As it is, the converging effects of population growth, climate change and energy depletion look set to make the physical scarcity of water a greater problem than ever. The Middle East and North Africa are particularly vulnerable, accounting as they do for 6.3% of the world’s population but only 1.4% of its renewable fresh water. And three-quarters of the region’s available fresh water is in just four countries: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Twelve of the 15 most water-scarce nations in the world – with an average of less than 1,000 cubic metres of fresh water per person per year – are also to be found in this region, namely Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Israel and Palestine. And in eight of these countries, available fresh water is less than 250 cubic metres.
Water consumption in the region is linked overwhelmingly to industrial agriculture. From 1965 to 1997, Arab population growth drove demand for agricultural development, leading to a doubling of land under irrigation. In countries with less agriculture or industry, like Kuwait, water is largely used for domestic purposes.
But demographic expansion in all these countries is set to dramatically worsen their predicament. Although birth rates are falling, a third of the overall population is below 15 years old, and large numbers of young women either are or soon will be reaching reproductive age. The Ministry of Defence in the UK has projected that by 2030 the population of the Middle East will have increased by 132%, and that of sub-Saharan Africa by 81%, generating an unprecedented “youth bulge.”
The Water Sector Assessment Report on the Gulf countries expects that the availability of fresh water is likely to halve because of these demographic pressures, and the risk is that this will exacerbate the danger of inter-state conflicts over declining freshwater supplies. Competition to control water has already played a key role in the region's geopolitical tensions, for instance, between Turkey and Syria; Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority; Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia; as well as Saudi Arabia and its neighbours, Qatar, Bahrain, and Jordan. A halving of available water supplies due to population growth over the next 20 years could all too easily intensify these tensions and turn them into open military hostilities.
A recent study by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) suggests that water scarcity would also trigger social unrest within national borders, because of water’s important cultural and symbolic function in underpinning the social contract in the Arab world. Underground water supplies are being heavily depleted by their use in irrigating deserts, a situation which could exhaust them completely as local populations double or more in size. While economic growth, accompanied by greater urbanisation, migration to urban areas, and higher per capita incomes has been translated into greater demand for freshwater, the population movements that have resulted are now exacerbating local ethnic tensions.
“If the water goes away, then suddenly the whole deal that holds the government together goes away”, warns John Alterman, the CSIS Middle East director. He adds that this could undermine state legitimacy, radicalise ‘identity politics’ and lead to civil disorder and even state-failure. “It is a fundamental problem", he says, "for these governments and the people who live under them.”
Climate change and energy depletion are likely to further amplify these dangers. Many of the region’s irrigation systems are already under environmental strain because of salinity or over-exploitation of groundwater. From 1974 to 2004, the Arab world experienced rises in surface air temperature ranging from 0.2C to 2C, and forecasting models generally project a hotter, drier, less predictable climate that could produce a 20-30% drop in water run-off in the region by 2050, mainly due to rising temperatures and lower precipitation.
As early as 2015, the average Arab will be forced to survive on less than 500 cubic metres of water a year, a level defined as severe scarcity. Shifts in rainfall patterns will certainly affect crops, particularly rice. A "business-as-usual model" for climate change suggests global average temperatures could rise by 4°C by mid-century, and this would devastate agriculture in the Middle East and North Africa, with crop yields perhaps falling by 23-35% with weak carbon fertilisation, or 15-20% with strong carbon fertilisation.
The worldwide cost of infrastructural development capable of responding to the intensifying water crisis could amount to trillions of dollars, and even then the creation of this new infrastructure would itself be energy intensive and would therefore only mitigate the impact of scarcity on richer countries.
Hydrocarbon energy depletion is due to complicate matters even more. In its latest "World Energy Outlook" for 2010 the International Energy Agency (IEA) argued that conventional oil production worldwide most probably peaked in 2006, and is now progressively declining. This conclusion certainly fits the latest production data, which shows that world oil production, has been undulating but gradually declining since around 2005. Yet the IEA also argued that the shortfall will be made up from greater exploitation of unconventional oil and gas sources, albeit at far higher prices because of the greater environmental, energy and extraction costs.
The bad news is that the IEA’s optimism about unconventional sources could be fundamentally misplaced. The six biggest Middle East oil producing countries officially hold around 74bn barrels (Gbs) of proven oil reserves between them. But British geologist Euan Mearns of Aberdeen University notes that published reserve data puts the most likely size of these reserves at only around 350 Gbs. And the UK government’s former chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, found in a study for Energy Policy that official world oil reserves had been overstated by up to a third – implying that we are on the verge of a major ‘tipping point’ in oil production. Other studies by Sweden's Uppsala University, Reading and Newcastle Universities in the UK and Boston University in the U.S. suggest that the energy return on energy invested (EROI) of unconventional oil and gas sources, even accounting for technological advances, will be too small to mitigate peak oil.
All this means not only that the era of cheap oil is over, but that within the next decade or so major oil producing countries will increasingly struggle against costly, below-ground geological constraints.
If that proves to be the case, then by 2020, perhaps as early as 2015, the contribution of Middle East oil to world energy consumption could become negligible. That in turn would mean a catastrophic loss of state revenues for what are now the major Arab oil producing countries, rendering them highly vulnerable to the converging impacts of existing water shortages, rapid demographic expansion, climate change induced-droughts and declining crop yields.
This worst-case scenario is not inevitable, but there is only a very short window of opportunity for policies to change the situation. Revising water conservation, management and distribution efforts that have been neglected can reduce water consumption and increase efficiency, but these need to be combined with radical efforts to speed the transition away from oil dependence to a zero-carbon renewable energy infrastructure. Furthermore, concerted investments in health, education and citizens' rights, especially for women, are the key tools for alleviating population growth in the region, and unless Arab governments pursue these policy measures urgently they are unlikely to survive beyond the first quarter of this century.