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How to win the next Mideast war – over water

The Middle East and North Africa – the world’s most water-scarce region – will soon face a severe water crisis. That could create an even greater challenge than today's upheavals. More attention must be paid to the problem. Conservation, communication, education, and technology can help.

By Russell SticklorOp-ed contributor / September 30, 2013

A Palestinian man returns an Israeli soldier's canteen to him after taking a drink at an Israeli checkpoint outside the West Bank village of Khirbat al-Misbah Jan. 7, 2001. Op-ed contributor Russell Sticklor writes: 'While it may be too late to avoid the region’s looming water crunch outright, nations can soften the landing....The cost of [tackling the issue] will be high – but not as high as the cost of inaction or indifference.'

Jim Hollander/Reuters/File

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A few decades from now, nations in the Middle East and North Africa could face potentially catastrophic water shortages that could pose an even greater challenge than the upheavals gripping Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and elsewhere.

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Unfortunately, the water crisis over the horizon doesn’t receive much serious attention from policymakers, the media, and the public because so many other crises plague the troubled region right now.

Contrary to popular belief, the most important liquid in the Middle East and North Africa isn’t the vast supply of oil that brings in billions of dollars every year. It’s water, and the scarcity of this vital resource could leave some nations unable to meet the needs of rapidly growing populations in less than 40 years.

 The Middle East and North Africa are the world’s most water-scarce region. The desert climate and lack of rainfall make people almost entirely dependent on groundwater and the surface waters of the Nile, Jordan, Tigris, and Euphrates Rivers to meet their daily needs for drinking, growing crops, and commercial and industrial projects.

Historically, the region’s population has been small enough to get by with a very limited water supply. But since 1950, a sustained population boom has pushed the number of people in the region to about 300 million – nearly as large as the water-rich United States.

A quick look at population figures from a few key countries shows why the region’s water stress is certain to intensify during the next few decades.

Syria’s population stood at 3.5 million in 1950. The population has since soared to nearly 22 million and is expected to surpass 36 million by 2050.

Egypt’s 1950 population of 20 million has swelled to almost 85 million in 2013 and is projected to climb past 125 million by mid-century.

Yemen’s 1950 population of 4.5 million has now reached 25 million. Despite having one of the lowest per capita water availabilities anywhere on Earth, the nation’s population is projected to climb past 52 million by 2050. No one knows where the water to support these growing populations is going to come from. Syria, Egypt, Yemen, and other countries in the region are already using most if not all of the annual renewable water resources they have, both above and below ground.

Climate change is also causing prolonged, intensified droughts in the region. These have destroyed livelihoods and seriously eroded food security, as happened in Syria from 2006 until 2009.

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