World Bank VP calls water scarcity the’main agenda’ for MENA region

According to the World Bank VP for the MENA region, water scarcity is the “main agenda” that must be tackled in the Middle East and North Africa

Ferid Belhaj’s remarks came after a World Bank report branded the issue “existential” and found water systems in the MENA region are being stretched “to the brink of collapse.” It predicted water levels in the region “will fall below the absolute water scarcity threshold of 500 cubic meters per person per year” and worsen with population growth, which is estimated to reach over 720 million people by 2050.

Decades of water management policy in the region have focused primarily on supply infrastructure, such as building dams, Belhaj told a panel hosted by the Washington-based Brookings Institution. World Bank research shows that there must be “total change” from that approach. Instead, he said, governments across the MENA region should shift toward “rationalization,” or making the most of the limited water available.

But countries in the MENA region have not addressed “critical efficiency and governance issues” needed to regulate water, according to the report, and there has been little attention to reducing losses and improving conservation.

Meanwhile, average rainfall has fallen and temperatures have risen across the region since 2002.  

The long-running problem of water scarcity — which contributes to localized conflicts and tensions across the global south — is set to be a key and worsening aspect of climate change. But water, sanitation and hygiene, or WASH, has been underfunded for years. Despite some unclear commitments at the United Nations Water Conference earlier this year, the event ended without a legally binding international agreement to protect water resources — convincing many that water protection is not being taken seriously by the international community.

Despite the diversity of countries across the MENA region, stress on water supplies is a “common thread” of World Bank analysis on the impact of climate change on economies and development prospects. The findings were made in the bank’s Country Climate and Development Reports, or CCDRs, which have begun by examining Iraq, Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt.

Under current water management strategies, at least 25 billion additional cubic meters of water a year by 2050 will be needed in the MENA region, the World Bank report said. Meeting this need through desalination — a highly energy-intensive process — would require 65 plants the size of Saudi Arabia’s Ras Al Khair plant, which is currently the world’s largest plant.

But improving the situation requires navigating extraordinarily challenging politics, concerning a “lack of legitimacy and trust” in an unstable region where most people believe it is the government’s responsibility to keep prices low, according to the report.

It said: “Managing the existential issue of water in MENA is not only about the political will of a few leaders at the top of the hierarchy. It is also about changing the beliefs and expectations of people down the chain of authority in myriad government agencies that manage water services and allocation, all the way to the citizens living in rural and urban communities.”

The paper made recommendations on systematic institutional policy reforms, including “devolving greater powers over water allocation decisions to locally representative governments, within a national water strategy.”

The report said  this “could lend legitimacy to difficult trade-offs in the use of water, compared to top-down directives from central ministries.”

Water scarcity is playing out in brutal ways in countries such as Iraq, contributing to the decline of the country’s food system, with agriculture, livestock and fishing “all industries that are dying,” Marsin Alshamary, ​a nonresident fellow of Brookings’ Center for Middle East Policy, said from Baghdad during the event. Declining agricultural subsidies have also played a role in increasing rural poverty, pushing people to cities, “looking for jobs that don’t exist,” Alshamary added.

“The extreme heat that Iraq faces … is constantly on the increase. In addition to the sandstorms that were particularly gruesome last year and the very clear decline of water levels in the Tigris and the Euphrates,” Alshamary said.

Iraqis are “more aware” of climate change “than ever,” she added.

With countries across the MENA region grappling with deep-rooted economic difficulties and growing populations, “even governments who have the will to try and tackle these issues of climate change often don’t have the resources to be able to do so,” said Will Todman, deputy director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But that does leave space for civil society and the private sector to step in “with solutions sensitive to the local context,” he noted. “I would like to see far more [climate finance] that bolsters the ability of entrepreneurs to to face some of these challenges … they are sometimes the best place to come up with context specific solutions.”

He cited the disparity between climate finance reaching the Middle East, which saw an inflow of $16 billion in 2020, and that heading to East Asia and the Pacific islands, which received $293 billion in the same period.

“The amounts of finance are not nearly sufficient to tackle these crises,” he said. He blamed the discrepancy in regional funding on the lack of a conducive investment and regulatory environment in much of the MENA region, as a result of extensive conflict and instability — where some groups benefit from the status quo.