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Middle East Water Politics - Protecting Water Resources


by Leslie Gabriel September 27, 2014

Water, water, everywhere. But, what if it wasn’t everywhere? What if access to water was shockingly difficult?

The problem of groundwater depletion has reached crisis levels in the Middle East. And, it affects politics more than you could possibly imagine. Forget war. Forget nuclear arms and land disputes. If countries run out of water, as they may do in the next few decades, game over.

Water Resources: A Numbers Game

Water, of course, is a renewable source. But, not all regions enjoy equal access. In a report about the politics of water depletion in the Middle East, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) identifies precisely how bad the situation is. Two-thirds of the most water-poor countries are in the Middle East. It should come as no surprise that the Middle East and North Africa are dry regions without much rainfall. But, when you look at the actual numbers, the statistics are startling.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) maintains data on freshwater availability of all regions. If you compare the numbers, you quickly see that one of these zones is not like the others. For example, Southeast Asia enjoys a generous 1139 mm of rainfall per year. North America gets 637 mm, on average. By comparison, the Middle East gets only 217 mm. And, North Africa gets a pathetic 96 mm. As a result, the Middle East only controls a little over 1 percent of the world’s freshwater resources.

Water and Politics

While you might think that low groundwater reserves would make neighboring countries want to fight for control of water resources, evidence suggests that this is not the case in the Middle East. CSIS notes that countries are surprisingly egalitarian when it comes to settling water disputes. No, the real battles happen within the countries, often at the local level.

Richer Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates turn to desalination to meet their water demands. Other countries such as Yemen fight to balance agricultural demands with other water needs, leaving citizens with the short end of the stick. The United Nations reports that the annual water availability per capita in Yemen is only 135 m3, compared to an average 7,500 m3 per capita worldwide. A struggle to match supply with demand over the past few decades leaves about half Yemenis in rural areas without access to safe water.

The solution to water depletion in the Middle East is far from simple. Access to desalination technology is crucial in these driest of dry countries. But, curbing demand is every bit as important for keeping people alive.




Leslie Gabriel
Leslie Gabriel

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