The Middle East is running out of water. Can they adapt?

The world’s demand for water is likely to surge in the next few decades, severely threatening national water security and economic growth in some parts of the world, experts say. 

Mohamed al-Sayaghi/Reuters
Girls carry buckets they filled with water from a water pond in the historic city of Thula in Yemen's northwestern province of Amran August 20, 2015. Middle East faces impending water crisis, experts say.

Rising global population and decreasing usable water supplies will cause the world’s demand for water to surge in the next few decades and intensify conflict in many countries, experts warn.

In the rankings by the World Resources Institute (WRI), fourteen of the 33 countries most likely to be water stressed in 2040 are in the Middle East, including nine considered extremely highly stressed – Bahrain, Kuwait, Palestine, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Lebanon.

According to the researchers, the Middle East is already the least water-secure region in the world, because it draws heavily upon groundwater and desalinated sea water and faces "exceptional water-related challenges for the foreseeable future," they say.

“The world’s demand for water is likely to surge in the next few decades. Rapidly growing populations will drive increased consumption by people, farms and companies. More people will move to cities, further straining supplies. An emerging middle class could clamor for more water-intensive food production and electricity generation,” they wrote in their findings.

“But it’s not clear where all that water will come from. Climate change is expected to make some areas drier and others wetter. As precipitation extremes increase in some regions, affected communities face greater threats from droughts and floods,” they say

Water shortages, the researchers say, were a main factor in the 2011 Syria civil war.

“Drought and water shortages in Syria likely contributed to the unrest that stoked the country’s 2011 civil war. Dwindling water resources and chronic mismanagement forced 1.5 million people, primarily farmers and herders, to lose their livelihoods and leave their land, move to urban areas, and magnify Syria’s general destabilization,” says the report. 

There is, however, good news. 

Countries can take actions to reduce stress and the risk associated with how they manage water resources, Betsy Otto, director of the WRI's Global Water Program, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, citing Singapore as an example of a state that uses innovative methods.

Singapore does not have local fresh water supplies and relies heavily on imports from neighboring Malaysia. But the country has developed plans for enhancing its future water supply and self-sufficiency.  

“Large reservoirs are found even in the country's most built-up areas. Bordered by skyscrapers in densely-populated downtown Singapore, the recently built $226 million "Marina Barrage" has become a popular tourist attraction,” CNN reported.

The Guardian notes that those who make their living off the land and land owners in the Middle East bear some responsibility for current water shortages.

One reason why water is so scarce is because farming wastes so much. In addition, many rich people across the region have dug their own wells to tap into aquifers, leading to over-pumping and pollution of groundwater in cities like Damascus.

Analysts urge the ending of water subsidies for large farms, the raising of energy prices to discourage over-pumping and the use of “smart” irrigation technologies to reduce water loss on farms

The WRI urges governments to respond with management and conservation practices that will help protect essential sustainable water resources for years to come.

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