Agricultural lands outside of Addis Ababa

In April, The Guardian published an article entitled “This will be the Arab World’s Next Battle: Population growth and water supply are on a collision course. Hunger is set to become the main issue.”  The article describes how MENA countries are increasingly running into trouble meeting grain demands because of depleting water supplies and enormous population growth.  That country’s like Saudi Arabia are phasing out grain production because water aquifers are drying out, and instead they are buying up land in countries like Ethiopia for food production.


Of course, Middle Eastern countries aren’t the only ones buying up land in poorer (and often hungrier) African nations to feed growing populations.  China continues to struggle with intense pressures on food and water supplies, is looking for ways to invest huge foreign exchange reserves and has been buying cheap African land, as have European investors.  As another Guardian article published in March 2010 points out:


The land rush, which is still accelerating, has been triggered by the worldwide food shortages which followed the sharp oil price rises in 2008, growing water shortages and the European Union’s insistence that 10% of all transport fuel must come from plant-based biofuels by 2015.


The land-grab has become so accelerated that hedge funds are recognizing potential opportunities for profitable investment in arable African land, buying up huge swaths in the hopes of cashing in on appreciating values and food prices.  One report suggests hedge funds and speculators have purchased African land that in total is equivalent to the size of France.   Despite attempts by some to imagine how land investors could positively contribute to African development, the trend has drawn the ire of many, who are concerned about volatile prices and food insecurity.  Just a couple days ago former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan added his voice to the chorus:


It is neither just nor sustainable for farmland to betaken away from communities in this way nor for food to be exported when there is hunger on the doorstep. Local people will not stand for this abuse – and neither should we.


But for wealthy Gulf States, who make up a significant portion of these buyers, investments are not just speculative ventures.  Buying cheap arable land abroad is becoming the basis for food policy in countries that have nearly sucked their aquifers dry, suffer from dismal annual rainfalls, have little to no arable land, and face exponential population growth–populations that are growing increasingly restive.  The approach may simply be the consequence of bottom line accounting.  It’s much cheaper to buy African land at $800/hectare then it is to build new desalination plants and continue to reclaim land for agricultural purposes.


Al-Khobar Desalination plant in Saudi Arabia

For these oil-producing countries, the balancing act is growing increasingly difficult.  Oil prices go up, which means revenues go up but so do food prices.  Needless to say, more of those revenues will likely go to subsidizing food to keep populations acquiescent.  But keeping food and water prices cheap appears to be no longer sustainable, as more theories to this effect circulate, following the fault lines exposed by the Arab Spring.  After all, not all Middle Eastern countries have the luxury of enormous oil revenues.  And its not just the Gulf States that are struggling.  All of the 16 most water-stressed countries in the world are in the Middle East, with Egypt, one of the few countries with a large, fresh-water source (i.e. the Nile) in the region, being counted among those 16 states, as are Syria, Tunisia and Yemen–all countries who do not have huge oil resources.  These countries can’t just go buy up land in Ethiopia–as if that’s a sustainable strategy to begin with.  Nor can they keep building desalination plants, which are horribly expensive and enormously energy-intensive.  With over 5% of the world’s population and less than 1% of the world’s water sources, dependency on foreign food and water supplies is only going to increase.  A problem that has humanitarian, economic and security repercussions that demand urgent action.


Middle East nations must evolve innovative solutions to these problems that involve two broad approaches (1) greater inter-nation cooperation and (2) domestic conservation efforts.   The regions’ main rivers, the Euphrates, Nile and Jordan, have been the subjects of longstanding disputes in the region.  Water ecosystems, of course, are not limited by national boundaries.  Cooperation is central to ensuring that runoff systems and recharge areas are properly managed and that down-stream countries can benefit from water resources.  Cooperation among various countries sharing water sources is no easy task, in an environment rife with conflict, but some believe that the situation is so critical that it may force different parties to find a solution for sharing water rights and obligations, as well as building the requisite infrastructureThis approach sees water problems as common ground that can be used for broader peace-building goals.  The UNDP and the Arab League launched a program in 2009 that focused on cooperation on water issues among Arab States.  Yet we still have not seen tangible commitments to these efforts.  Political obstacles are likely to continue to plague any attempts for substantial cooperation on this front.


Water conservation is perhaps the best and maybe least expensive place to start dealing with water challenges in the region, and the best way to get fairly immediate results.  After all, at its most basic level, a water shortage simply means that more water is used than falls from the sky or recharges aquifers.  Of course, with populations projected to continue to grow rapidly, conservation is only one piece of the pie.  Even if consumption is minimized, population growth could offset any progress.  Nevertheless, conservation must be a central piece of the puzzle.  The immediateness of the water crisis in the region must inspire a new conservation ethos.  In a part of the world that historically has adapted very sophisticated means and practices for conserving water, there is plenty of inspiration.  And the solutions need not always be high-tech.  Things as simple as fixing leaks in plumbing systems could go a long way.  Even in London, where the government has recently built a desalination plant, critics claim that instead of building a desalination plant, the government could fix leaks that result in an estimated lose of 26% of the city’s water.  I have not found similar, up-to-date (one estimate from  estimates for the Middle East, but it is likely that leakage from dated distribution systems results in heavy losses, as well. Simply modernizing these systems could have significant returns.


In the Middle East the vast majority of people don’t have green lawns, but American-style lawns are beginning to pop-up, and it is a relatively common practice for people to use heavy amounts of water to spray walkways and sidewalks in front of buildings and homes in the belief that it reduces dust circulation.  Lush green lawns and streetscapes are often seen as signs of affluence, development and beauty, leading to unsustainable landscaping in many of the regions’ cities.  Large amounts of water are also used in cleaning tile homes and for use in cooling systems.  Raising awareness through media campaigns could encourage people to use less water and introduce the practices of xeriscaping. These campaigns could take advantage of the atmosphere the Arab Spring has created, inspiring new types of citizenship could do much to reducing consumption habits.  The regions’ youth have developed enormous capacities during the recent uprisings to design, to promote and to lead social campaigns.  These capacities are a huge resource for improving popular awareness of water issues and other relevant topics.


The Middle East could become fertile ground for innovation in water technologies.  These represent opportunities for economic growth.   In Saudi Arabia’s King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology, scientists are working to develop new membranes for desalination and improving solar panel technologies for the same plants.  As more and more countries suffer with these same problems, the world stands to learn a lot from the MENA region, which is being forced to confront these crises much earlier than other countries.  The techniques and technologies developed could be imported elsewhere for humanitarian and economic purposes.  MENA could be a laboratory for this very important work.


Of course neither water conservation nor technology will solve the water or the food crisis.  As the regions’ populations continue to grow and rainfall remains limited, dealing with this problem is going to be exceptionally difficult.  It’s going to require energies from all layers of society to share, produce, conserve and recycle water.  Nonetheless, efforts to collect and reclaim water, protect recharge areas for aquifers, regulate fixtures and appliances, fix leaks and generally create awareness of the importance of conservation could do a lot to make a little bit of water go a long(er) way.

More challenges for the Middle East: Food & Water

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