Addressing Water Shortages in the Middle East and North Africa Region

Addressing Water Shortages in the Middle East and North Africa Region

Q & A session with Pasquale Steduto at World Water Week


The Middle East and North Africa have the poorest water resources in the world, and the situation has only recently worsened due to the effects of conflict, climate change and the economic downturn. The water crisis threatens the stability of the region, as well as human development and sustainable growth.

Pasquale Steduto leads the FAO water scarcity project in the Middle East and North Africa. In this interview, he talks about the problems of water scarcity in the region and the vital role of sustainable water resources management to increase sustainability, maintain peace and stability and improve living conditions and human well-being.

How serious is the current crisis of water scarcity in the region and what are its main causes?

Freshwater reserves per capita in the region are only one sixth of the world average, and they continue to decline. Without exception, all countries in the region experience groundwater depletion, while the rates of withdrawal of both surface and groundwater are very high. This means that agriculture has a hard time fighting for water with industry and other sectors.

In addition, the climate, which is mostly semi-arid or arid and highly variable, continues to change, with drought becoming an increasingly common occurrence.

The countries of the Middle East and North Africa are at the forefront of developing practices and institutions for managing scarce water resources in an arid climate. However, in some countries, inefficient policies and institutions have resulted that water management systems not signaling potential water outages.

In some cases, they even contributed to over-exploitation of water resources, without creating incentives to limit water consumption and its conservation.

As a result, the current water crisis has reached an unprecedented high level and requires a coordinated response throughout the region.

What is the relationship between water scarcity and an unstable environment characterized by conflict and migration?

Vulnerability in countries has become a reality in several countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Armed conflict and forced displacement have a huge impact on human lives, with this region accounting for about 60 percent of the total number of war victims since the end of the millennium.

Vulnerability also exacerbates water problems in the region. Even before the recent political turmoil, several countries in the Middle East and North Africa were struggling to rationally and efficiently manage their water resources and expand their coverage of water and sanitation services. Currently, the conflict, coupled with some institutional barriers, has contributed to exacerbating water shortages and worsening water services.

For example, in Syria, which was once one of the leading executors of the Millennium Development Goals in the region, the recent conflict has pushed more than 3 million people into the abyss of poverty. The deterioration of access to water and sanitation services has led to an increase in the incidence of waterborne diseases. As a result, the mortality rate of children under the age of five due to diarrhea has tripled since the start of the conflict.

In Yemen, more than 10 million people, about 46 percent of the total population, experience food shortages, and about 12 million people do not have access to safe fresh water or sanitation.

Failure to find solutions to water scarcity makes countries even more vulnerable. The water scarcity crisis limits the ability of individuals and communities to maintain livelihood security and political stability. We need to break this vicious circle in order to ensure reconstruction, peace, food and water security and sustainable development in the region.

What needs to be done to deal with the problem of freshwater scarcity, especially in countries affected by conflict and migration?

In cases where conflicts begin to wane, the restoration of basic water and sanitation services should be a priority. In the recovery phase, water is crucial for agriculture because it provides livelihoods for people.

Addressing water scarcity and vulnerability requires a combination of actions to meet the urgent basic needs of people with a long-term approach aimed at increasing resilience to shocks and protracted crises. This approach should rely on sustainable, efficient and equitable management of water resources and the provision of water services.

Investing in innovative policies and practices is also key, as research, technology development and technology transfer can further improve the rational use of water and agricultural productivity in the region. It can also significantly increase the sustainability of rainwater harvesting systems for agricultural irrigation, for example, by promoting land conservation practices.

More importantly, joint working within and between countries. Joint actions and partnerships are important given the scale and commonality of the problems, the relatively small size of many countries in the region and the transboundary nature of such important issues as climate change and shared water resources.

What measures is FAO taking to address water scarcity in the region? Could you give specific examples?

The FAO Regional Water Shortage Initiative supports the countries of the region in strategic planning, management and distribution of water resources, analyzes their policies in the field of water supply, food security and energy, helps to draw up effective investment plans, modernize management and institutions, keep track of ground and groundwater and introduce advanced agricultural practices.

One FAO project in Yemen helps farmers take water from a dam to increase sustainability and provides women with more opportunities to participate in decision-making processes. FAO supported the creation and reorganization of more than 35 water user associations in the capital of Sana'a to better control water consumption and help them with financing and equipment. At the same time, associations create a space for new thinking, helping to resolve disputes about the ownership of water sources.

The Sana’a River Basin Project is an example of how FAO supports various activities aimed not only at meeting the urgent food and nutrition needs of millions of Yemenis, but also at supporting projects that could have a positive impact on restoring the country's overall agricultural infrastructure.

Another FAO project in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is aimed at supporting effective irrigation systems, as well as addressing the problems of inefficient management and wasteful use of water resources by repairing damaged irrigation systems. This has improved access to clean water for irrigation and put an end to social conflicts related to water use.

Thanks to the FAO project, more than 30 water supply systems in the West Bank have been restored and nearly 150 kilometers of water pipelines for domestic and agricultural use have been improved. As a result, farmers were again able to access sufficient water, ensuring that it is distributed equitably. Water loss due to leaks was eliminated, and the use of untreated wastewater for irrigation purposes was discontinued.

The project allowed 200 farming families in Al Nassaria to increase their production, reduce costs and avoid the use of unsafe contaminated water. In addition to mitigating the social, economic, and environmental impacts on communities, pipe restoration work has created seasonal jobs for 2,000 farm workers in the West Bank.