Water is potentially a matter of conflict and death as well as life in the Arab region, which is why it is such a sensitive subject — on the ground and in negotiations for United Nations conferences such as the Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi (12–16 December) and next year’s Rio+20 meeting in Brazil.
Negotiators for the countries in the region have many concerns, but it almost always comes back to water, they say.
Fittingly, water was selected as one of the Eye on Earth’s "special initiatives" that the meeting recommends should be taken to Rio+20.
Arab world concern with water is not surprising, because the region is one of the driest in the world. A report by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development, based in Beirut, says that more than 70 percent of the land is dry and rainfall is sparse and poorly distributed. And it’s likely to get worse: "Climate change will exacerbate the situation," says the report.
It quotes climate change models that suggest that by the end of the century Arab countries will see a 25 percent reduction in rainfall, and a similar increase in evaporation rates: "As a result, rain-fed agriculture will be threatened, with average yields estimated to decline by 20 percent."
Bringing the message home to the Eye on Earth participants, the secretary general of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED), Najib Saab, said, "Almost three years from now, the average share of renewable water in a UAE will be 26 cubic meters a day for every person … and the annual per capita share in the Arab world will be less than 500 cubic meters, which is below one-tenth of the world’s average of 6000 cubic meters."
This is a real and growing crisis. One of the responses is a feeling that the challenge can be met only by the sharing of data and cooperation. No country can face this alone.
This is the view of most delegates from the region at Abu Dhabi. But agreeing on a regional approach is not always easy.
There is another problem, too: Water professionals are concerned that public awareness of the full extent of water problems, present and future, is limited.
In a panel discussion during the Eye on Earth Summit, Mohamed al-Madfaei, deputy manager of environmental strategy and policy coordination at the Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi, identified the lack of a regional approach to awareness of water problems as key.
People don’t know how to use water carefully, he said. "Water awareness programs seek to create a global network to support coordination, and they seek to educate people."
He cited the examples of the Heroes of UAE campaign, which focuses on educating children on environmental issues, including water, so that they can influence their families, Clean-UP UAE, and the country’s national Paper-Less Day on 3 June.
And awareness is not simply a top-down matter. "Governments need some awareness too," Najib Saab told SciDev.Net.
Governments could take responsibility by establishing policies to encourage greater efficiency in the use of water resources. This would send a strong message to the public that using water costs money.
Policy is also a concern of Rachael McDonnell, a Dubai-based water specialist with the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture. She told SciDev.Net that a "limited policy development process" was part of the water scarcity problems in the Middle East and North Africa region: governments, she said, thought mainly in terms of short-term policies.
She also pinpointed the problems that inevitably arise when it comes to sharing data.
"There are big difficulties in getting water data or sharing it, even within the same country, and this leads to bad decision-making,” she said. She summed up the problem: “Scarce data in a water-scarce region."
There are good examples of sharing, however. "Our water data are available online," declared Madfaei. "We don’t hide any of them."
Nevertheless, Madfaei told SciDev.Net that he agreed that "with water security, it is very difficult." In the Gulf, he said, countries tend to cooperate, and there is no water conflict. The problem occurs mostly between countries that share water, such as Egypt and other countries along the Nile.
"A lot of countries have conflicts with regards to water, and with quotas and water-sharing as well. Maybe that’s a challenge but in the end it is up to people's political will to try to find a compromise," he said.
Faris Sayegh, senior consultant at GPC Global Information Solutions (GPC-GIS), "a global network of information professionals," said that some countries took national security as a reason to hide water information, but it was a wrong approach: information could help solve, rather than exacerbate, water conflicts.
"The conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia over the waters of the Nile is a good example of how sharing data is important," he explained.
"Egypt claims that new Ethiopian dams will significantly affect its water share, and Ethiopia is underestimating the impact of building the dams. So in this case, sharing data with independent institutions capable of analyzing the statistics could help solve this conflict."
It sounds promising. But, as already indicated, the path to sharing and cooperation is never straightforward. Mohamed A. Dawoud, manager of the water resources department at Environment Agency–Abu Dhabi, injects a note of reality: "Making all the water data available is not correct. Countries should allow access only to relevant data."