Water in Crisis - Middle East

The Water Project

Water scarcity is a significant issue in the Middle East due to its arid climate and high population growth. Many countries in the region are considered to be among the most water-stressed in the world, with limited freshwater resources and high water demand levels.

Water resources are becoming increasingly scarce, especially for the millions there who already lack access to clean and safe water. Some of these countries, including Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, are facing unique problems that require immediate, global attention. Besides their neighboring location, one shared factor of all these countries is the challenges they face due to a lack of water resources and associated difficulties in water management.

The Middle East has some of the largest oil reserves in the world, which produces most of the region's wealth - particularly in the Gulf countries. Even so, climate and environment can make living harsh for poor and rural dwelling peoples. Lack of water can also lead to food insecurity as farmers struggle to secure reliable water resources and suitable land for agriculture, and governments rely on importing the majority of the food from other water-rich countries outside the region. And much of the land available for producing food is becoming increasingly unusable due to desertification.

The scarcity of water in the Middle East is primarily caused by natural factors, such as limited rainfall and high temperatures, but also by human activities, such as overexploitation of groundwater resources and inefficient irrigation practices. Groundwater is a critical source of water in the region, but it is being depleted at an alarming rate. In addition, climate change is exacerbating the problem by leading to more frequent and severe droughts.

Desertification is a sweeping environmental problem Universal causes for the spread of arid environments are unsustainable agriculture practices and overgrazing. Irrigation for agriculture uses 85 percent of waterin this region. In this area, droughts are more frequent and contribute to the changing landscape. The overuse of water in agriculture is affecting the countries' already limited water resources.

Desalination of seawater is a crucial strategy for meeting the growing demand for freshwater in the Middle East. However, desalination is energy-intensive and expensive, and the brine generated as a byproduct can harm the marine ecosystem if not properly disposed of. Recent advancements in desal technology are reducing overall costs and improving efficiency.

The majority of of desalination plants in the world are located in this region, found mostly in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Bahrain. While these plants produce water needed for the arid region, they can also generate additional problems for health and the environment. The seawater used most in desalination plants has high amounts of boron and bromide, and the process can also remove essential minerals like calcium. Also, the concentrated salt is often dumped back into oceans, where the increased salinity affects the ocean's environment and biodiversity. The desal plants can disrupt local wildlife and add pollutants to the region's climate. In addition, desalination is the most energy-intensive means of treating water. The Pacific Institute explains that the high use of energy results in raised energy prices and higher prices on water produced, hurting the consumer. The water produced can be beneficial, even essential, as a substitute for a lack of fresh water, but reliance on these technologies can also result in overuse. Concerns with the large number of desalination plants in the Middle East focus on the improper dependency they can cause instead of encouraging more sustainable actions such as conserving freshwater.

To address the issue of water scarcity, many countries in the region have implemented water conservation measures, such as promoting the use of water-efficient technologies and reducing water losses in distribution systems. In addition, some countries have invested in the development of alternative water sourcessuch as treated wastewater and rainwater harvesting. Some countries are using cloud-seeding technology to increase precipitation locally. However, these efforts are often constrained by political and economic factors as not all countries have the means to implement these solutions, making it challenging to achieve sustainable water use and ensure equitable access to water for all in the region. The uneven distribution of water resources, coupled with population growth, has led to water-related conflicts between countries in the region.

Water scarcity is a significant challenge in the Middle East that requires a comprehensive approach to address. Since water resources are shared by neighboring nations, transboundary water management and diplomacy will continue to be key considerations for a more water-secure future. The following sections highlight some of the key water resource challenges facing different regions of the Middle East.

In summary, water scarcity in the Middle East requires a multi-faceted approach to address. This includes not only technological solutions but also social and political interventions to promote equitable access to water resources. It involves addressing the interlinked issues relating to food and energy security. This water-food-energy nexus presents significant challenges for the Middle East due to limited water resources, population growth, urbanization, climate change, and political instability.

While the region is expected to face worsening water scarcity in the future due to climate change and population growth, there are promising developments from the growing recognition of the need for sustainable water management practices as can be seen in long-range water security strategies such as the one developed in the United Arab Emirates. Strategies detail plans for increased investment in alternative water sources, the adoption of water conservation technologies and efforts to recharge depleted aquifers, among other plans.

Increased international cooperation and diplomacy have the potential to address shared water resources challenges and promote sustainable development. By addressing the water challenges in a collaborative and sustainable manner, the Middle East region can support its growing population, and ensure equitable access to water for all.

* This article was produced in part by generative AI technologies, then edited and reviewed for accuracy by The Water Project staff.

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