that make pumping water from aquifers cheap” the region’s water problems rest unchanged. Valuable water is still wasted by inadequate irrigation techniques or the growing of plants with high water demand as crops for example. The lack of water is a factor that blocks the basic economic development and affects the entire social and economic situation in the countries of the Middle East.
Water scarcity has also high influence on industrial development. Virtual water is necessary to produce the things we use each day. Although industrial water consumption varies one can say that for instance around 20 000 liters of water is used to produce one kilogram of coffee and about ten liter to produce one piece of paper. But “In areas where the resources are not enough to cover the necessary food production only a limited amount of water will be available for industrial production.” Lack of water is a major concern for industrial companies especially during summer. Energy systems are depending on water and decreased water quality aggravates the problems.
Water Management Options
4.1 Water management and Water Diplomacy
“Water availability is a major concern in most countries of the region. Some countries (e.g. Syria, Iraq, Lebanon) have reliable sources of surface water; the majority, however, depend either on groundwater or on desalination for their water supply, both of which enable them to use water in amounts far exceeding the estimated renewable fresh water in the country.”
The World Bank estimates that “the amount of water available per person in the arid region will halve by 2050”. The report of the institution mainly blames the increasing population and climate change as reason for the situation. But how can governments tackle this issue?
Two approaches can be applied to the management of the water crisis in the Middle East. On the one hand the technical approach which refers to water management. Water management has been defined as “the skill to bring water supply into line with demand at the lowest possible economic and ecological cost”. On the other hand the political approach that views the water conflict as a question of shared resources distribution. A reliable water management plan hast to rely on both approaches to find a way out the crisis.
4.2 Supply and Demand Side Management Options
“Water scarcity is a function of supply and demand. Demand is increasing at an alarming rate in some regions, through population growth and increasing per capita use. In many water-scarce countries, such as Jordan and Israel, there is no obvious and inexpensive way to increase water supply, and tensions among different water users are likely to result. In other countries improvements in water efficiencies offer reasonable solutions.”
Managing supply on water is one option to deal with the existing water problem. Unused rivers or groundwater are hardly to find in the region of the Middle East. Therefore developing existing resources is kind of impractical in this situation of water scarcity. Nevertheless there are possibilities as for example the catchments of winter flood water which can also add some amount to the water resources.
Another technique adding water resources is “water harvesting”. Using this approach house cisterns collect rainfall from the roofs and store it for domestic use. In earlier times these cistern were highly appreciated but has fallen into disuse nowadays because households were connected to the piped water network. Reintroducing cistern by law could increase quantities of available water for domestic use.
Wastewater recycling can be another source of gaining water. The advantage of this technique is that it is the least expensive source of water for agriculture. But the big drawback is that it requires a high investment. “Plans for expanding the use of this resource as a strategic alternative to meet future demands exist in many countries.”
Due to high salinity sea water has to be desalinated before using as potable water. Gaining potable water through desalination is already a great source of water supply for many countries as Saudi Arabia but it is constraint by its high cost.
In the 1980ies another idea emerged by a Saudi Arabian prince who had the idea to import an iceberg of Antarctica to cover the water needs of its country. Although this concept sounds promising it has not been implemented yet.
Demand on water is also important to manage. Decreasing demand can be obtained by establishing special incentives or tariffs that enforce water saving measures. Higher charges on water could enable the countries to modernize their water distribution systems and thus reduce high water losses.
As already mentioned the increasing population represents another problem. Handling the demographic changes governments should think about dealing with immigration control and family planning as a measure to manage demand.
All in all the natural water resources are already exhausted in a great extent, so that a carefully organized water management is absolutely essential.
In the Middle East “water is considered as a ‘strategic’ resource and tensions between countries in the region over it are high. There it has become a major political issue and the various peace agreements that have been proposed or signed in recent years all include water.” The author of this quote reveals the critical situation in the Middle East where water is a scarce resource. His statement clearly leads to one question: Is there likely to be a conflict over water? Historical experiences suggest that this is unlikely to occur. But there is no doubt that water scarcity will definitely be a problem in some areas in the future. Global warming is tending to aggravate the crisis because rainfall decreases while evaporation increases. In addition the growing population rates, industrialization and abuse of agrochemicals cause the urgent need for long-term plans to meet future water demands. The greatest improvements can be made in the agricultural sector, where most of the water resources are spend for irrigation purposes. In future times the use of desalination technology will also be greater and importing water will become normal.
“Yet water scarcity will be at the forefront of the international agenda for decades to come. In some cases, water may even be a contributing factor in international conflict.” Knowing this issue the UN declared the access to potable water as a human right. This declaration may also have raised public awareness of the subject and people in the Middle East may treat water as more valuable. Avoiding future conflicts alternative management strategies are required. These have to be well designed with detailed plans but especially in the Mashriq countries the “settlement of potential conflicts over shared water resources remains a fundamental and pressing issue.”