Arab states urged to be open on water scarcity
Alexandria, April 2, 2010
People in the Arab world need fuller and freer information about shrinking water supplies but their governments are withholding it for fear of fuelling unrest, a United Nations expert said.
Arable land makes up just 4.2 percent of the Middle East and North Africa and is expected to shrink due to climate change -- a potential source of political instability, analysts say, in a region where economic privation has sometimes sparked conflict.
"Arab countries do not disclose enough information on their water out of concern that transparency could fuel unnecessary public concern and unrest," said Hosny Khordagui, regional program director of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) Water Governance Programme for Arab States.
Disclosing figures on water scarcity might be perceived as reflecting bad management on the part of Arab states and so is generally avoided, he told a UNDP round-table on Arab environmental issues.
"If we have public participation, we would have better management, participation and more justice," Khordagui said, adding that ministers were accountable to those who appointed them and not to the public.
"Don't expect accountability without real democracy and free elections," he said.
People in the Middle East and North Africa have access to an an average of just 1,000 cubic metres of water a year, seven times lower than the worldwide rate, according to the UNDP's Arab Human Development Report.
As climate change takes its toll and the region's populations grow at nearly twice the global average, that figure is projected to shrink to just 460 cu m by 2025.
Coordinated water policy will be a challenge in a region where water politics is often seen as a zero-sum game and can be used as a lever in larger political feuds.
"If we lose one more drop of water and our capacity to give Arab citizens their right to food, this is a political issue par excellence," said Ismail Serageldin, a former World Bank environmental expert.
In one example, a temperature rise of 1-1.5 degrees in one area of Sudan in 2030-2060 would slash maize production by 70 percent, the UNDP report said. Such scenarios could be repeated elsewhere in the region.
Agriculture consumes more than 85 percent of water in the region, home to the Fertile Crescent in which the first civilisations of the Middle East emerged. Less water could make it impossible for already poor farmers to earn a livelihood, pushing them to move to overcrowded cities.
Droughts in Syria have already displaced hundreds of thousands of people. A September UN report found that climate-related natural disasters displaced 20 million people in 2009, nearly four times more than conflicts.
"More people in Yemen will leave their villages because of water and environmental reasons," said Ali Atroos, manager of the planning department in Yemen's Ministry of Water.
Yemen is one of the region's most water-stressed countries, with per capita access to water seven times below the average in Europe. Some villages are pumped water only once a month, Atroos said. Experts urged immediate action to confront the dire issue.
"Water is a security factor. If people do not have water to drink and to use for food production, that would be a direct threat to national security," said Hassan Janabi, Iraq's permanent ambassador to UN agencies in Rome. - Reuters