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Sustainable path to water security urgent priority for MENA region

The inadequate supply of water and sanitation is costing the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region around US$21 billion per annum in economic losses, according to a new World Bank report. Measures to improve the management and distribution of scarce water resources are now vital for the region’s growth and stability as delegates attending World Water Week in Stockholm, Sweden, were told.

The report “Beyond Scarcity: Water Security in the Middle East and North Africa“, which was launched August 29 during a special session focused on MENA at the World Water Week conference in Stockholm, draws on regional and global examples to show that limited water resources need not restrict the region’s future, but that a combination of technology, policy and management can convert scarcity into security.

Offering a comprehensive analysis of one of the region’s most significant challenges, the report examines the sustainability and efficiency of current water resources management, the challenges to maintain and extend access to affordable water services, and the growth of water-related risks and the adequacy of the actions taken to address them.

If we think of water resources as a bank account, then the region is now seriously overdrawn. Drawing water from rivers and aquifers faster than they can be replenished is equivalent to living beyond one’s means, and it undermines a country’s natural capital, affecting longer-term wealth and resilience. But there are solutions, and they start with clear incentives to change the way water is managed, said Hafez Ghanem, World Bank Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa.

High surface water stress

Over 60 percent of the MENA region’s population lives in areas with high or very high surface water stress, compared to a global average of about 35 percent. Yet despite water scarcity, the region has the world’s lowest water tariffs and, at two percent, the highest proportion of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) spent on public water subsidies.

Dr Mohamed Abdel Atty, Egyptian Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation and Vice-President North Africa, African Ministers Council on Water (AMCOW) speaking on wastewater policy implementation challenges during the AMCOW Ministerial Panel session at World Water Week 2017 in Stockholm, Sweden.

Dr Mohamed Abdel Atty, Egyptian Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation and Vice-President North Africa, African Ministers Council on Water (AMCOW) speaking on wastewater policy implementation challenges during the AMCOW Ministerial Panel session at World Water Week 2017 in Stockholm, Sweden.

Low service tariffs discourage efficient use of water. Increasing water service fees would signal the true value of the dwindling resources and encourage conservation. It can also provide financing for water resources protection, infrastructure maintenance, and ensuring equitable and reliable service delivery.

Along with better water management, there is room for increasing the supply through nonconventional methods such as desalination and recycling. Fortunately, many countries have demonstrated success in implementing innovative programs to reduce the amount of treated water that is lost through leakages before it reaches the customer, as well as producing nonconventional water. The cost-effectiveness of these technologies is also rapidly improving, changing the landscape of options for the next generation of water management, said Guangzhe Chen, Senior Director of the World Bank’s Global Water Practice.

The potential for recycling has yet to be fully exploited in the region. Currently, more than half of the wastewater collected in the MENA region is returned to the environment untreated, resulting in both health hazards and wasted water resources.

However, positive experiences in Jordan and Tunisia highlighted during the conference show that wastewater can be safely recycled for use in irrigation and managed aquifer recharge.

Coffee breaks at World Water Week provide ample networking opportunities.

These new technologies combined with new policies can chart a course toward water security, but it will need to be driven by a commitment at all levels of society: from women and young people at the household and community level to governments ready to cooperate at the regional level.

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