The Ripple Effect of Water Insecurity
In Jordan, 30 kilometers from the Iraqi border, the sandstorm descended without warning until an eerie red glow poured through the windows. Soon the electricity went out. I put a wet rag to my face to avoid inhaling the particulate matter. My mother, born and raised in Jordan yet still unaccustomed to these storms, yelled out that it was like judgment day. Lasting mere hours, the sand storm damaged power lines and ruined produce. It was not judgment day that winter in 2007, but the increasing frequency, severity, and geographic range of sand and dust storms have become a harbinger of things to come. Climate experts say rising heat coupled with decades of poor water management and inefficient agricultural practices have degraded land across the region, making it easier for dust particles to be picked up and swept across vast areas. The phenomenon is a drastic example of how water insecurity and climate change are interconnected.
Heat is not foreign to the Middle East, but it is getting hotter. A 2022 International Monetary Fund report declared that the Middle East has been heating up twice as fast as the global average. In 2019, the World Resources Institute reported that 12 of the 17 most water-stressed countries in the world are in the MENA region. As these countries face unprecedented levels of corruption, debt, and unemployment, they will be hit with intolerable levels of water insecurity exacerbated by climate change. Economic growth to meet the former challenges will need to be environmentally sustainable to reduce the risk of exacerbating the latter. Overcoming neither challenge will be catastrophic, and the costs of business as usual are growing by the day.
Land in the Middle East is being exhausted. Ancient nonrenewable underground aquifers are disappearing. Saltwater intrudes both above and below the ground, destroying crops and subterranean sources of drinking water. For many people in the region, this is not a grim future—this is the present. Many parts of the region are becoming uninhabitable because agricultural and pastoral livelihoods are untenable with existing infrastructure. As those people encroach on cities in search of jobs and shelter, they are often not trained in other skills and become another burden on urban areas that struggled to sustain the existing population. This dramatically affects women who struggle to enter the labor force in the Middle East. Agriculture is the largest employer of women in the MENA region. The female share of the agricultural workforce increased from 30 percent in 1980 to almost 45 percent in 2010, and exceeding 60 percent in Jordan, Libya, Syria and the occupied Palestinian Territory. Women who work on farms in the Middle East are often left without skills to obtain other sources of employment or are constrained in the types of employment they may seek.
As land becomes fallow and further desertification desiccates the land people and their animals depend on, the warming may also be accelerating, creating a vicious cycle. As summer approaches, Iraqis will expect another season of temperatures hovering over 120 degrees Fahrenheit, reaching 130 degrees Fahrenheit in some countries. For reference, this kind of heat feels like being cooked. Government workers and school children will likely be told to stay home again. But with constant power cuts, there is no respite anywhere. One report coauthored by Babel guest Elfatih Eltahir has predicted that at the end of this century, areas of the Persian Gulf could be hit by waves of heat and humidity so severe that simply being outside for several hours could threaten human life. Because of humanity’s contribution to climate change, the authors wrote, some population centers in the Middle East would “exceed the threshold for human adaptability”. This will affect everything from labor laws to rescheduling the annual hajj outside of the hot summer months.
While climate change and higher temperatures is part of the problem, it is not the whole picture. Climate scientists say that rising heat combined with decades of poor water management and inefficient agricultural practices have degraded land across the region. With inefficient water usage, the environment has struggled to accommodate a far larger population. Abundant energy resources and U.S. assistance, which tended to prize near-term stability over sustainability, allowed deserts and arid regions to quickly develop, supporting huge numbers of people with reasonable standards of living and, therefore, higher levels of consumption. The total population in the MENA region increased from around 100 million in 1950 to around 380 million in 2000—an increase of 3.7 times and more than any other major world region. While some countries’ population growth is expected to level off, two of the countries most vulnerable to climate change and water insecurity, Iraq and Yemen, will continue to grow exponentially. It is expected that Iraq will grow from 44 million people to 112 million by 2100. The persistence of the current governance and economic model will compromise future generations.
One country may not be able to curb rising global temperatures alone, but it can improve water security. The glass half full (no pun intended) interpretation is that governments and their populations could work together to develop efficient water and energy management practices. It is half empty because governance is not catching up to meet the challenge.
A third of the countries in the region are embroiled in active conflicts and many others are hosting refugees displaced from those conflicts. Conflicts further delay sustainable planning, degrade human development indicators, and inhibit the data collection needed for regulation. Even states that are not suffering from conflict tend to rely on some element of patronage for governance, whereby elites capture the majority of wealth and resources and distribute just enough to core supporters to survive politically. In many countries, this form of governance has led to inefficient and unregulated water usage, forcing many to live without the human right of clean water or to pay exorbitant prices for it.
Failure to invest in equitable basic services and preservation of public goods has impacted countries that many thought would not face water stress or scarcity in the near term. Though Lebanon and Iraq were once considered relatively water abundant, both have fallen into the category of water stressed in recent years with hardly any wastewater treated—further exacerbating water insecurity. The failure to provide water, among other basic services, especially when it is clear that everyone is not suffering from the same scarcity, has brought the region to a boiling point. Opinion polls show that trust in governance in MENA regions is at historically low levels. This creates its own vicious cycle as populations and their governments engage in myopic decisionmaking that further degrades the environment. As a recent report noted, a low-trust environment shortens the planning horizon and generates little incentives for cooperation. Both are needed for improving water security within and between states.
This style of governance has completely exhausted an already vulnerable landscape. Yet changing the current model—whether in a democracy or authoritarian system—will not be easy after years of little regulation and generous subsidies.
Governments in the region should invest in infrastructure, advance transboundary water cooperation, and raise tariffs and taxes, at a moment when they have no money, no peace, and no trust from their populations and, often, their neighbors. As a result, politicians seeking to hold on to power continue to kick the reform can down the road as their populations sizzle with discomfort. For many politicians and vested interests, holding on to the perks of the job may be incompatible with equitable growth—sustainable or otherwise. Many governments responded to the Arab Spring by doubling down on surveillance, repression, and blaming the other, rather than moving toward greater openness and innovation needed to tackle this challenge.
At the moment when governments are facing these domestic dilemmas, two other major geopolitical shifts will add to the growing pains: the energy transition and renewed great power competition. The energy transition will drastically cut the revenues of countries heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Investing now in sustainable development and infrastructure needed for increased water security is essential. Secondly, a multipolar world may change the motivations of great powers and regional players. The United States, Russia, and China are competing for influence and resources across the Global South. There is a danger that, as during the Cold War, great powers will curry favor with strongman leaders to carve out their share of resources and influence before their adversary does. This race to the bottom could be a disaster for the environment and investment in public goods.
Numerous scholars and officials have focused on the impact of the energy transition in the region. Water security tends to be underappreciated as a game changer in geopolitics or U.S. domestic politics. In a sense, this is true. Energy security affects global markets for vital resources; water affects people where they are. Undoubtedly, water is different than other more commonly traded global commodities. But that is beginning to change in the Middle East. Water is already commodified and traded across international borders. Jordan and Israel recently signed a memorandum of understandingfor a water-for-energy deal, which would trade desalinated water for solar energy.
The ripple effect created by water insecurity is already being felt within countries and across the region but the instability created will eventually spill over. Protests and violence related to water access have broken out throughout the Middle East and there is a rising number actors weaponizing water from Libya to Iraq. The Pacific Institute has meticulously collected every recorded incident where water was the trigger for conflict, a weapon of conflict, or a casualty of conflict worldwide. Since the beginning of recorded history, the site of the vast majority of incidents are the Middle East and North Africa—442 by their count—and recently increasing. Earlier this year, eminent scientists and academics briefing the UN General Assembly noted that disputes over shared water resources will rise due to changes brought on by climate change and growing human demands for water.
Some states are leaning into the challenge. Gulf countries are steadily working towards treating and reusing more of their wastewater. The recent expansion of the As Samra plant in Jordan allows more than 70 percent of the wastewater to be treated in a facility that is 80 percent energy self-sufficient. But for tens of thousands leaving their farms, getting sick, and even resorting to vigilantism to get access to water in the region, current efforts across the region mean little to them in their daily lives. Business as usual is not an option.
This year, the CSIS Middle East Transformation Initiative will try to tackle this unprecedented challenge for the region, connecting the dots between water insecurity and its ripple effects on societies, the region, and the world. Simultaneously, the initiative will link the economic and political challenges in the region to their impact on water security. Through this interdisciplinary analysis and collaboration with scientists, engineers, anthropologists, development professionals, and those affected, the Middle East Program’s water security project will attempt to hone in on areas of concern and opportunities for positive transformation. In doing so, the program’s new initiative aims to provoke a paradigm shift in how international actors think about water security in the MENA region and energize the policy environment around more effective solutions.
Natasha Hall is a senior fellow with the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.