'Mideast is world’s riskiest region for water security'

Study says growing shortages heighten political risk, may raise oil prices; "water isn’t going to be sole cause for civil unrest," analyst says.

By DAVID ROSENBERG / THE MEDIA LINE
March 22, 2011 20:21
4 minute read.
Israeli-Palestinian management of water sources

water sources 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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The Middle East and North Africa have the world’s least secure water supplies, a danger that heightens political risk in an already volatile region and may even lead to higher oil prices in the future, according to a study released on Tuesday.

The Water Risk Index, developed by the British risk consultants Maplecroft, found that out of 18 countries around the world at “extreme risk” to their water security, 15 are in the Middle East. The list numbers several key oil exporters, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Libya and Algeria, whose water woes could have global implications.

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The turmoil raging across the Middle East has been ascribed to a host of political and economic problems, among them inflation fanned by rising food and energy prices. Water hasn’t factored into the unrest, but experts have warned that the region’s lack of water, poor management and disputes over sharing resources may emerge as a new source of instability.

“The prevailing opinion is that water isn’t going to be a sole cause for civil unrest or international conflict” Tom Styles, an analyst with Maplecroft, told The Media Line.  “But it could be a contributory factor to these sorts of situations, or the tipping point that causes a breakout.”

In Syria, the center of unrest was in the southern city of Deraa, which has been flooded by refugees from the country’s drought-stricken east. Last September, Olivier de Schutter, United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, estimated that 1.3 million people had been affected by the four-year drought.

The Maplecroft index measures a country’s population growth, reliance on external water supplies, intensity of water usage and effectiveness of government policy, among others. By that standard, Mauritania is at the greatest risk, followed by Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt and Israel.

It also takes into account “virtual water use,” which measures the water intensity of imported goods like food, thereby putting the country at risk for water crises elsewhere in the world. When droughts and a heat wave hit the Russian farm sector last summer, the government ordered limits on wheat exports, causing prices worldwide to rise.



Water availability per person in the Middle East is about 1,200 cubic meters, less than 20% of the world average. Rivers and aquifers are being exploiting to the maximum if not more. The World Bank estimates that seven countries in the region are over-pumping their aquifers, natural reservoirs deep underground, while water flow has fallen in rivers in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon between 50% and 90% in the last five decades.

Studies by the United Nations project that some 30 nations around the world will be "water scarce" by 2025, up from 20 in 1990. Eighteen of those are in the Middle East and North Africa. "The world's top ranked water conflict hotspot is the Arab region, comprised of the Middle East and North Africa," a statement by the UN organizers of World Water Day on Tuesday warned.
Water flashpoints in the region tend to be in areas where countries share a single resource. The Nile River for instance is shared by nine countries, including Egypt and Sudan, two otherwise arid countries that get nearly all their water from the river. Israel and its neighbors have squared off diplomatically and have come to blows over the division of Jordan River’s water and aquifers.

A 2010 Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement, giving equal access to the river’s water, was signed by upstream African countries. But Egypt and Sudan have refused to sign on, fearing they will get less water than under the old accord. Egypt in now guaranteed 56 billion cubic meters out of an annual flow of 84 billion and some have threatened to use force against upstream countries. 

Among the industries at risk is the Middle East’s key petroleum sector. So-called “lift water” is pumped into the ground to force out more petroleum and prolong a well’s production. The world’s largest oil field, Saudi Arabia’s Ghawar, has been utilizing injections of sea water as production levels stagnate. Maplecroft warned that shortages of water could inhibit the use of lift water, reducing productivity and supply, raising oil prices.

Among members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, six are rated by Maplecroft as at extreme risk and two at high risk. The eight accounted for 45% of global oil out in 2009, it noted.

For business people and investors, water security should factor into their strategy, Maplecroft’s Styles said. Aside from political risk, water shortages are likely to prompt governments to regulate consumption more severely and raise costs, which could hurt industries reliant on water.

Companies also must be cognizant of “reputation risk” if their facilities are seen by the public as using too much water or degrading its quality, he said.

Climate change is likely to exacerbate the challenges to businesses as countries toughen water-usage regulations to prepare for it, Kimberlee Myers, Maplecroft’s principal environmental analyst, told The Media Line

“The weather is a bigger short-term factor than climate change, but [climate change] is factoring into regulatory policy, so it’s worth while for business to consider. Businesses aren’t coming in for the short term. They must look ahead at the next 20 years,” she said.

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