Navigating water shortage in the Arab Middle East

Published online 20 December 2017

Peter Rogers, Gordon McKay research professor of environmental engineering and professor of city and regional planning at Harvard University, entertains the scenario of a region without freshwater. 

Can the Middle East, already dry and arid, run out of freshwater in the near future?
Can the Middle East, already dry and arid, run out of freshwater in the near future?
© Wayne Hutchinson / Alamy Stock Photo
Very few people choose to live in deserts. Nevertheless, given the technologies developed over the centuries, there is nothing to stop us from settling in extremely arid places; for example 13 million people live in the Los Angeles metropolitan region, which is essentially a desert. If the people do not go to the water — the water can come to the people.

From ancient times people have lived in deserts in the Middle East and established some of the first civilizations based upon irrigation management. 

Fresh water is intimately bound up with all aspects of functioning modern nations’ economies: water is essential for human sanitation and health, for growing food and other crops, industry cannot function without it, energy systems also require prodigious amounts of water, and it is fundamental to the functioning of the entire ecosystem1. The complexity of the interactions and quantities of water demanded by these different activities has led to the development of the concept of the water-food-energy nexus. 

Water is an intermediate product in many of its uses and is often substitutable for, and by, other inputs to the processes, except drinking water. Following the ‘nexus paradigm’2 the hypothetical question, posed here, cannot be addressed by considering water by itself. 

The shortage of water has to be defined, constrained, and characterized by the availability of other resources, such as fossil fuels, minerals and fertile soils, and rates of change of socio-economic aspects such as population growth, income growth, the state of global food markets, and the role of international treaties on mitigating climate change.

In addition to the impacts of climate change on water availability, several other trends over the past century have also reduced water availability and rapid increases in the demand for total water quantity and water services. Foremost amongst these are the demographic transition from high mortality and high population growth to low mortality and low population growth, and a rapid rate of urbanization. 

This urbanization has also been accompanied by a rapid increase in per capita income and a subsequent increase in demand for animal products in diets. High-quality diets demand much more water for growing food and more energy for the food value-chain. 

The rapidity of these changes has surprised most water-food-energy planning agencies, both national and international, leading to large gaps in the management and investments in the relevant sectors—so much so, that even without declining supplies, most MENA countries are in for a nasty surprise as to the availability of water per capita. However, given the technologies developed for recovering water and expanding the resource base by desalination and advanced wastewater treatment, and modern water conservation techniques have enabled nations to choose the actual size of their water resource base and survive in almost desert conditions. 

"The defensive strategies most likely to help manage the situation of permanent water shortages could be development of regional institutions that would enable the MENA region to act as a group."

So, even under current water problems, and if the climate change impacts turn out to be relatively benign, there are technical options that would allow for a safe-landing for the food-water-energy sectors in MENA countries. Several of these tools, discussed at length in previous research2 are:

1. Developing traditional water sources. Exploiting all domestic conventional ground and surface waters and developing transboundary and transnational sources where possible.

2. Developing non-traditional sources of water and energy. Extensive desalination is already practiced in the region. By developing solar and wind as substitute energy sources the energy costs may be kept low enough for even wider use of desalination. Also the recycling of wastewater from urban centers would extend available water.

3. Relying on international trade in land and water intensive imports. Many countries in the region already augment their meagre water and land resources by reliance on the water and land embedded in the food they currently import.

4. Improving efficiency of water use through agronomic research developing drought resistant crops, by precision irrigation, and exploiting the existing yield-gap due to better management on farms.

5. Reducing post-harvest losses by improving food and value chains,

Finally, there are many conventional tools that have not been widely used in the region and which would extend the water availability. These are; water user groups, effective pricing of water, and command and control policies of environmental management, and various legal institutions for the protection of property rights.

Running out of fresh water due to climate change

Depending on what we assume the inputs and the outputs of the current, climate models for the Arab Middle East3, a variety of water futures have been projected. 

Many predict a decline in available moisture in the region — none predict “running out of fresh water.” 

Broadly the models indicate that the water availability will fall into three categories of outcomes; first, moderate reduction of total water with a changed seasonality; second, large reduction in water but with the same seasons as currently; and third, very large reductions in quantities regardless of seasons. 

The first is the most benign. The second category is probably the most likely for the MENA region, and the third is the most difficult to plan for and to survive catastrophic impacts.

The first two categories could be lumped under the label of “non-permanent” shortages which are potentially serious, but which are manageable using some, or all, of the tools mentioned. They could lead to major restructuring of societies and economies in the affected region.  

Much more attention would have to be focused on the water sector. Nevertheless, applying the tools to national water management could enable countries to meet their food and energy requirements until 2150 with relative ease. The third category is “permanent shortages” of water,” and all of the tools will be needed and in addition several national defensive strategies would be called into play. Conflict would be hard to avoid. 

The third category of climate outcomes could well be fatal for national survivability in the long-run. 

The defensive strategies most likely to help manage the situation of permanent water shortages could be development of regional institutions that would enable the MENA region to act as a group setting up regional water and food storage facilities to guard against fluctuations in the global availability of food prices. 

Food storage and virtual water — water that would otherwise be used in growing crops in other countries — are a conventional approach to problems of short-term fluctuations and not so for permanent declines in availability.

Several Arab countries have already relied on imports to shore up their inability to meet increasing demand for food by current populations under current hydrological conditions. Provided the nations can afford the terms of trade there is no reason to believe that this cannot be a permanent solution to the problem, particularly if the nations are able to bargain as a unified block on the international food markets. 

Storages for permanent water shortages have also been developed on a multination scale (India and Pakistan on the Indus, and US and Mexico on the Colorado), but will depend upon the nearness to available quantities of water from neighboring regions. For example, even though the Nile is fully allocated under the current situation, but it may be less affected in the long-run due to its catchment being well outside of the MENA region, and if (a big if) the current riparians are willing to trade excess amounts, then an equitable trading regime might be developed employing aquifer and surface reservoir storage.

For individual countries, various water conservation techniques developed as permanent actions will be needed. However, in the face of rising populations, draconian social demographic policies may have to be implemented in the affected countries. 

Initially enhanced family planning programs, and ultimately policies similar to China’s one child policy may have to be introduced to match the population and the resource base. Other less disturbing policies such as Indonesian translocation policies may work if suitable host countries could be found.


  1. Rogers, P. & Leal, S. Running Out of Water: The Looming Crisis and Solutions to Conserve Our Most Precious Resource (St. Martin's Press, 2010).
  2. Rogers, P. in Water, Energy and Food Sustainability in the Middle East (Eds Badran, A., Murad, S., Baydoun, E.& Daghir, N.) Ch. 2 (Springer, 2017).
  3. Wodon, Q., Liverani, A., Joseph, G., & Bougnoux, N. Climate Change and Migration: Evidence from the Middle East and North Africa (World Bank, 2014).