27 January 2023
Securing MENA’s water supply
Published online 23 September 2022
Recycling water is key to closing the water supply-demand gap in the Middle East and North Africa.
Water is part of every step in the food value chain, from food production to processing and consumption. This dependency is hampering food security in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The region is struggling to meet growing water demand, especially as agriculture is its largest consumer. The war in Ukraine has exacerbated the situation, affecting food security in the region with an unprecedented increase in food prices.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the conflict in Eastern Europe have highlighted the fragility of global supply chains and MENA’s dependency on imports to meet food and energy demands. Countries like Lebanon and Egypt, for example, are dependent on around 80% of their grain imports from Russia and Ukraine. Meanwhile, population growth, rapid urbanization and climate change continue to add pressure.
The World Resources Institute’s Aqueduct tool highlights that, of the 17 countries at the highest risk of acute water scarcity in 2019, 12 are in the MENA region. Freshwater withdrawals exceed renewable water resources in almost all countries in the region, and the gap between supply and demand is widening every year. The average per capita renewable water resource availability in MENA is 10 times less than the worldwide average, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
What if water is not secured?
Water insecurity has multiple implications for the MENA region.
Increasing water scarcity is threatening food supply, with 70% of global water withdrawal used for agriculture. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that, to achieve global food security by 2050, the current food supply must increase by 50%. That goal relies entirely on securing a sustainable water supply.
Water scarcity is expected to cause economic losses of 6-14% of the MENA region’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 2050. Increased water scarcity could also reduce labour demand by up to 12% and lead to significant land-use changes.
It could also affect socio-political stability in the region, which has the world’s highest levels of forced displacement, with an estimated 7.2 million refugees, of whom 2.7 million are hosted in countries within the region, and another 12.4 million internally displaced people fleeing protracted armed conflicts. Water is one of the main vulnerabilities of people displaced by conflict in the region. Socio-economic grievances in combination with a drought or a water shortage can drive domestic water tensions, especially in the absence of strong institutions.
Mohamed Al Hamdi, FAO Senior Water and Land Officer for the Near East and North Africa, explains that “60% of the freshwater available in the MENA region originates in other territories and travels through numerous countries - such as the river Nile that passes through Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi - causing occasional tensions over rights to freshwater.” But, contrary to popular belief, water risks have historically led more to cooperation than conflict. However, as the effects of climate change intensify, these historical patterns may no longer hold: in areas that lack good governance, climate change could exacerbate vulnerabilities and tensions over water resources, leading to a vicious cycle of water insecurity and fragility.
Ensuring sustainable water supply
One of the most promising options to increase water supply is to upscale the time-old practice of its reuse by treating domestic, urban, industrial and agricultural wastewater to extract pollutants, and feed it back into the supply system or use it directly. This increases water availability while preventing contaminated water from flowing into nearby waterways and contaminating natural ecosystems.
Water reuse has great potential to help overcome some of the challenges posed by increasing pressure on already stressed resources. Al Hamdi notes that “wastewater is the only source of water that increases as population and water consumption grow”. Cities and towns in the MENA region produce millions of cubic metres of wastewater every year. Preliminary research from the ReWater MENA project highlights that the 19 MENA countries produce around 21.5 cubic kilometres (km3) of municipal wastewater every year.
According to the ReWater MENA database, the region has doubled the number of projects for water reuse every decade since 1990, going from 40 projects reusing 421 cubic millimetres (mm3) to 409 projects in 2020 with 2,275 mm3. Nevertheless, up to 50% of produced municipal wastewater is still not put to good use.
Preliminary estimations shared by ReWater MENA suggest that proper recovery of lost wastewater could irrigate and fertilize more than one million hectares in the region. The carbon embedded in wastewater is also a key resource. If recovered in the form of methane, it could be used to provide electricity to millions of households. Also, nutrient recovery from wastewater, sludge and other wastes (such as food waste) can help meet increasing demands for fertiliser.
Boosting water reuse to close the supply gap
“Sophisticated treatment techniques are not yet feasible in many of the MENA’s middle- and low-income countries. However, better regulations and investment would allow these countries to treat wastewater to be safe for agricultural use if combined with good agricultural practices,” says Al Hamdi.
Even where water reuse has proven safe and financially sustainable, it can still be rejected, especially when used for drinking or to irrigate fresh produce. Javier Mateo-Sagasta, senior researcher at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and project leader of ReWater MENA, says building trust among stakeholders is key to increasing long term use of water reuse technologies and practices.
Addressing concerns around acceptance requires raising awareness. The ReWater MENA project developed a set of guidelines to make this task easier for planners, investors, project designers and operators.
The region needs to overcome the factors that limit water reuse, including institutional fragmentation, the lack of appropriate tariffs and the absence of economic incentives and financial models that undermine cost recovery and the sustainability of reuse projects.
There is no doubt about the central role that water reuse will play in the future of our water supply at a global scale. Water reuse is a core component of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: Clean water and sanitation for all. However, the rapid depletion of water resources makes the transition towards water reuse more urgent for the MENA region.
Mateo-Sagasta says multi-stakeholder dialogues are beginning to take place, with national and local authorities, NGOs and civil society organisations working together to formulate comprehensive policies. Al Hamdi adds: “Water reuse is a must for this region. We cannot avoid it. Urgency is growing, and countries are starting to see wastewater treatment and reuse as a way to address both challenges. We must use every drop of water that’s available.”
Marta Castillo is a communications officer at REVOLVE, a communication group that fosters cultures of sustainability. She holds a master’s degree in Euro-Mediterranean Relations from Complutense University of Madrid (2017) and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona (2016).
One of REVOLVE’s key projects is A Mediterranean Water and Journalism (AMWAJ) Platform on Sustainable Development. REVOLVE is also helps ReWATER MENA to disseminate research results relating to water issues in the MENA region.
This article is part of these initiatives.