“Doha has just three days’ supply”: are water shortages the biggest threat to the Middle East?

Date farms at Liwa Oasis, United Arab Emirates. Image: Google.

Those who visit the Middle East and North Africa from more temperate climates are often struck with how hot and dry the region is, and how scarce its rainfall. Some wonder why cities became established here, and how they continue to exist despite the lack of renewable freshwater.

These concerns are not entirely groundless. Yet these cities’ existence is not in any way miraculous: it’s merely an example of how one can strike an unsustainable balance between growth and limited resources.

The cities in this region may appear unusual today, but like most around the world, most of them grew out of settlements that had access to enough water to sustain life. This is not to say the region’s cities only grew around water sources: have other favourable geographical characteristics, too.

A brief gazetteer

Many of the region’s cities benefited – still benefit – from proximity to a water body that moderates their temperature. Quite a few benefited from a geography that allows natural ports: these include Alexandria, Jeddah, Aden, Haifa, Acre, Byblos, Casablanca,Tunis, Muscat, and Manama. Others – Doha, Dubai, Kuwait – began life as small pearling ports.

The region’s cities are where they are because of water, not despite the lack of it.

Some regional cities benefited from proximity to land trade routes (Aleppo, Marrakesh, Sana’a); others grew near large navigable rivers (Cairo, Baghdad, Basrah). In some cases, cities grew in locations where the climate was more temperate due to altitude (Amman, Aleppo, Sana’a, Taif). In at least two cases – Jerusalem and Mecca – it was spiritual significance that drove city growth.

One factor remains constant in the development of all these cities, though: none of them would have been possible without access to fresh water, be that ground water, surface water (rivers), or direct rainfall. The region’s cities are where they are because of water, not despite the lack of it.

An oasis along a seasonal stream in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Calflier001.

In more temperate parts of the region, where the terrain and climate permitted, cities emerged around small local rivers and aquifers recharged by precipitation on nearby mountains. This is generally the case in both the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Palestine) and the Maghreb (Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco).

By way of example, Damascus grew around the Barada river, which originated in the Anti-Lebanon mountains, less than 20 miles away. Marrakesh grew above an aquifer that gets recharged by snow melt from the Atlas mountains, 30 miles away.


In drier parts of the region, such as the Gulf (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE), water scarcity made city growth more challenging. Abu Dhabi, for example, was settled after one freshwater well was discovered on the island. The well was so precious that it was protected by a fort.

Doha and Medina both emerged around a number of wells. Riyadh and its  predecessor Der’eyah grew on the east bank of Wadi Hanifa stream; theit supported a population of almost 30,000 before the discovery of oil.

Jeddah and Muscat grew rather differently. Both cities emerged on a narrow flat strip between a mountain range and the sea, making the most of the seasonal stormwater drains, at the cost of occasional flooding.

Then there are the Egyptian, Iraqi, and eastern Syrian cities, which grew on the banks of large trans-national rivers that originate in plateaus outside of the region. The Nile, the Tigris, and the Euphrates each provided enough water for the cities on their banks to overcome occasional droughts, and have ensured continuous civilisation since antiquity (longer, indeed, than anywhere else in the world). They also provided enough mud deposits for agriculture: here, too, the cost has been regular flooding.

Burning oil to make water to make oil

With the exception of the cities along these three large rivers, water has remained a limited resource, and the region could only sustain a limited population size. So as its population grew, and their standard of living increased, demand for water in the cities of the Middle East rose – and natural water resources were no longer sufficient to meet demand.

In the 20th century, population growth accelerated at such a rate that regional cities could no longer live within their sustainable environmental boundaries and additional water sources had to be found. In just 50 years the population of the region more than tripled, rising from 97m in 1960 to 351m in 2010.

Growth of groundwater-based centre pivot irrigation in Saudi Arabia between 2000-2010 before being scaled back. Image: Google.

With limited rainfall and ground water, and newly found oil wealth, the Gulf subregion turned towards desalination to keep up with demand. Rapid population growth in cities such as Riyadh – now 190 times larger than it was before the discovery of oil – may have justified a decision across the oil rich region to use some the oil to “manufacture” potable water.

Saudi Arabia alone burns 1.5m barrels of oil every day to desalinate water, an amount equivalent to the daily oil consumption of Italy

It’s also possible to argue that it was desalination, and the availability of “easy water”, that made such population growth possible: that in turn created a need for more desalination. The result was a demand cycle that’s really hard to break.

Either way, desalination remains a major component of water supply in the region. It is currently estimated that 70 per cent of the world’s desalination capacity is in the Gulf states. The region is generally considered to have spearheaded advances in desalination technology.

This focus on desalination came despite its high energy costs. The International Energy Agency estimates that desalination in the Gulf represents approximately 12 per cent of the region’s total energy use. Saudi Arabia alone burns 1.5m barrels of oil every day to desalinate water, an amount equivalent to the daily oil consumption of Italy. Similarly, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi uses over half of its domestic energy to make potable water.

Ironically, given the water needs of the oil industry, many of the Gulf states find themselves in a situation where they need to burn oil to make water, which they then use to extract more oil. 

The Gulf countries have also tapped into their ground water reservoirs. These are non-renewable fossil aquifers and, soon enough, this approach proved unsustainable.

Ground water withdrawal over the last 30 years in the UAE has caused the fresh water table to drop by a meter, a rate which risks the complete depletion of UAE ground water within the next half a century. Similarly, after its ground water withdrawal reached alarming levels, Saudi Arabia recently had to scale back its wheat self-sufficiency program; by 2016 it’ll rely on importing 100 per cent of its food.

Watching the aquifer fall

Other subregions have decided to live within their means – but only relatively. They’ve largely accepted that per capita water resource will inevitably dwindle as their populations growth, but still occasionally tap into their non-renewable ground water.

The Yemeni capital is expected to be the first city in the world to run out of economically viable water supplies

The most extreme case of such tapping is Sana’a where a mix of rapid population growth and excessive ground water use saw its water table dropping by 2 meters a year. The Yemeni capital is expected to be the first city in the world to run out of economically viable water supplies, potentially by 2017.

Even Egyptian and Iraqi cities, which have historically enjoyed abundant water, are facing challenges. Egyptian per capita water availability is expected to reach severe scarcity levels (that is, 500m3 per capita per year) by 2025. Despite access to half of the Nile’s water, Egyptian cities’ demand for water currently outstrips supply by 27 per cent, and population growth is expected to trigger shortages.

Iraqi cities, on the other hand, appear less at risk, as they are only expected to reach water stress levels (1500m3 per capita per year) by 2025. But things are worse than they seem: this 25 per cent reduction of per capita water availability represents the steepest drop in the region.

Considering all the different water sources on offer, the region’s overall supplies remain quite low: they average just 1076m3 per capita per year, just over the 1,000 m3 scarcity threshold which identifies where a country’s water availability represents a barrier to development. In fact, most of the region’s countries have water availability below the scarcity level. The world average is 8,500m3 per capita per year.

Despite this scarcity, and the high cost of water desalination, water in the Middle East remains relatively cheap. As a result of heavy government subsidies, the final consumer – be that industry, agriculture, or households – is unaware of the true cost of water: something that’s disincentised the introduction of water efficiency measures across most of the region. The region has the second lowest water productivity levels globally, generating less than $7 of GDP for every cubic meter of water used.

The elephant in the room here is the 1.5m km2 of agricultural land which represent the region’s agriculture sector. That represents 7 per cent of the region’s landmass; but it accounts for 85 per cent of water consumed, compared to 70 per cent globally.

This disparity can partly be attributed to the sector’s reliance on inefficient irrigation techniques: it makes heavy use of flooding and furrow irrigation, while neglecting micro irrigation techniques such as drip irrigation. With the exception of Israel and Jordan, most of the region’s states have failed to shift their agricultural systems towards water efficient irrigation techniques.

Where now?

The situation is challenging, but the region’s cities are not necessarily doomed to an unsustainable future. To meet growing demand, they’ll have to work on both securing sustainable water supplies and on managing demand. But they’ll need to do this in the context of population growth, conflicts and climate change.

Given the region’s population growth rate, per capita water availability is expected to fall by half by 2050. In addition, climate change is expected to shift rain fall patterns: total rainfall is expected to drop by 20-30 per cent by 2070.

Desalination also comes with significant risks, and the cities of the Gulf are particularly vulnerable to supply shocks. Doha, for example, is estimated to have just three days' water supply; it’s currently building a strategic reservoir that will raise this to a week.

The desalination process is causing environmental damage, too. It is thought that desalination has increased the salinity of the water in the Gulf itself by 2 per cent over the last 20 years. What's more, an average of 75 per cent of the region’s surface water originates outside it. That leaves it vulnerable to future resource conflicts.

One way to achieve sustainability and water security in the region would be to fully embrace solar desalination. That would allow cities to leverage solar energy, the region’s most abundant renewable energy source.

This option would require significant infrastructure investment – an investment that many cities may feel uneasy about. But if the long term future hangs in the balance, such investment may be the difference between an abandoned oasis and a sustainable one.

Karim Elgendy is a sustainability consultant based in London. He is also the Founder and Coordinator of Carboun, an advocacy initiative promoting sustainability in Middle East cities.

He tweets at @CarbounCities.

 
 
 
 

The Thessaloniki dig problem: How can Greece build anything when it’s swarming with archaeologists?

Archaeological finds on display in an Athens metro station. Image: Gary Hartley.

It’s fair to say that the ancient isn’t much of a novelty in Greece. Almost every building site quickly becomes an archaeological site – it’s hard to spin a tight 360 in Athens without a reminder of ancient civilisation, even where the city is at its ugliest.

The country’s modern cities, recent interlopers above the topsoil, serve as fascinating grounds for debates that are not just about protecting the ancient, but what exactly to do with it once it’s been protected.

The matter-of-fact presentation that comes with the many, many discoveries illustrates the point. Athens often opts to display things more or less where they were found, making metro stations a network of museums that would probably take pride of place in most other capitals. If you’re into the casual presentation of the evocative, it doesn’t get much better than the toy dog on wheels in Acropolis station.

That’s not even close to the extent of what’s available to cast an eye over as you go about your day. There are ruins just inside the city centre’s flagship Zara store, visible through the glass floor and fringed by clothes racks; Roman baths next to a park cafe; an ancient road and cemetery in an under-used square near Omonia, the city’s down-at-heel centre point.

Ruins in Zara. Image: Gary Hartley.

There is undoubtedly something special about stumbling upon the beauty of the Ancients more or less where it’s always been, rather than over-curated and corralled into purpose-built spaces, beside postcards for sale. Not that there isn’t plenty of that approach too – but Greece offers such sheer abundance that you’ll always get at least part of the history of the people, offered up for the people, with no charge attached.

While the archaic and the modern can sit side by side with grace and charm, economic pressures are raising an altogether more gritty side to the balancing act. The hard press of international lenders for the commercialisation and privatisation of Greek assets is perhaps the combustible issue of the moment – but archaeology is proving something of a brake on the speed of the great sell-off.

The latest case in point is the development of Elliniko – a site where the city’s decrepit former airport and a good portion of the 2004 Olympic Games complex sits, along the coastal stretch dubbed the Athens Riviera. With support from China and Abu Dhabi, luxury hotels and apartments, malls and a wholesale re-landscaping of several square kilometres of coastline are planned.

By all accounts the bulldozers are ready to roll, but when a whole city’s hovering above its classical roots, getting an international, multi-faceted construction job off the ground promises to be tricky – even when it’s worth €8bn.


And so it’s proved. After much political push and shove over the last few weeks, 30 hectares of the 620-hectare plot have now been declared of historical interest by the country’s Central Archaeological Council. This probably means the development will continue, but only after considerable delays, and under the watchful eye of archaeologists.

It would be too easy to create a magical-realist fantasy of the Ancient Greeks counterpunching against the attacks of unrestrained capital. The truth is, even infrastructure projects funded with domestic public money run into the scowling spirits of history.

Thessaloniki’s Metro system, due for completion next year, has proved to be a series of profound accidental excavations – or, in the immortal words of the boss of Attiko Metro A.E., the company in charge of the project, “problems of the past”.

The most wonderful such ‘problem’ to be revealed is the Decumanus Maximus, the main avenue of the Byzantine city – complete with only the world’s second example of a square paved with marble. Add to that hundreds of thousands of artefacts, including incredibly well-preserved jewellery, and you’ve a hell of a haul.

Once again, the solution that everyone has finally agreed on is to emulate the Athens approach – making museums of the new metro stations. (Things have moved on from early suggestions that finds should be removed and stored at an ex-army camp miles from where they were unearthed.)

There are other problems. Government departments have laid off many of their experts, and the number of archaeologists employed at sites of interest has been minimised. Non-profit organisations have had their own financial struggles. All of this has aroused international as well as local concern, a case in point being the U.S. government’s renewal of Memorandums of Understanding with the Greek state in recent years over protection of “cultural property”.

But cuts in Greece are hardly a new thing: lack of government funding has become almost accepted across society. And when an obvious target for ire recedes, the public often needs to find a new one.

Roman baths in Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Archaeologists are increasingly finding themselves to be that target – and in the midst of high-stakes projects, it’s extremely hard to win an argument. If they rush an excavation to allow the quickest possible completion, they’re seen as reckless. If they need more time, they’re blamed for holding up progress. 

Another widely-told but possibly-apocryphal tale illustrates this current problem. During the construction of the Athens Metro, a construction worker was so frustrated by the perceived dawdling of archaeologists that he bought a cheap imitation amphora in a gift shop, smashed it up and scattered the fragments on site. The worthless pieces were painstakingly removed and analysed.

True or not, does this tale really prove any point about archaeologists? Not really. They’re generally a pragmatic bunch, simply wanting to keep relics intact and not get too embroiled in messy public debates.

It also doesn’t truly reflect mainstream attitudes to cultural capital. By and large, it’s highly valued for its own sake here. And while discoveries and delays may be ripe for satire, having history’s hoard on your doorstep offers inconveniences worth enduring. It’s also recognised that, since tourists are not just here for the blue skies, good food and beaches, it’s an important money-maker.

Nonetheless, glass malls and shiny towers with coastal views rising from public land are good for the purse, too – and the gains are more immediate. As the Greek state continues its relentless quest for inward investment, tensions are all but guaranteed in the coming years. 

This is a country that has seen so many epic battles in its time it has become a thing of cliché and oiled-up Hollywood depiction. But the latest struggle, between rapacious modernity and the buried past, could well be the most telling yet. 

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