A new Strategic Foresight Group (SFG) report, titled “The Blue Peace: Rethinking Middle East Water,” indicates that the Middle East is likely to plunge into a serious humanitarian crisis due to depletion of water resources unless remedial measures are introduced urgently, according to a press release.
The report, prepared with support from the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, and input from almost 100 leaders and experts from Israel, the Palestine Territories, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Turkey, also stated that water crisis can be converted into an opportunity for regional peace.
In Abu Dhabi, which is building Masdar, the $20bn futuristic city to be run on renewable energy, the environment agency is spearheading a massive drive to reduce water use. Concrete is replacing water-hungry grass verges and new laws demand water-saving devices in all buildings.
“We cannot go on giving free water and energy. It’s not benefiting anyone. We have to change and we will change. We know we must find common solutions,” says Razan Khalifa al-Mubarak, assistant head of the environment agency.
“Allah does not like those who waste,” says Talib al-Shehhi, director of preaching at the ministry of Islamic affairs. “Safeguarding resources and water especially is central to religion. The Qu’ran says water is a pillar of life and consequently orders us to save [it], and Muhammad instructs us to do so.”
Water awareness is definitely growing, says Kala Krishnan, member of an eco club at the large Indian school in Abu Dhabi. “People were amazed when we showed them how much they use in a day. We stacked up 550 one-litre bottles and they refused to believe it. Now schools are competing with each other to reduce water wastage.”
More than 2,000 mosques in Abu Dhabi have been fitted with water-saving devices, which is saving millions of gallons of water a year when people wash before prayer. Other UAE states are expected to follow.
The more drastic response to the crisis is to shift farming elsewhere and to build reserves. Saudi Arabia said in 2008 it would cut domestic wheat output by 12.5% a year to save its water supplies. It is now subsidising traders to buy land in Africa. Since the troubles in Egypt and north Africa, it has said it aims to double its wheat reserves to 1.4m tons, enough to satisfy demand for a year.
Countries now recognise how vulnerable they are to conflict. The UAE, which includes Abu Dhabi and Dubai, has started to build the world’s largest underground reservoir, with 26,000,000m3 of desalinated water. It will store enough water for 90 days when completed. The reasoning is that the UAE is now wholly dependent on desalination to survive.
“Wars can erupt because of water,” said Mohammed Khalfan al-Rumaithi, director general of the UAE’s National Emergency and Crisis Management Authority last week. “Using groundwater for agriculture is risky. If it doesn’t harm us it will harm other generations,” he told the Federal National Council.
“We suffer from a shortage of water and we should think about solutions to preserve it rather than using it for agriculture,” he said.
Water shortages, concludes the Blue Peace report, are now so alarming that in a few years opposing camps will have little choice but to co-operate and share resources, or face ruinous conflict. That way, it says, instead of a potential accelerator of conflict, the water crisis can become an opportunity for a new form of peace where any two countries with access to adequate, clean and sustainable water resources do not feel motivated to engage in a military conflict. It sounds optimistic, but the wind of change blowing through the region suggests everything is possible.
- 10.7% Food-price inflation in Egypt during 2010.
- 25% Expected increase in Saudi water demand up to 2020.
- 2.9% Yemen population growth each year.
- 14 cubic kilometres of water loss from Dead Sea in the past 30 years (1980-2010).
- 240 cubic metres per person annual water use in Israel.
- 75 cubic metres per person annual water use in Palestinian West Bank.
- $0.53 Cost per cubic metre of desalinated water.
- 120 Desalination plants throughout UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran.