Water shortages put the region at severe risk: New evidence supports scientific fears that the Middle East and North Africa region is at risk of becoming uninhabitable in a few decades, as accessible fresh water has fallen by two-thirds over the past 40 years, writes Baher Kamal.

Author:Kamal, Baher
 
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This sharp water scarcity simply not only affects the already precarious provision of drinking water for most of the region's 22 countries, home to nearly 400 million inhabitants, but also the availability of water for agriculture and food production for a fast growing population.

The new facts are stark: per capita availability of fresh water in the region is now 10 times less than the world average. Moreover, higher temperatures may shorten growing seasons in the region by 18 days and reduce agricultural yields a further 27 per cent to 55 per cent less by the end of this century.

Add to this that the region's fresh water resources are among the lowest in the world, and are expected to fall over 50 per cent by 2050, according to the United Nations leading agency in the field of food and agriculture.

Moreover, 90 per cent of the total land in the region lies within arid, semi/arid and dry sub/humid areas, while 45 per cent of the total agricultural area is exposed to salinity, soil nutrient depletion and wind water erosion, adds the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Meanwhile, agriculture in the region uses around 85 per cent of the total available freshwater, it reports, adding that over 60 per cent of water resources in the region flows from outside national and regional boundaries.

This alarming situation has prompted FAO's director general to call for urgent action. On his recent visit to Cairo, Jose Graziano da Silva said that access to water is a "fundamental need for food security, human health and agriculture", and its looming scarcity in the North Africa and Middle East region is a huge challenge requiring an "urgent and massive response".

Meantime, the rising sea level in the Nile Delta -which hosts the most fertile lands in Egypt--is exposing the region's most inhabited country (almost 100 million people) to the danger of losing substantial parts of the most productive agriculture land due to salinisation.

"Competition between water-usage sectors will only intensify in the future between agriculture, energy, industrial production and household needs," on March 9 warned Graziano da Silva.

FAO's chief attended in Cairo a high-level meeting on the Romebased organisation's collaboration with Egypt on the "1.5 million feddan initiative" {1 feddan is equivalent to 0.42 hectares, or 1.038 acres}, the Egyptian government's plan to reclaim eventually up to two million hectares of desert land for agricultural and other uses.

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