Monday, March 19, 2012

Scarce Water Resources Will Drive Life-and-Death Politics by Afshin Molavi

Every day, around the globe, nearly 4,000 children die from waterborne diseases. That is 166 children every hour, nearly three per minute. More than one billion people lack clean drinking water, and more than 2.5 billion lack adequate sanitation. Those numbers tell the story: while increased attention has been paid lately to a "coming water crisis", for many, that crisis has already come.

For Arab countries, water scarcity has certainly arrived. Middle East and North African states have the least renewable water supply per capita of any region, and are considered to be one of the highest "water stress" regions in the world. With some 5 per cent of the globe's population, the Arab world has less than 1 per cent of the world's fresh water. For a region rich in other natural resources, water is not one of them.

This brewing water crisis will have diverse effects in different countries, ranging from the possibility of near-term humanitarian crises in Yemen and drought-affected North African countries, to the long-term slowing of development in the GCC.

The GCC countries are also overly reliant on others for their food security. According to an official UAE white paper prepared for the G20 summit in Cannes last year, the UAE imports 85 per cent of its food. Food security is tied up with weather patterns, rainfall and water access issues around the world.

The GCC countries, however, have the financial resources to sustain this over-reliance in the short-term. For North African countries such as Egypt, also reliant on others for their food security but with less of a financial cushion, rising food prices pose serious risks of instability.

Indeed, in the five years preceding the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt experienced three rounds of food price spikes. Anger at food inflation fed the multiple streams of resentments fuelling the uprisings.

Water is more than just life-giving nourishment or a vital ingredient of oxygen-producing ecosystems and the food we eat. It also fuels the global economy. All sources of electricity and energy require water in their production processes. 
Indeed, a senior executive of a major western oil and gas company accurately observed: "All energy companies are also, by default, water companies." With global energy consumption rising, the demand for more water will increase.

The Middle East is widely considered to be "high" or "extreme" in water stress. Yemen's water situation is particularly stark, exacerbating the many humanitarian crises the Arabian peninsula country faces: there are currently 750,000 Yemeni children suffering from malnutrition, a doubling in the past year.

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