Water in the Arab Spring

Water scarcity in the Middle East & North Africa is at the root of the region’s uprisings. In the coming years, it will also be the source of further social unrest across the region.

Human dignity has been widely acknowledged as the engine for the Arab Spring which has now reached its first anniversary. There is broad consensus that the right to have a voice as well as a more equitable stake in the future of a nation have been significant factors.

Dignity also includes more prosaic notions, such as having access to basic staple foodstuffs and to water, both to drink and for sanitation purposes.

Poor political governance and moribund economic policies have failed to provide adequate protection against increased water scarcity in the Middle East and North Africa. Two-thirds of the region’s water supplies originate outside the region. Consequently, Arab nations need to import more than half their food; they are the greatest importers of cereal in the world. This means that when commodity prices surged in the autumn of 2010, largely due to water scarcity issues such as the Russia’s disastrous drought, basic foodstuffs were in short supply and, therefore, more expensive.

Day 15 of Egyptian Protest in Tahrir Square - CairoDemotix/Adham Khorshed. All rights reserved

Even in Egypt, where the government spent close to 7 percent of gross domestic product on food and energy subsidies, commodity hikes led to food price inflation hitting 11 percent last year. The Food & Agricultural Organisation’s food price index, a measure of the monthly change in international prices of a basket of food commodities, peaked at the beginning of 2011.

In the run up to the first disturbances in Tunisia, the Arab Forum for Environment and Development cautioned that the region would face severe water scarcity as early as 2015. It warned lack of water would have profound social, political and economic ramifications.

Mohamed Bouazizi, the market stall holder in Sidi Bouzid whose self-immolation in December triggered the Tunisian uprising, made a statement not only about corruption and malfeasance but also about food and water. In the days that followed his action, the town took to the streets in protest chanting ‘Water and bread, yes! Ben Ali, no!’

Yemen, considered to be one of the most water-stressed nations in the world, witnessed riots in the port city of Aden in 2009 triggered by water scarcity. The price of water has risen five to tenfold in the country since January. With fuel supplies used to pump water from underground aquifers becoming scarce, Sana could be the world’s first capital to run out of water. Increasingly policymakers talk about 'the water, food, energy nexus' with Yemen looking set to become the case study when that relationship collapses.

Bahrain has virtually no freshwater resources and according to a recent report the Gulf kingdom is today the most water-stressed in the world.

The Middle East and North Africa represents 10 percent of the planet’s land, but contains less than 1 percent of the world’s freshwater resources. Some Arab countries with the lowest renewable fresh water resources continue to have per capita water consumption rates which are among the highest in the world. The challenge for the region, then, is balancing declining resources with increased consumption borne from rapid population growth.

Surface water supplies will not meet growing demand while groundwater resources have been over-exploited beyond safe yield levels, leading to significant declines in water tables and in the pollution of aquifers. Water pollution is a major challenge with 43 percent of waste water in the region discharged without treatment, while a small fraction not exceeding 20 percent is reused.

So what steps does the region need to take to meet water demands? First, a regional and national strategy needs to be put in place to identify a sustainable strategy for an equitable provision of water in a region equally hard hit. This needs to include a co-ordinated regulatory framework. Without proper regional co-ordination, measures taken that may disadvantage neighbouring countries will lead to water conflicts.

Second, proper management of municipal and industrial water supplies requires the introduction of water pricing schemes. Water pricing is likely to be poorly received in the short term, but it is proven to moderate consumption behaviours and to lead to a more efficient use of water, and helps protect water supplies from overuse and pollution.

Third, with the right political and regulatory framework in place, the poorer nations in the region need technical expertise and aid from wealthier Arab states and OECD nations to help provide technology, such as more efficient irrigation and recycling systems, as well as to build their capacity.

Fourth, raising investment and providing sources of funding is crucial. The region’s formidable collection of sovereign wealth funds should pool some resources and launch a regional water investment fund to invest in the huge outlays required for the necessary infrastructure.

The Arab Spring has taken hold for a variety of complex, and interconnected reasons. Given the challenges it faces, a regional water strategy as part of a green economy is no longer just an option for the Middle East & North Africa; with unprecedented levels of water stress, it is a necessity if it is to avoid further social and economic crisis in the coming years.

About the author
Andrew Wigley is a public affairs professional who has lived and worked in the US and the Middle East. He began his career working for the Liberal Democrats, first in London and then Brussels. He is currently undertaking postgraduate research in African history at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.