Demand for water in the Middle East and North Africa is rapidly increasing. Projected population growth alone through 2025 will lower per capita water availability by 30-70 percent over the next few decades, assuming that renewable water supplies remain constant, which is unlikely. [1] Demand for energy is also rising quickly across the region. As with water, energy demand is driven not only by population increase but also by energy-intensive industrialization, desalination plants and changing lifestyles.

This vast and ecologically diverse region is often characterized as oil-rich and water-poor. This generalization erases not only the significant variation in natural resource endowments but also obscures the social, political, technological and environmental factors that determine whether and how well communities get access to water and energy. Rather than focusing on resource scarcity, it is more useful to think about vulnerability and risk in relation to the basic uses of energy and water. That is, what factors determine whether individuals and communities have sufficient, decent quality water and energy, in order to meet basic needs, sustain livelihoods and conduct economic activity? When shortages in both occur, as they regularly do in much of the region, why is this the case and what can be done?

Water and energy flows depend upon government policies and infrastructure, economic purchasing power and other factors not reducible to physical scarcity. The countries most vulnerable to lack of water and energy often suffer from wars, civil conflict or occupation, all of which render energy and water systems vulnerable to disruption and destruction. At present, water and energy shortages, and water contamination, contribute to human suffering most in Sudan, Iraq, Palestine and Syria.

Another set of countries is at risk because they rely on water from a single river or shared aquifer. The yield from these water sources can be subject to appropriation by other states, or to decreased flows from changing rainfall patterns associated with climate change. Egypt, with its dependence on the Nile, and Iraq vis-à-vis the Tigris and Euphrates, face water risk from these factors. Where countries also use river flows for hydropower, water scarcity also means potential energy shortages.

These kinds of dependencies and linkages between the provision of water and energy highlight what some have termed the water-energy nexus. Alleviating water scarcity through desalination or large-scale conveyance schemes, found in many of the Persian Gulf states and Libya, requires considerable energy for construction and operation. These costs are often out of reach for countries in the region without access to oil and gas revenues or foreign assistance. In Egypt, operation of the Aswan High Dam has to balance needs for hydroelectric power with strategic storage and releases for agriculture and other uses downstream. Using dams for hydropower further entails water losses from evaporation in large reservoirs.

A related consideration is the water or energy footprint, which seeks to capture the total amount of a resource consumed during the lifecycle of a product. The extraction and processing of fossil fuels — whether coal, oil or natural gas — has long been water-intensive, as is the production of biofuels. Different technological processes also have differential consumptions of water and energy, which firms typically take into consideration only when public policies provide appropriate regulatory and pricing incentives.

Understanding human security and wellbeing through the prism of water and energy becomes all the more important in the Middle East given the effects of human-driven climate change. Climate change models predict greater warming in the southern and eastern Mediterranean than for the world as a whole, with a predicted increase of 2.2–5.1 degrees Celsius (4–9.2 degrees Fahrenheit), combined with an expected reduction in precipitation of 10–30 percent in parts of the region by the next century. [2] In the first decade of this century, the eastern Mediterranean and Iraq experienced persistent and severe drought conditions.

The effects of anthropogenic climate change are already evident. [3] Summer and winter temperatures have become more extreme. Rain and snowfall are less predictable, varying dramatically from historical patterns in timing, form and intensity. Less frequent but more intense rain has contributed to unprecedented floods, landslides and mudslides. Drought and dust storms are more frequent and severe, while the wildfire season has grown longer and more deadly. Rising sea levels have threatened coastal communities and resources, as inland water catchments and reservoirs have plummeted at times to record lows.

Measuring Water Stress

That water and energy vulnerability are not simply equivalent to scarcity of the resource is well known in the development world. Both policymakers and development agencies, however, routinely invoke indices of water stress that simply compare annual renewable water resources with population statistics to yield estimates of water availability per person. According to these criteria, most countries in the region have less than 1,000 cubic meters of water available per person per year.  Using Israel as the reference case to determine how much water is needed per person in a developed economy, in an arid region, Swedish hydrologist Malin Falkenmark argued that water availability of less than 1,000 cubic meters per year per person limits economic development and produces adverse effects on human health. Similarly, the Water Stress Index, developed by the risk analysis firm Maplecroft for multinational firms to “identity risk of water interruptions to supply chains, operations and investments” assesses water risk by comparing water consumption across all sectors against renewable water supplies in rivers, groundwater aquifers and rainfall. [4]

These indices all identify the oil-exporting countries of the Persian Gulf as the most “water-stressed.” Water consumption in every Gulf country outstrips renewable water supplies by several orders of magnitude. Saudi Arabia, for instance, consumes 936 percent of its total renewable water resources every year. In Maplecroft’s ranking of 186 countries, the top five water-stressed states are Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Libya. The next five are Western Sahara, Yemen, Israel, Djibouti and Jordan.

Yet trying to capture water risk by comparing renewable water resources with population immediately poses problems. What does it mean to assert that states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel are “water-stressed” in comparison to Yemen, Jordan and Djibouti? Qatar, for instance, ranked as the second most water-stressed country, also had the third highest GDP per capita in the world in 2012, after Norway and Luxembourg, at more than $93,000 per person. [5] Yemen, in contrast, had a GDP per capita of less than $1,500. With the third highest known reserves of natural gas in the world and 68 percent of government revenues from the export of hydrocarbons, Qatar invests in expensive desalination plants and water reuse infrastructure, and imports many water-intensive food and goods. Yemen has far fewer options.

National aggregate figures also miss key variations within states, particularly for minority, refugee, nomadic and non-citizen populations. Looking again at Qatar, while Qatari citizens are among the world’s wealthiest (in terms of GDP per capita), the vast majority of the 1.5 million people living in the country are non-citizens. While 1 percent of Qatari citizens were estimated to live below the government’s poverty line, one study found that 40 percent of expatriate workers fell below the poverty line. Many of these workers reside in labor camps, some of which have reported problems with adequate potable water, sanitation and solid waste collection.

A more adequate measure of water risk, especially in terms of human security and wellbeing, is provided by programs like the Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation (JMP), administered by UNICEF and the World Health Organization.TheJMP tries to assess whether households have access to improved water sources and sanitation infrastructure — that is, systems that prevent fecal and other contamination — using household surveys, questionnaires of experts and direct sampling of water sources and sanitation facilities.Treating wastewater is crucial to safeguarding water supplies, as inadequate or no treatment contaminates shallow groundwater aquifers and rivers, thereby exacerbating problems of scarcity. In some countries, such as Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and others, wastewater facilities have been overloaded, inadequately maintained and poorly monitored. Water pollution is estimated to cost between 0.5 percent to 2.5 percent of GDP annually in the region as a whole, with Iran, Morocco, Jordan, the Gaza Strip and Lebanon among the most severely affected. [6]

As of 2006, the JMP estimated that 30 million people remained without access to safe drinking water in the Middle East and North Africa, and 69 million people without adequate sanitation services. Some countries — Egypt, Turkey, Oman and Tunisia — improved access to water supplies between 1990 and 2008, while access declined in Algeria, Yemen, Palestine and Djibouti. The JMP monitoring programs, while more robust than water stress indices, fail to account adequately for water pollution, frequent cuts in service and lack of quality standards for drinking water. [7]

Water Uses and Misuses

Most of the water used in the Middle East and North Africa, as in other regions, does not go to household or industrial uses, but to agriculture. State policies focused, until recently, on augmenting water supplies primarily to supply agricultural constituencies and pursue food cultivation. Cheap fuel and new drilling technologies enabled a massive expansion in tapping groundwater aquifers globally in the past 50 years. In the Middle East, while shallow renewable aquifers along river basins and coasts had long been accessible, these changes prompted a rush to get at “fossil” water stored in deep underground rock aquifers, remnants of an earlier geologic period when rainfall was plentiful. This groundwater revolution propelled the industrialization of agriculture during the 1960s and 1970s, expanding the amount of land brought into cultivation and spurring policymakers to provide subsidies and pricing to keep the costs of energy and water low to encourage agricultural production. These pricing schemes have become difficult to change even as resources become more scarce.

Mining of fossil groundwater reserves was accelerated by the construction of massive conveyance and pumping infrastructures to supply water to growing urban populations. The regime of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi used Libya’s oil revenues to build the Great Manmade River, pumping water from the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer, the largest known fossil aquifer in the world, which spans portions of Libya, Chad, Egypt and Sudan. The project, begun in 1986 and with a second phase completed in 1996, cost an estimated $25 billion dollars and uses 1,300 wells and an extensive network of underground pipes and aqueducts. Jordan is building the Disi Aquifer Conveyance Project to bring water to Amman and other areas from the Disi/Saq aquifer, which spans the Jordanian-Saudi border, resulting in tension between the two countries over groundwater extraction.

Over the past two decades, clear evidence has emerged of the over-extraction of groundwater — aquifers are being drawn down faster than they are replenished through percolation from rain and surface flow. Springs and wells long used by local communities have dried up in Algeria, Yemen, the West Bank and Gaza, and Jordan, among others. In Jordan, the rate at which principal aquifers could be used and adequately replenished is estimated at 275 million cubic meters per year, while the current extraction rate is 520 million cubic meters per year, resulting in depletion and salinization. [8]

One of the most effective means of addressing water scarcity is also the most invisible. Since water consumption in many countries in the Middle East and North Africa, particularly in the Gulf, exceeded renewable water resources some decades ago, these deficits are largely made up by importing cereals and other foods. [9] The trade in “virtual water” allows countries with limited water resources to feed their populations, provided they can find the hard currency required to purchase food on international markets. The economic risk to food-importing countries, such as Egypt, is that their economies will not generate enough foreign exchange to purchase food from agricultural exporters such as the United States, Russia, the European Union and Australia.

To offset this risk, and in the face of volatile and often speculative swings in food prices over the past decade, the Gulf states in particular have joined China, India and other countries in trying to obtain rights to agricultural land and harvests elsewhere. So-called land grabs by Gulf states have targeted countries, such as Sudan and Ethiopia, with ample renewable water resources and large territories, but whose populations have regularly experienced famine and malnutrition, due to war, drought and wide dispersion. Few of these agricultural projects have proved successful enough to alleviate vulnerability by food-importing states. [10] Even with the virtual water embedded in food, the agricultural sector consumes approximately 85 percent of annual renewable water resources in the Middle East and North Africa.

Oil-exporting states — including Saudi Arabia, the smaller Gulf states, Israel and Algeria — have had the economic purchasing power to invest extensively in desalination to augment water supplies. Saudi Arabia states that its 27 desalination plants produce over 70 percent of municipal water, and also provide water for industrial use and electricity generation. [11] The kingdom produces over 10 million cubic meters of desalinated water per day, while the next largest producer, the United States, produces around 6 million cubic meters. (Unlike the Gulf plants, which desalinate seawater, most plants in the United States draw upon brackish water from rivers and estuaries.) In June 2014, Saudi Arabia announced plans for the world’s single largest desalination plant.

Attempts to augment water and energy supplies, however, often obscure the most cost-effective and much-needed strategies: to conserve resources through managing demand, limiting pollution and upgrading infrastructure. Some Middle Eastern states have moved toward the reuse of agricultural and municipal wastewater for industrial processes and irrigating parks, landscaping and, to a lesser extent, agriculture. Egypt, for instance, built a number of plants to mix freshwater from the Nile with drainage water from irrigation. Problems with polluted Nile water and the increasing salinity of drainage water, however, limited the quality of the mixed water and, in some cases, rendered the plants inoperable. International donors and NGOs have begun to promote the reuse of water within households — what is known as greywater. Water planners also seek to factor in “green water,” or the water stored in soil and plants through rainfall and condensation, but this consideration has not yet figured in state policies on water.

Energy and Water

A growing concern for Middle Eastern policymakers and citizens is not just water, but energy supplies and how these affect water consumption. Over half of electricity generated in the region is used for air conditioning, given that daytime summer temperatures regularly reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. [12]

For oil- and gas-exporting countries, rapidly rising demand for fossil fuels at home cuts into rents accrued from selling hydrocarbons globally. As of 2013, hydrocarbon revenues account for 90 percent or more of government revenues in Bahrain, Iraq, Libya and Saudi Arabia, between 60-80 percent in Algeria, Qatar, Oman, the UAE, Kuwait and Yemen, and 50 percent in Iran. [13] For countries with limited or no energy exports, rising oil prices pose serious challenges in meeting domestic energy needs.

Middle Eastern states are thus actively exploring diversifying energy supplies to include nuclear, coal and renewables. The water footprints of different energy infrastructures are of increasing concern to policymakers, yet plans for coal and nuclear do not yet adequately reflect water scarcity concerns. Nuclear power plants require significant amounts of water, particularly for cooling, as do commonly used wet-cooling processes for coal plants and for concentrated solar arrays. Every country in the region has expressed interest in nuclear power; most have created state-owned authorities to develop the regulatory and financial instruments to move ahead. [14] The UAE leads the pack, having contracted with a South Korean consortium to build four nuclear power plants in 2009, with another 13 planned. The UAE has indicated it will use both seawater and treated wastewater in its plants. Egypt, which selected the northern coastal site of al-Dab‘a for construction of its first nuclear plant, faced local opposition from displaced residents that put the project on hold under successive interim governments. Jordan is constructing a research reactor, Turkey has a contract with Russia to build a plant and Iran hopes to overcome international concerns to open its first civilian reactor in the near future.

Renewables are an increasingly dynamic part of the energy sector, particularly in the non-oil exporting countries of the region. Every country has adopted targets for renewable energy production, and most have moved to enact concrete policy incentives. Wind energy requires no water to generate electricity once installed; between 2008 and 2011, the average contribution of wind to electricity production increased 27 percent per year, led by turbine arrays in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. Large-scale concentrated solar plants have come online in Algeria, Morocco, Egypt and the UAE, while a few countries are exploring small waste-to-energy projects.

Renewables currently produce 3.3 percent of the total electricity in the Middle East and North Africa, and this share is set to increase in the coming years. [15] The majority of financing for renewables projects comes from state-owned utilities, government ministries and international development institutions. These funders may continue to push renewable energy development toward large-scale, centralized projects, rather than encourage decentralized, small-scale installations that could directly address water and energy insecurity in marginalized areas. Several programs in Morocco and Tunisia have successfully promoted the use of solar photovoltaics and solar hot water for residential consumption and rural electrification. These programs offer models that could be rapidly deployed throughout the region. The greatest challenge ahead will be generating the political will to do so.



[1] Jeannie Sowers, Avner Vengosh and Erika Weinthal, “Climate Change, Water Resources, and the Politics of Adaptation in the Middle East and North Africa” Climatic Change 104/3-4 (2011).
[2] J. P. Evans, “Twenty-First century Climate Change in the Middle East,” Climate Change 92 (2008).
[3] Jeannie Sowers and Erika Weinthal, “Climate Change Adaptation in the Middle East: Opportunities and Challenges,” Dubai Initiative working paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Cambridge, MA, August 2010.
[4] See
[5] See
[6] World Bank, Making the Most of Water Scarcity: Accountability for Better Water Management Results in the Middle East and North Africa (2007).
[7] Neda Zawahri, Jeannie Sowers and Erika Weinthal, “The Politics of Assessment: Water and Sanitation MDGs in the Middle East and North Africa,” Development and Change, 42/5 (2011).
[8] W. Bajjali and K. Al-Hadidi, “Hydrochemical Evaluation of Groundwater in Azraq Basin, Jordan Using Environmental Isotopes and GIS techniques,” (paper presented at the annual ESRI International User Conference, San Diego, CA, July 2005).
[9] Tony Allen, The Middle East Water Question: Hydropolitics and the Global Economy (London: I. B. Tauris, 2001).
[10] Eckart Woertz, Oil for Food: The Global Food Crisis and the Middle East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
[11] See
[12] Economist Intelligence Unit, “Securing MENA’s Electric Power Supplies to 2020” (London, 2011).
[13] Data compiled from the National Resources Governance Institute and the US Energy Information Agency.
[14] Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, “Nuclear Power in the Middle East and North Africa” (Abu Dhabi, 2011).
[15] International Renewable Energy Agency, “MENA: Renewables Status Report,” (Abu Dhabi, 2013).

How to cite this article:

Jeannie Sowers "Water, Energy and Human Insecurity in the Middle East," Middle East Report 271 (Summer 2014).

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