How ‘liquid of life’ is under threat in the Middle East

A Palestinian boy, left, cools off with water from a jerrycan during a heatwave at Al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City. Cleaning up after a flash flood in the Saudi capital Riyadh, below, in 2016. (FP)
Updated 22 March 2019

How ‘liquid of life’ is under threat in the Middle East

  • An increasing number of people in the region do not have access to clean water and basic sanitation
  • In 2015, there were more than 51 million people in the Arab region lacking access to basic drinking water services, and more than 74 million without access to basic sanitation services

DUBAI: World Water Day had somewhat of an abysmal feel to it across the Middle East this year, as the region witnesses a growing number of people with no access to supplies of the vital resource.

Although the issue of supply has always been critical for the Arab region, known to be one of the most water-scarce in the world, matters are only getting worse with a rise in refugees and the displaced.

“The freshwater scarcity situation is aggravated by several factors, such as dependency on shared water resources, climate change, pollution, non-revenue water losses from aging systems, intermittency, inefficient use, and high population growth,” said Ziad Khayat, first economic affairs officer in water resources in the Sustainable Development Policies Division at the United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA). “Occupation and conflict also affect people’s ability to access water and sanitation services. The Arab region is perhaps the only one in the world still experiencing direct military occupation.”

He spoke of the Israeli occupation of Arab territories, which affects access to water resources and the ability of countries to properly manage and provide required water and sanitation services, with a ripple effect on food security, health and development. “Armed conflict in the region has resulted in the destruction of the water and sanitation infrastructure, hampering the provision of safe drinking water and sanitation,” he said. “In response to shortages, households resort to unregulated water vendors relying on compromised resources, such as unprotected wells. In addition, damaged wastewater systems have resulted in river waters and shallow wells becoming contaminated.”

Water shortages and electricity outages have rendered many health care facilities non-functional, while vulnerability to the outbreak of waterborne diseases, particularly for people living in conflict-affected countries, has greatly increased. “The systemic conditions affecting the Arab region’s water security are not expected to improve in the near future,” he said. “In fact, climate variability and change are projected to impose additional pressures, with adverse impacts on the quantity and quality of freshwater resources in an already water-scarce region, affecting its ability to ensure food security, sustain rural livelihoods and preserve ecosystems.”

A higher frequency and intensity of floods, droughts and extreme weather is being experienced in many countries, which aggravates the situation of vulnerable communities and has led to economic losses and environmental degradation in several parts of the region. “The region has a high population growth rate and is one of the most urbanized in the world, with more than 58 percent of the population now living in cities,” Khayat said. “It has witnessed significant and uneven urban transformations, with some countries undergoing rapid wealth generation, others confronting economic challenges, and several afflicted by conflicts that have led to major displacement and migration of large sections of the population.”

Such trends are expected to place more stress on the urban infrastructure, particularly in water, given the scarcity conditions in the region. And with 86 percent of the region’s population — or nearly 362 million people — living in countries under water scarcity or absolute water scarcity, action is needed. “The predictions are that water scarcity is only going to get worse unless we change the way we manage the resource,” said Monika Weber-Fahr, executive secretary at the Global Water Partnership. “I remain an optimist. We were able to meet some of the water-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and now, with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there is a new and broader resolve to, not just improve water supply and sanitation, but take a more holistic approach to managing water, including its transboundary aspects.”

“Leaving no one behind” is the theme of this year’s World Water Day at the UN. The central challenge, Weber-Fahr believes, is that to achieve efficient, equitable, and sustainable water management, all parties must have genuine opportunities to actively participate in water management decisions. “Only then can decisions be taken that reflect how we all value water — reflecting its social, economic and environmental value,” she said. “We need to create a safe space for people to come together to build common ground for water management decisions, working with everyone, everywhere.”

In 2015, there were more than 51 million people in the Arab region lacking access to basic drinking water services, and more than 74 million without access to basic sanitation services. Access to water and sanitation  is also lacking in rural areas compared with urban areas. “The record shows that in the past 10 to 12 years in the Arab region, the overall proportion of population with access to safe drinking water has improved from 85 percent to 90, almost reaching the global average of 91, but deteriorated in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Yemen, where it dropped from 94 percent to 88 due to military occupation, civil conflicts and insufficient investments,” said Dr. Waleed Zubari, professor in water resources management at the Arabian Gulf University in Bahrain. “Disparity between urban and rural population in both services continues to be considerably large, especially in the lower-income countries. This is expected to continue with the civil conflicts in Syria and Yemen and in Iraq, and under the military occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of the Gaza Strip.”




If only excess water during rainy days can be stored for use during the dry months, water shortage wouldnot be much of a problem. (AN file photo)

Climate change and drought are also expected to worsen river flows, which is the main source of water for many Arab countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria. “Whether we have achieved a universal access to water for all the population or not, there are some challenges that will stay with us in the Arab region,” he said. “Scarcity of water resources and limited endowments facing increasing water demands due to increased population will continue to be a major challenge in the region. Another issue that needs immediate attention is the water supply and use efficiency, recycling and reusing water, considered very low in the region, and if worked on, will reduce water stress tremendously.”

Peace and stability will also help improve the situation, as well as rebuilding the water sector in countries shattered by civil war and occupation. Similarly, water management, efficiency and conservation in policies will need to progress.

For Dr. Ahmed Murad, dean of the college of science at United Arab Emirates University, said that providing clean water for the population is essential for all communities. “Historically, the absence of water could increase conflicts between nations,” he said. “Latest statistics show that about 844 million people in the world live without access to safe water, and one in nine lack the access to safe water.”

He spoke of more pronounced circumstances in the Middle East, with high temperatures and a low amount of rainfall. “Such conditions with population growth may reduce the availability of clean water due to a high demand on water resources,” he said. “The limited and diverse water resources will pressurize natural resources, and this will continue to deteriorate if no action is taken.” 

 


Dick Cheney: Upcoming decade bleak if US adopts ‘disengagement’ policy

Updated 10 December 2019

Dick Cheney: Upcoming decade bleak if US adopts ‘disengagement’ policy

  • Former US vice president sounds warning during panel discussion on ‘The global order 2030’
  • Remarks seen as indirect criticism of President Trump’s pledge to pull forces out of Syria

DUBAI: Dick Cheney, one of the most influential vice presidents in US history, has warned that “American disengagement” from the Middle East would only benefit Iran and Russia.

The 78-year-old politician’s warning came during a speech at the Arab Strategy Forum (ASF) in Dubai, an annual event in which the world’s leading decision-makers address global challenges and opportunities in “a precise, balanced and politically scientific manner.”

Cheney’s remarks could be seen as indirect criticism of US President Donald Trump’s pledges to pull forces out of northern Syria.

Addressing conference delegates, he cited the withdrawal of US troops from Syria and the 2015 lifting of sanctions against Iran during Barack Obama’s presidency, as events that amplified instability in the region.

“Our allies were left abandoned, and no one wants to feel that way again,” said Cheney, who was chief executive of Halliburton between 1995 and 2000 and held high posts in several Republican administrations.

The former VP’s remarks came during the forum’s concluding session titled, “The global order 2030: The Unites States and China,” which was attended by Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum.

Joined by Li Zhaoxing, a former Chinese foreign minister, in a candid panel discussion, Cheney offered his views on the world order in the next decade within the context of Iran’s regional ascendancy, China’s rise and Russian ambitions in the Middle East.

“I am not here to speak on behalf of the US government, or to speak to it,” Cheney said, adding that his talking points reflected concerns he suspected everyone shared.

“For decades, there’s been a consensus of America’s influence in the world and how to use it,” he said, citing instances where US disengagement had caused the political situation in the Middle East to implode.

“Humanity has benefited from America’s protectionism of the world and its relationship with its allies in the region.”

According to him, the upcoming decade would be bleak should the US adopt a disengagement policy, with the pressures most felt by supporters and partners in the Middle East.

Turning to the role that the US and China would play in the global status quo by 2030, Cheney said there were still concerns over China’s reputation.

“We had hoped that there would be a political evolution in China, but that hasn’t happened yet,” he added.

Li said: “China will never learn from a world superpower and will never try to be hegemonic,” citing as examples China’s strong relations with the UAE and the wider Arab world, and the impact of the Belt and Road Initiative (a global development strategy) on Chinese foreign policy.

“History is the best teacher, but the US has forgotten its own history. You don’t keep your promises,” added Li, directing his statement at Cheney.

Cheney said that since the end of the Cold War, the US had expected that its policy toward China would have had a beneficial effect on its behavior and helped to deepen bilateral relations.

“It was disappointing to see that these expectations were not borne out – China has only grown richer, the regime has become more oppressive, and instead of evolving, it became more assertive,” he said.

In a separate ASF meeting at the Ritz-Carlton, Dubai International Financial Center, Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank, discussed Iran’s policies in a session titled, “The race for relevance and influence in the region: GCC, Iran, Turkey and Russia.”

Sadjadpour said he expected in the next 10 years to see the arrival of “an Iranian Putin” with a military background as the country’s next leader.

“After 40 years of a clerical regime and a military autocracy, there is now a rise of Persian nationalism. This is a shift from the sheer revolution ideology,” he said.

Sadjadpour said there had been an evolution of “Shiite Arab” identity during the past two decades, with the focus more on religion than nationality.

Under the circumstances, he noted that Sunni Arab powers had an important role to play in welcoming Shiite Arabs into their fold “and luring them away from Iran.”

The analyst added that the future of the Arab world could not be explored and forecast without considering a growing mental health crisis. “Today, hundreds of millions of people in the region suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and the effects of this will be with us for decades to come, resulting in issues like radicalism.”

He said there was a need for training thousands of counselors in the field of mental health in order to reach out to those whose lives had been robbed by extreme violence and conflicts.