Why the Middle East and North Africa must switch to sustainable water management

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A man stands near water pumps drawing water from the Lake Assad reservoir in Raqqa province in eastern Syria on July 27, 2021. (AFP)
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Water pumps are used to draw water from the Lake Assad reservoir near the Tabqa Dam along the Euphrates river in Raqqa province, Syria. (AFP file photo)
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A youth walks with a shovel near water pumps drawing water from the Lake Assad reservoir near the Tabqa Dam along the Euphrates river in Raqqa, Syria on July 27, 2021. (AFP file photo)
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A fisherman shows fish caught in the Sel Kapani Dam Lake in the Golbasi district of Ankara on Sept. 3, 2021. (Adem Altan/AFP)
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Updated 28 September 2021

Why the Middle East and North Africa must switch to sustainable water management

  • Environmental pressures and water scarcity are contributing to instability and forced migration
  • Recycling, improved farming techniques and greater cooperation urged to reduce water waste

DUBAI: Low rainfall, limited freshwater from rivers and lakes, and dwindling non-renewable groundwater reserves make the Middle East the most water-stressed region on earth.

Meanwhile, demand is soaring — and likely to rise even further given population growth and economic development — leading to some of the highest per-capita water consumption rates in the world.

So, the region needs to get better at preserving its limited water and becoming more efficient at using what it desalinates. The good news is that the solutions are not beyond human imagining or economic feasibility.

In fact, some may be simple and affordable. A 2020 report by the non-profit World Resources Institute found that the cost could be as low as 1 percent of Saudi Arabia’s annual gross domestic product. Innovations such as solar-powered desalination, raising crop productivity “per drop,” and wastewater treatment and reuse hold great promise.

Matthew McCabe, a professor of water security and remote sensing at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, is working with the Saudi government to optimize water use for food production. Central to this is careful monitoring of water use in agriculture, the sector that consumes the most water in the Middle East and North Africa region.

The World Bank estimates that agriculture consumes about 70 percent of freshwater taken from ground or surface water sources globally. The share is even higher in the MENA region, touching 80 percent. In Saudi Arabia, about 90 percent of freshwater is used for agriculture.

“We’re looking at doing more accurate accounting of agricultural water use throughout the country and it must be done throughout the region,” McCabe said.

Agriculture consumes about 70 percent of freshwater taken from ground or surface water sources globally. (AFP file photo)

“So, the more efficiently and sustainably we can use water for food production, the better we can move toward more responsible use of our water resources. The big problem is that we’re not using desalinated water. We’re using groundwater which is not being replaced.”

According to Vangelis Constantianos, regional coordinator at the Global Water Partnership, an advocacy and skills-building network, efforts to boost food security through expanded agricultural production in an arid environment put great stress on resources if “smart” water-saving technologies are ignored.

Constantianos says desalination poses challenges of its own in the form of high energy costs and greenhouse-gas emissions. Brine discharge also harms the environment, while too much subsidized water hides the real cost of production.

“An amply provided water supply may not assist in developing a society that is conscious of the challenge and its responsibility to conserve water for its needs and nature,” he said.

That responsibility is increasing as the issue of water scarcity becomes more pressing.

Women and young village girls collect water from a rain water pool which is purified before use with tablets in Gayo village, Ethiopia. ((Shutterstock)

The WRI report estimated that 3 billion people around the world lack basic hand-washing facilities, a quarter of the world’s population lives in countries facing high water stress, and there are more than 500 “dead zones” — oxygen-poor areas in the oceans caused by untreated wastewater.

In the MENA region, environmental pressures and water scarcity are contributing to instability and forced migration. Large parts of Yemen, the Khuzestan province of Iran, Sudan and now Lebanon are facing severe water problems that have provoked anti-government protests.

“Crops depend entirely on agriculture in the arid region, and officials say that supporting agriculture stems rural migration and reduces the need to use hard currency for food imports,” The Economist said in July.

A sunrise view for a canal coming from the Nile River passing through fields of farm lands in rural road Al Mehwar, Giza, Egypt. (Shutterstock)

On the downside, the magazine said, “subsidies have long encouraged farmers in the region to waste water on a massive scale; still, leaders like to use cheap water as a way to buy support or further their interests.”

The World Bank estimates that by 2050 the impact of water scarcity may cost MENA countries between 6 and 14 percent of GDP. So, the region cannot afford business as usual.

Omar Saif, manager of Middle East Advisory Services at WSP, an engineering consultancy, said that breaking down the elements of water security needed per country can help build a clearer image of where investment should be directed. This can be particularly useful if applied to national budgeting.

Focusing on share of GDP, rather than absolute costs, helps to identify investment gaps that persist on a country-by-country basis, he said.

The Tigris and Euphrates rivers are Iraq’s main water source and essential for agriculture. (AFP file photo)

“The fact that we see under-developed countries requiring much larger shares of their GDP to address water security shouldn’t be taken as a sign of futile efforts, but rather a call to action for the international community to coordinate the allocation of their international development aid budgets,” he told Arab News.

Saif said that the WRI report sent a clear message that sustainable water solutions are within reach. However, “to reach this desired end-state will require collective action from public and private sectors.”

Water charges need to reformed and greater trans-boundary cooperation promoted. New academic programs focusing on water security and improved farming techniques can also help. “Most agricultural departments are antiquated and do not integrate the role of climate resilience, technology and business into agri-programs,” he said.


17 Countries that need 8 percent+ of GDP to deliver sustainable water management.

10 percent Global population share of the 17 countries.

75 Countries that can achieve sustainable water management for less than 2 percent of GDP.

As one of the largest consumers and producers of water in the world, Saudi Arabia is taking the initiative via mega-projects such as NEOM, the new city in the Kingdom’s northern desert that promises zero liquid discharge and uses clean energy to produce freshwater.

Saudi Arabia is also investing in more efficient desalination processes and more sustainable approaches that have the potential to be exported abroad.

But the bill is far from cheap. McCabe said that while 1 percent of GDP does not sound like a lot, in Saudi Arabia that equates to about $10 billion every year for 15 years, totaling $150 billion. In other MENA countries, the cost is around 4 or 5 percent of GDP. Recycling, therefore, is critical to an improved outcome.

Waste-water treatment plant in Saudi Arabia. (AN file photo)

“Saudi Arabia is also taking a good governance approach to water usage with Vision 2030 to dramatically increase water reuse,” McCabe told Arab News. “We need to recycle that water for other purposes, whether it’s drinking, for agriculture or food production, rather than sending it off into the ocean. We need to close the cycle.”

To that end, investing in municipal waste water could be opened up to the private sector, the experts said. A recent World Bank/IFC analysis found that if cities in emerging markets focus on low-carbon water and waste as part of their post-COVID-19 recovery, they could catalyze as much as $2 trillion in investments and create over 23 million new jobs by 2030.

While there are some signs of progress in the region, often supported by international efforts, the pace of change is not fast enough to address the growing challenges. “Lack of suitable governance and investment frameworks, and consequently of financing, plays an important role, including resulting in much more limited involvement by the private sector than required,” Constantianos said.

Iraqi boys swim with a herd of buffaloes in the Diyala River in the Fadiliyah district, northeast of Baghdad on August 2, 2021. (AFP)

While some solutions may be simple and affordable, design and implementation require a sophisticated and often tailor-made approach.

“Water flows everywhere, through economic sectors, institutions and social relations. Thus, addressing water scarcity and climate impacts requires integrated management for all natural resources at appropriate level, and not for water alone,” Constantianos said.

“We have no choice but to address this because they’re going to be long-term projects,” he said. “It’s going to take many decades to develop the infrastructure to support this.”

But unrest prompted by construction of dams, corruption, mismanagement and water shortages is already triggering political unrest and could lead to wars in the worst scenario. As The Economist warned: “Without better (water) sharing, management and investment, millions of the region’s residents risk becoming climate refugees.”


Twitter: @CalineMalek

Israel designates six Palestinian civil society groups as terrorists

Updated 5 sec ago

Israel designates six Palestinian civil society groups as terrorists

TEL AVIV: Israel on Friday designated six Palestinian civil society groups as terrorist organizations and accused them of funnelling donor aid to militants.
The charge was rejected by human rights watchdogs who said the move will stifle monitoring of potential abuses.
The designations authorize Israeli authorities to close the groups’ offices, seize their assets and arrest their staff in the occupied West Bank, watchdogs Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said in a joint statement condemning the move.
Israel’s defense ministry said the six Palestinian groups had ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLFP), a left-wing faction with an armed wing that has carried out deadly attacks against Israelis.
“(The) declared organizations received large sums of money from European countries and international organizations, using a variety of forgery and deceit,” the defense ministry said in a statement, alleging the money had supported PFLP’s activities.
The groups include leading Palestinian human rights organizations Al-Haq and Addameer, who document alleged rights violations by both Israel and the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, which has limited self-rule in the West Bank.
Asked for comment, an official with PFLP, which is on the European Union’s terrorism blacklist, did not outright reject ties to the six groups but said they maintain relations with civil society organizations across the West Bank and Gaza.
“It is part of the rough battle Israel is launching against the Palestinian people and against civil society groups, in order to exhaust them,” PFLP official Kayed Al-Ghoul said.
Al-Haq did not immediately provide comment. Addameer and another one of the designated groups, Defense for Children International — Palestine, rejected the Israeli accusations as an “attempt to eliminate Palestinian civil society.”
The other three groups listed did not immediately provide comment.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said the “decision is an alarming escalation that threatens to shut down the work of Palestine’s most prominent civil society organizations.”
They added: “The decades-long failure of the international community to challenge grave Israeli human rights abuses and impose meaningful consequences for them has emboldened Israeli authorities to act in this brazen manner.”
Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war. Palestinians seek the territories for a future state.

127 Gambians fly home in first Libya evacuation in months

Updated 22 October 2021

127 Gambians fly home in first Libya evacuation in months

  • 127 Gambian migrants were assisted to voluntarily return to The Gambia yesterday
  • Libya has become a key conduit for migrants, mainly from African countries south of the Sahara, seeking to reach Europe by sea

TRIPOLI: A group of Gambian migrants stranded in Libya have been repatriated, the United Nations’ migration agency said Friday, the first such evacuation flight in months.
“127 Gambian migrants were assisted to voluntarily return to The Gambia yesterday after IOM’s Voluntary Humanitarian Return program received clearance to resume humanitarian flights from #Libya,” the International Organization for Migration said in a tweet.
Rocked by a decade of lawlessness and war, Libya has become a key conduit for migrants, mainly from African countries south of the Sahara, seeking to reach Europe by sea.
But many end up becoming stranded in Libya, where they face grave abuses, according to international rights groups and UN agencies.
The resumption of humanitarian flights came as Tripoli hosted an international conference to seek support for stability in Libya.
The UN’s vice-head for political affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo, used the conference to urge authorities to speed up repatriations and release migrants in detention.
Libyan authorities faced international outcry earlier this month after carrying out sweeping raids described by Doctors without Borders as “violent mass arrests” that left at least one person dead.
Days later, guards had shot dead six migrants at the Al-Mabani detention facility in Tripoli, while at least 24 others were wounded, the IOM said.
Some 2,000 migrants escaped in the chaos.
The Libyan interior ministry said a “stampede” had left an “irregular migrant” dead and wounded others as well as several police officers.
The United Nations has in the past offered flights for migrants voluntarily seeking repatriation.
Its refugee agency, the UNHCR, organized one such flight to Rwanda in July with 133 asylum seekers on board — the only one authorized by Libyan authorities this year.
The UNHCR on Friday welcomed the resumption of humanitarian evacuation flights but warned that “it is not enough.”
“This is a positive development for some of the most vulnerable refugees, who have been waiting anxiously for many months to depart,” its regional envoy Vincent Cochetel said in a statement.
“But we also need to be realistic: resettlement or evacuation flights will only benefit a limited number of people.”
The UNHCR urged the Libyan government to “immediately address the dire situation of asylum seekers and refugees in a humane and rights-based manner.”
More than 1,000 vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers are currently prioritized for humanitarian flights and awaiting their resumption, it said.


In South Sudan, flooding called ‘worst thing in my lifetime’

Updated 22 October 2021

In South Sudan, flooding called ‘worst thing in my lifetime’

  • This is the third straight year of extreme flooding in South Sudan
  • The UN says the flooding has affected almost a half-million people across South Sudan since May

MALUALKON, South Sudan: He feels like a man who has drowned.
The worst flooding that parts of South Sudan have seen in 60 years now surrounds his home of mud and grass. His field of sorghum, which fed his family, is under water. Surrounding mud dykes have collapsed.
Other people have fled. Only Yel Aguer Deng’s family and a few neighbors remain.
This is the third straight year of extreme flooding in South Sudan, further imperiling livelihoods of many of the 11 million people in the world’s youngest country. A five-year civil war, hunger and corruption have all challenged the nation. Now climate change, which the United Nations has blamed on the flooding, is impossible to ignore.
As he empties a fishing net, Daniel Deng, a 50-year-old father of seven, recalls a life of being forced to flee again and again because of insecurity. “But this one event (the flood) is too much,” he said. “It is the worst thing that happened in my lifetime.”
The UN says the flooding has affected almost a half-million people across South Sudan since May. Here in Northern Bahr el Ghazal state, the Lol river has burst its banks.
This state is usually spared from extreme flooding that plagues the South Sudan states of Jonglei and Unity that border the White Nile and the Sudd marshlands. But now, houses and crops have been swamped.
A new report this week coordinated by the World Meteorological Organization warned of increasing such climate shocks to come across much of Africa, the continent that contributes the least to global warming but will suffer from it most.
In these rural South Sudan communities, shelters of braided grass put up a fragile resistance in a land of seemingly endless water.
In Langic village, Ajou Bol Yel’s family of seven hosted nine neighbors who had lost their homes. The elders sleep outside on beds protected by mosquito nets, while the children share the floor.
In Majak Awar, some 100 families have been displaced twice, in June when homes were flooded and again in August when their shelters were ruined, too.
“I want to leave for Sudan,” whispered Nyibol Arop, a 27-year-old mother of five, as she boiled her morning tea just steps away from the stagnant water that threatens her current shelter.
It is hard to see a stable future when constantly on the move, a lesson learned during the civil war that displaced millions of people before a peace agreement in 2018.
“Floods are not constant. Some people will stay, and some will go,” said Thomas Mapol, a 45-year-old father of nine, as he showed off the destroyed houses of his village near Majak Awar. “But me, I cannot move anywhere. There is no other place that I know.”

Ancient and modern fuse together at the Indian pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai

Updated 22 October 2021

Ancient and modern fuse together at the Indian pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai

  • Pavilion is one of the largest at the event and could remain as a permanent structure once the expo is over
  • The pavilion’s launch coincides with year-long celebrations marking 75 years of Indian independence 

DUBAI: Stepping into India’s pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai is like being instantly transported from the skyscraper-dominated skyline of the Middle East’s commercial capital to the hustle and bustle of South Asia.

The pavilion, located in Al-Forsan Crescent in the expo’s Opportunity District, is one of the largest at the event. Designed by CP Kukreja Architects in Delhi, it features an innovative kinetic facade made up of 600 individual blocks in assorted hues of brown and beige — not entirely unlike the desert landscape outside — arranged in a mosaic of panels, each of which rotates on an axis.

The Indian pavilion’s design represents the country’s dynamism and forward-thinking vision, echoing the theme of an “India on the move.” (Credit: Supplied)

The design is intended to represent India’s dynamism and forward-thinking vision, echoing the theme of an “India on the move;” a country rooted in its rich heritage but also avant-garde and innovative in its approach to technological and economic advances.

The pavilion is also a nod to the nation’s fight against COVID-19 and the various reforms implemented by the government to prepare for what is hoped will be a period of high and accelerated growth as India strives to become a $5 trillion economy.

Combining both its heritage and its ambition, the Indian pavilion features yoga demonstrations alongside displays on its space program. (Credit: Supplied)

“The pavilion takes visitors through the numerous phases of development and the unparalleled growth trajectory that India has experienced in all sectors, ranging from health and wellness, climate change, biodiversity, food agriculture to accomplishments in space,” Aman Puri, the pavilion’s commissioner general and the consul general of India in Dubai, told Arab News.

“We have a wide assortment of festivals and celebrations to offer at the pavilion, which provide our visitors with a once-in-a-lifetime experience to get the … feel of the diverse Indian culture.”

Visitors are greeted warmly as they arrive at the state-of-the-art pavilion, which occupies a 1.2 acre site and showcases the nation’s cultural treasures and technological marvels.

Combining both its heritage and its ambition, the Indian pavilion features yoga demonstrations alongside displays on its space program. (Credit: Supplied)

As they move along a winding pathway they pass by a live yoga display in an area surrounded by greenery, a demonstration of Ayurveda, India’s ancient art of wellness, and a sharply contrasting area dedicated to India’s space program.

Visitors then move up through several levels that offer insights into various aspects of Indian culture, heritage and modern-day achievements. Massive floor-to-ceiling LED screens show images of Indian dancers and traditional ceremonies, and showcase the nation’s successes in the fields of robotics, energy, e-commerce, healthcare, cryptocurrency and blockchain.

A number of conference rooms and meeting spaces will be used to host talks and networking events in the coming months in an attempt to encourage the forging of new international business relationships with India.

Prior to the pandemic, bilateral trade between India and the UAE was worth $60 billion. As business begins to return to normal, the governments of both countries hope to facilitate investments totaling $75 billion in the coming years.

“The expo is an important occasion to exhibit and invite the world to participate in India’s economic growth by utilizing the existing Indian talent base, creating additional employment opportunities, and empowering the secondary and tertiary sectors,” said Puri.

“The plethora of global discussions, business and investment summits will focus on creating synergies and providing opportunities to explore and accelerate trade partnerships.”

Prior to the pandemic, bilateral trade between India and the UAE was worth $60 billion. As business begins to return to normal, the governments of both countries hope to facilitate investments totaling $75 billion in the coming years.


8.5 million - Population of overseas Indians in the Gulf states (2018).

(Source: GoI, Ministry of External Affairs)

Noting that India is “a country of start-up unicorns, and with an ecosystem of more than 50,000 recognized start-ups,” Puri said that “the Innovation Hub at the India pavilion will host several leading startups from India. Expo 2020 Dubai will be an excellent platform for these startups to engage with the global market.”

As it emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, India has set its sights on becoming a high-tech, $5 trillion economy. (Credit: Supplied)

Among the events the pavilion will host is a World Majlis, which includes a program of talks including: Lessons from Space, on Oct. 19; Cities on the Move, on Nov. 2; and Off the Beaten Path, on Jan. 13.

For those interested in sampling some of India’s heritage, arts and crafts, and cultural treasures, the pavilion features a retail area with shops selling gemstones, textiles and pashminas from Jodhpur, Rajasthan and Jaipur.

And of course there is also a food court offering a wide range of Indian delicacies, along with a fine-dining restaurant, managed by Taj Hotels, where visitors can feast on a selection of the country’s rich culinary offerings.

The pavilion will also offer a packed schedule of indoor and outdoor performances of traditional Indian music and dance. In addition, visitors are invited to take part in festivities such as Diwali, the festival of light, and Holi, the festival of color.

 India’s state-of-the-art pavilion, which occupies a 1.2 acre site, showcases the nation’s cultural treasures alongside its technological marvels. (Credit: Supplied)

There are plans for the pavilion to remain as a permanent space for cultural and business exchange after the expo concludes, a testament to the long-standing relationship between the UAE and India.

About 2.75 million Indian nationals live in the UAE, representing 27 percent of the Gulf state’s population of about 10 million. The majority work in the service industry, which was badly hit by the precautionary lockdown measures during the pandemic. As a result, many Indian expats were forced to return home.

India’s participation at the expo coincides with the Indian government’s Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav initiative, also known as [email protected], a year-long celebration of the upcoming 75th anniversary of independence from British colonial rule.

The Indian pavilion’s design represents the country’s dynamism and forward-thinking vision, echoing the theme of an “India on the move.” (Credit: Supplied)

The Indian consulate has launched a number of special events, in addition to those taking place at the expo, to mark the anniversary, including competitions, documentary screenings and art exhibitions. The consulate is also reportedly planning a joint celebration to coincide with the 50th UAE National Day on Dec. 2, in celebration of the bond of friendship between the nations.

Expo 2020 Dubai is the 35th World Expo. The previous one was in Milan in 2015, and the next is scheduled to take place in 2025 in the Japanese city of Osaka, which also hosted the 1970 World Expo.

People attend the opening ceremony of the Dubai Expo 2020 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on September 30, 2021. (REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah/File Photo)

The event dates back to 1851 and the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in London, the first of what came to be called World Expos. In recent years have been staged every five years in a host city for a period ranging from three to six months.

Since 2013, when Dubai impressed a selection panel in Paris with its bid for the 2020 event, the expo has been one the most talked about and eagerly anticipated events in the UAE.

Organizers say the expo, which was delayed by a year because of the pandemic and finally got underway on Oct. 1 this year, provides a showcase for more than 200 participating entities, including 192 countries, and features 60 events. About 25 million visitors are expected before it closes in April.


Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor


In Iraqi Kurdish city, women gain power without parity

Updated 22 October 2021

In Iraqi Kurdish city, women gain power without parity

HALABJA: In the Kurdish city of Halabja in northeastern Iraq, municipal director Kwestan Faraj recalls the day when being a woman saved her life.
Though equality may be a distant reality for many women in Iraq, in Halabja women have reached top levels of local government.
Mayor, university dean, director of the veterinary department, and health spokesperson are some of the senior posts held by women in the city of around 115,000 inhabitants.
It marks something of a departure for Iraqi Kurdistan, where public affairs have long been dominated by a handful of men. Tradition and conservative values have meant that women face routine discrimination and are largely confined to the private sphere.
“When you are a woman, climbing the ranks comes with a lot of sacrifices,” Faraj, 55, said.
A former deputy head of the municipality for 15 years, Faraj launched her political career many years earlier when as a student she handed out leaflets against Saddam Hussein’s regime, which carried out an infamous chemical attack on the city shortly before the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988.
She recalled one day when an armed man arrived demanding that she sign dubious paperwork. She refused.
“I thought he would pull out his gun and shoot,” she said.
“He got up and told me: ‘If you weren’t a woman, I know what I would have done’.”
She said that in her city the drive for gender equality was largely led by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of two historical parties in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Yet some residents complain that the advances are largely cosmetic and aimed at masking the shortcomings of public services.
A junior partner in the Kurdistan regional government in Irbil, the PUK holds the post of speaker in the regional parliament, which it also awarded to a woman, Rewaz Faiq.
The party “believes in equality between men and women in all domains,” Faraj said.
“This has allowed us to achieve gender balance in administrative posts in Halabja,” said the head of the municipality, who has held the post since 2016.
Halabja prides itself on having had a woman mayor, Adela Khanum, in the first decades of the 20th century. Now it has another, Nuxsha Nasih.
It also has Kurdistan’s first female university dean, Mahabad Kamil Abdullah. “The Islamist parties were among the first to congratulate me when I became the president of Halabja University,” she said.
But it is by no means representative of the situation of women in Kurdistan as a whole. A 2018 UN report found that women in the workforce represent barely 15 percent of the women of working age. About three quarters of those work in the public sector.
In Iraq’s Oct. 10 parliamentary election, more than 90 women were elected according to preliminary results, exceeding the minimum 83-seat quota established for women in the 329-seat chamber.
Though the Kurdistan region has cultivated an image of relative stability and tolerance, women’s rights activists say key issues like forced marriage and female genital mutilation have gone unaddressed.
“It is not enough to have women in high posts. There need to be more women in the lower ranks,” said Gulistan Ahmed, who heads the governmental commission for human rights in Halabja.
Many residents are more preoccupied with the failings of public services than with seeking gender equality.
“There have been no notable changes in the city under their mandate, whether at the level of public services or with the launch of new projects,” complained Wshyar Abdulkarim, a 45-year-old spice merchant.
Female market trader Mujda Ahmed said having women in top jobs had yet to lead to an improvement in services for women.
“I have worked in the market for six years and not a single person has built public toilets for women,” she said.
“I have the impression that they are being used by their parties, which simply want to improve their image on the issue of equality, nothing more.”