Middle East Runng Dry - You Think Wars For Oil Were Bad!

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Middle East Runng Dry - You Think Wars For Oil Were Bad!

Post by NotRepublicanOrDemocrat on Sun Feb 24, 2013 10:35 am

What does the Arab world do when its water runs out?



By John Vidal - The Observer - Water usage in north Africa and the Middle East is unsustainable and
shortages are likely to lead to further instability – unless governments
take action to solve the impending crisis.



Poverty, repression, decades of injustice and mass unemployment
have all been cited as causes of the political convulsions in the Middle East and north Africa
these last weeks. But a less recognised reason for the turmoil in
Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen, Jordan and now Iran has been rising food
prices, directly linked to a growing regional water crisis.
The diverse states that make up the Arab world, stretching from the
Atlantic coast to Iraq, have some of the world's greatest oil reserves,
but this disguises the fact that they mostly occupy hyper-arid places. Rivers
are few, water demand is increasing as populations grow, underground
reserves are shrinking and nearly all depend on imported staple foods
that are now trading at record prices.
For a region that expects populations to double to more than 600 million within 40 years, and climate change
to raise temperatures, these structural problems are political dynamite
and already destabilizing countries, say the World Bank, the UN and
many independent studies.
In recent reports they separately warn
that the riots and demonstrations after the three major food-price rises
of the last five years in north Africa and the Middle East might be
just a taste of greater troubles to come unless countries start to share
their natural resources, and reduce their profligate energy and water use.
"In the future the main geopolitical resource in the Middle East will be
water rather than oil. The situation is alarming," said Swiss foreign
minister Micheline Calmy-Rey last week, as she launched a Swiss and
Swedish government-funded report for the EU.
The Blue Peace
report examined long-term prospects for seven countries, including
Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Israel. Five
already suffer major structural shortages, it said, and the amount of
water being taken from dwindling sources across the region cannot
continue much longer.
"Unless there is a technological
breakthrough or a miraculous discovery, the Middle East will not escape a
serious [water] shortage," said Sundeep Waslekar, a researcher from the Strategic Foresight Group who wrote the report. Autocratic, oil-rich rulers have been able to control their people by controlling
nature and have kept the lid on political turmoil at home by heavily
subsidizing "virtual" or "embedded" water in the form of staple grains
imported from the US and elsewhere.
But, says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East programme at the Washington-based Centre for
Strategic Studies, existing political relationships are liable to break
down when, as now, the price of food hits record levels and the demand
for water and energy soars.
"Water is a fundamental part of the
social contract in Middle Eastern countries. Along with subsidised food
and fuel, governments provide cheap or even free water to ensure the
consent of the governed. But when subsidised commodities have been cut,
instability has often followed.
"Water's own role in prompting
unrest has so far been relatively limited, but that is unlikely to hold.
Future water scarcity will be much more permanent than past shortages,
and the techniques governments have used in responding to past
disturbances may not be enough," he says.
"The problem will only
get worse. Arab countries depend on other countries for their food
security – they're as sensitive to floods in Australia and big freezes
in Canada as on the yield in Algeria or Egypt itself," says political
analyst and Middle East author Vicken Cheterian.
"In 2008/9, Arab countries' food imports cost $30bn. Then, rising prices
caused waves of rioting and left the unemployed and impoverished
millions in Arab countries even more exposed. The paradox of Arab
economies is that they depend on oil prices, while increased energy
prices make their food more expensive," says Cheterian.
The region's most food- and water-insecure country is Yemen, the poorest in
the Arab world, which gets less than 200 cubic metres of water per
person a year – well below the international water poverty line of
1,000m3 – and must import 80-90% o f its food.
According to Mahmoud Shidiwah, chair of the Yemeni water and environment
protection agency, 19 of the country's 21 main aquifers are no longer
being replenished and the government has considered moving Sana'a, the
capital city, with around two million people, which is expected to run
dry within six years.
"Water shortages have increased political tensions between groups. We have a very big problem," he says.
Two internal conflicts are already raging in Yemen and the capital has been
rocked by riots this month. "There is an obvious link between high food
prices and unrest [in the region]. Drought, population and water
scarcity are aggravating factors. The pressure on natural resources is
increasing, and the pressure on the land is great," said Giancarlo
Cirri, the UN World Food Programme representative in Yemen.
"If you look at the recent Small Arms Survey
[in Yemen], they try to document the increase in what they call social
violence due to this pressure on water and land. This social violence is
increasing, and related deaths and casualties are pretty high. The
death tolls in the northern conflict and the southern conflict are a
result of these pressures," said Cirri.
Other Arab countries are not faring much better. Jordan, which expects water demand to double in
the next 20 years, faces massive shortages because of population growth
and a longstanding water dispute with Israel. Its per capita water
supply will fall from the current 200m3 per person to 91m3 within 30 years, says the World Bank. Palestine and Israel fiercely dispute fragile water resources.
Algeria and Tunisia, along with the seven emirates in the UAE, Morocco, Iraq
and Iran are all in "water deficit" – using far more than they receive
in rain or snowfall. Only Turkey has a major surplus, but it is
unwilling to share. Abu Dhabi, the world's most profligate water user,
says it will run out of its ancient fossil water reserves in 40 years;
Libya has spent $20bn pumping unreplenishable water from deep wells in
the desert but has no idea how long the resource will last; Saudi
Arabian water demand has increased by 500% in 25 years and is expected
to double again in 20 years – as power demand surges as much as 10% a
year. The Blue Peace report highlights the rapid decline in many
of the region's major water sources. The water level in the Dead Sea has
dropped by nearly 150ft since the 1960s. The marshlands in Iraq have
shrunk by 90% and the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret) is at risk of
becoming irreversibly salinised by salt water springs below it.
Meanwhile, says the UN, farm land is becoming unusable as irrigation schemes and
intensive farming lead to waterlogging and desalination.
Some oil-rich Arab countries are belatedly beginning to address the problem.
Having drained underground aquifers to grow inappropriate crops for many
years, they have turned en masse to desalination. More than 1,500
massive plants now line the Gulf and the Mediterranean and provide much
of north Africa and the Middle East's drinking water – and two-thirds of
the world's desalinated water.
The plants take salty or brackish water, and either warm it, vaporise it and separate off the salts and
impurities, or pass it through filters. According to the WWF, it's an
"expensive, energy intensive and greenhouse gas-emitting way to get
fresh water", but costs are falling and the industry is booming.
Solar-powered plants are being built for small communities but no way has been found
to avoid the concentrated salt stream that the plants produce. The
impurities extracted from the water mostly end up back in the sea or in
aquifers and kill marine life.
Only now are countries starting to
see the downsides of desalination. Salt levels in the Arabian Gulf are
eight times higher in some places than they should be, as power-hungry
water plants return salt to an already saline sea. The higher salinity
of the seawater intake reduces the plant's efficiency and, in some
areas, marine life is suffering badly, affecting coral and fishing
catches. Desalination has allowed dictators and elites to continue
to waste water on a massive scale. Nearly 20% of all Saudi oil money in
the 1970s and 80s was used to provide clean water to grow wheat and
other crops in regions that would not naturally be able to do so. Parks,
golf courses, roadside verges and household gardens are all still
watered with expensively produced clean drinking water. The energy – and
therefore water – needed to keep barely insulated buildings super-cold
in Gulf states is astonishing.
A few Arab leaders recognise that
water and energy profligacy must be curbed if ecological disaster is to
be avoided. In Abu Dhabi, which is building Masdar, the $20bn futuristic city to be run on renewable energy,
the environment agency is spearheading a massive drive to reduce water
use. Concrete is replacing water-hungry grass verges and new laws demand
water-saving devices in all buildings.
"We cannot go on giving
free water and energy. It's not benefiting anyone. We have to change and
we will change. We know we must find common solutions," says Razan
Khalifa al-Mubarak, assistant head of the environment agency.
"Allah does not like those who waste," says Talib al-Shehhi, director of
preaching at the ministry of Islamic affairs. "Safeguarding resources
and water especially is central to religion. The Qu'ran says water is a
pillar of life and consequently orders us to save [it], and Muhammad
instructs us to do so."
Water awareness is definitely growing,
says Kala Krishnan, member of an eco club at the large Indian school in
Abu Dhabi. "People were amazed when we showed them how much they use in a
day. We stacked up 550 one-litre bottles and they refused to believe
it. Now schools are competing with each other to reduce water wastage."
More than 2,000 mosques in Abu Dhabi have been fitted with water-saving
devices, which is saving millions of gallons of water a year when
people wash before prayer. Other UAE states are expected to follow.
The more drastic response to the crisis is to shift farming elsewhere and
to build reserves. Saudi Arabia said in 2008 it would cut domestic wheat
output by 12.5% a year to save its water supplies. It is now
subsidising traders to buy land in Africa. Since the troubles in Egypt
and north Africa, it has said it aims to double its wheat reserves to
1.4m tonnes, enough to satisfy demand for a year.
Countries now
recognise how vulnerable they are to conflict. The UAE, which includes
Abu Dhabi and Dubai, has started to build the world's largest
underground reservoir, with 26,000,000m3 of desalinated
water. It will store enough water for 90 days when completed. The
reasoning is that the UAE is now wholly dependent on desalination to
survive. "Wars can erupt because of water," said Mohammed Khalfan
al-Rumaithi, director general of the UAE's National Emergency and Crisis
Management Authority last week. "Using groundwater for agriculture is
risky. If it doesn't harm us it will harm other generations," he told
the Federal National Council.
"We suffer from a shortage of water
and we should think about solutions to preserve it rather than using it
for agriculture," he said.
Water shortages, concludes the Blue
Peace report, are now so alarming that in a few years opposing camps
will have little choice but to co-operate and share resources, or face
ruinous conflict. That way, it says, instead of a potential accelerator
of conflict, the water crisis can become an opportunity for a new form
of peace where any two countries with access to adequate, clean and
sustainable water resources do not feel motivated to engage in a
military conflict. It sounds optimistic, but the wind of change blowing
through the region suggests everything is possible.
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