Water scarcity is one of the most alarming food security issues for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Particularly given that the availability of fresh water is to fall 50% by 2050, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
MENA countries are suffering from extreme water scarcity, with per capital water supply below the 1200 cubic meters per year. Moreover, with the population expected to grow from 300 million today to around 500 million in 2025, per capital availability is expected to halve by 2050.
Most of the nations in the region including Iran have inefficient water management, particularly in the agricultural sector which accounts for more than 85 percent of water use. Furthermore, lack of rainfalls, inefficient agricultural sector and high evaporation of surface water have exacerbated the water crisis in region.
The losses of water reserves are staggering. In seven years, beginning in 2003, parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers lost 144 cubic kilometers of stored freshwater – or about the same amount of water in the Dead Sea, according to data compiled by the Grace mission and released last year.
Only a small portion of water loss was due to evaporation of surface water and drought. Majority of water lost, about 60% was due to reductions in the groundwater. During the last 10 years, up to 75 percent of the farmers of the MENA countries have relied on pumped groundwater to water their corps. Hence, given the fact that agricultural sector consumes 85 percent of water in the MENA countries, its inefficiency and the alarming threat of water shortage in the region, governments are in dire need to reform water as well as agricultural policies.
Many mistake the concept of food security with food self-sufficiency, while the two stand at the very opposite ends of the spectrum. This conceptual misunderstanding has also affected the agricultural policy of the nations in the region. Saudi Arabia, with more than 20 years of wheat self sufficiency for example, announced in 2008 that they would be stopping wheat production. The underlying reason was the arid nature of the country, in which there is little farming without irrigation. According to the Water Footprint network, an institution measuring the water footprint in production of various commodities, 1827 litre/kg is the average water footprint in the production of wheat. In a country suffering from water scarcity such policies seem to be only endangering food security.
Hence, given the rising population, water scarcity and economic dependency on the agricultural sector, MENA countries need to reform their strategic food security policies to avoid worsening the currently existing water crisis in the future.
1. Infrastructural efficiency and effective policies: According to the World Bank, leakages in urban systems across the MENA region are often about 40-50 percent. Considering the water footprint in production of agricultural commodities, countries need to adopt efficient policies taking into account their water scarcity. MENA countries would be better off importing commodities such as wheat in comparison to domestic production which could exacerbate water crisis. Furthermore, public investment in infrastructure should help reduce the world record water leakage of 40-50 percent in countries of the region.
2. Agricultural development: Many of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa suffer from high rate of water waste in the agricultural sector. Statistics shows that more than half of water withdrawn for agriculture does not reach the plants as intended. This in particular requires cautious as well as strategic planning by the governments. Agricultural sector remains the leading economic sector in the developing countries, including in the MENA region. Therefore, agricultural reform policies adopted must place particular emphasis on improving water productivity in the agricultural sector, reducing water waste and the introduction of high tech advanced agricultural techniques.
3. Other policies that the World Bank identifies as critical for the countries of the region are:
• Expanding wastewater collection and treatment services, improving the sanitary conditions of urban areas through the collection and treatment of wastewater.
• Improving irrigation efficiency, re-use of treated wastewater and other issues
Food security remains a strategic area for most of the nations on Earth. From the European Union to the United States and the nations in the MENA region, all strive to ensure a secure and stable food market for their citizens. However, policies adopted by countries must take into account the availability of their natural resources. Given the water scarcity in the Middle East and North Africa, countries need to reform their agricultural policies towards efficient use of water resources, improvement of infrastructural efficiency and food security rather than food self-sufficiency. Considering limited natural agricultural resources such as water, emphasis on food security through domestic self sufficiency is not only economically unwise, it would also exacerbate water crisis and undermine food security.
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