Water crisis: Dry, becoming drier

By Khaled Diab

There's more than enough fresh water in the world to sate our thirst. The problem is getting it to where it is desperately needed.

September 2008

With the depressing torrential rain and flooding at the weekend, are the last thing on our minds here in these wet, northern climes. In fact, perhaps we need a collective ‘sun dance' to implore the powers that be to deliver us an ‘Indian summer'.

Despite the misery, we are fortunate, as more and more areas in the world are beset by water shortages. Over the past week alone, the water table in the Pakistani capital Islamabad has fallen to dangerous levels (a common problem across the subcontinent), Kyrgyzstan has cut electricity production to save water, and Californian farmers have complained of lower yields due to water rationing.

The and North Africa, the driest population centre on the planet, is particularly vulnerable to water shortages. According to the International Water Management Institute, every country in the MENA region suffers from physical water scarcity or is approaching it.

Yemen – fabled for the fertile ancient kingdoms of Arabia Felix – is expected to be the first country in the region to deplete its ground water.

The Sea of Galilee in has reached the lowest levels ever recorded, with fears that, if the government continues to pump it at current rates, the country's main fresh water reservoir could reach the point of no return.

And the situation is likely to deteriorate, if models prove to be accurate. Earlier this year, the UN released a report estimating that a 3-4°C rise in temperatures could lead to a drop of up to 35% in agricultural output. However, more localised analysis by an Australian scientists suggests that some parts of the region, such as Iraq, may see more rainfall.

Nevertheless, the forecast looks dry for the Middle East. In addition, with around 730 million people, including in the EU, expected to rise to 1.8 billion by 2050, in the world living with water shortages, the future looks bleak.

Not, necessarily, says Jonathan Chenoweth of the Centre for Environmental Strategy. “I believe the looming water crisis is primarily a problem of distribution and management rather than supply,” he wrote in a recent New Scientist article.

In addition to water efficiency and desalination technologies, the major pillar of his strategy would be for arid and semi-arid countries to import “virtual water” in the form of food because agriculture consumes some 90% of water supplies. These countries would shift to less water-intensive sectors, such as trade and services.

Although largely unspoken, this is the direction in which the Middle East has been heading for decades. In fact, the term virtual water was probably coined by Tony Allan of SOAS in reference to the region. Without it, the region may have suffered severe famines by now. For instance, Egypt, with some of the most productive land in the world, imports more than half of its food owing to water shortages and population growth.

Soon-to-be-published research carried out by Chenoweth suggests that “by importing virtual water, a country could offer a high quality of life with as little as 135 litres of water per person per day”.

While this theory is promising at certain levels, it seems to overlook some crucial issues. While the more developed Middle Eastern countries with a smaller population, such as Israel, Lebanon and Dubai are successfully shifting their economies towards trade and service, it is difficult to see how many others will be able to reduce their economic dependence on agriculture and manufacturing.

Egypt, for instance, has a large educated population and its economy has a robust and rapidly growing service sector, including IT. Nevertheless, agriculture accounts for 14% of the country's GDP and employs a quarter of the labour force. In addition, cash crops and cotton textiles and clothes are among Egypt's main exports. Moreover, other large sectors of the economy, such as steel, manufacturing and chemicals are heavy water users.

If Egypt, a middle income, relatively developed country has such difficulty shifting its economy towards water-light sectors, what of less-developed countries? Sudan, for instance, overall has abundant water supplies, yet it is unable even to meet food shortages within its own border. The situation is even worse in Ethiopia where I personally witnessed UN food aid being distributed only miles away from the source of the Blue Nile, Lake Tana.

What Chenoweth's analysis also seems to overlook or understate is that water-rich regions may have an abundance of water but they are already sailing pretty close to the wind in terms of food output. While growth in Middle Eastern agriculture is crippled by the absence of water, it is highly unlikely that largely temperate regions, such as the , will be able to translate their water abundance into significantly higher agricultural production, since most of their arable land is already in use.

The current food crisis may be an early indication that we are slowly approaching an agricultural ceiling. In addition, the energy crunch suggests that the kind of globalisation of trade required to shift virtual water effectively may be unsustainable.

Then, there's the issue of food security. How can countries dependent on virtual water ensure a sufficient flow of food to sustain their populations? What if a more severe crisis in the future forces major food exporters to cut off exports? Alternatively, if wealthy and arid countries, such as the Gulf States, buy up large tracts of farm land in poor countries to ensure their food security, this will help these countries to boost their agricultural output and develop their economies. But we could also be looking at future artificial famines rather like the Irish potato famine which, interestingly, prompted the Ottoman sultan and native Americans to send humanitarian aid to Ireland.

If virtual water is to be successful in feeding the world, we need robust and effective international mechanisms to ensure that this redistribution is implemented equitably and that neither suppliers nor recipients go hungry in lean years. In addition, development programmes in poorer arid countries will need to find ways of reducing dependency on sparse local water resources and controlling population growth.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 9 September 2008. Read the related discussion.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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