Water scarcity predicted to worsen

Published online 20 December 2017

Changing weather patterns in the Middle Eastern region will impact the availability of fresh water.

Lakshini Mendis

Rain is falling less in certain areas of the Middle East, and increasing in others, as a result of climate change.
Rain is falling less in certain areas of the Middle East, and increasing in others, as a result of climate change.
© Trigger Image / Alamy Stock Photo
The Arab Middle East will potentially be challenged by increased droughts and severe water shortages.

These projections were made by the Regional Initiative for the Assessment of Climate Change Impacts on Water Resources and Socio-Economic Vulnerability in the Arab Region (RICCAR), which recently launched the Arab Climate Change Assessment Report1 – a comprehensive assessment of the environmental and socioeconomic impact of climate change on the Arab States. 

Droughts and water scarcity have been linked to increasing temperatures. For instance, the eastern areas of the Middle East –– Egypt, Djibouti, and parts of the Arabian Peninsula –– have shown a consistent drying trend during the past 30 years1 2 . 

Compared to the period between 1985 and 2005, temperatures are predicted to increase by 5ºC in parts of the Middle East by the end of the century, with the highest temperature increases projected for the western inland parts around the Tindouf basin. The number of very hot days (with temperatures over 40ºC) are also projected to significantly increase across the region until the end of the century.1

"Unstable rainfall patterns also increases the frequency and intensity of drought."

Temperature rises can be attributed to increasing greenhouse gas emissions. In 2012, the CO2 emissions of the member states of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), totalled 1,445 million tons, which had increased by approximately 5.8% since 2011 and 19% since 20053. ESCWA member states include the Palestinian territories, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The average CO2 emissions per capita of the ESCWA States reached 4.9 tons in 2010, compared to a worldwide average of 4.5 tons per capita3.

Ibrahim Hoteit, associate professor of Earth science and engineering at KAUST, tells Nature Middle East that, climate change could also impact wind pressure systems, like the sub-tropical westerly jet, although this remains to be validated with further research. This could consequently shift rainfall patterns, compounding the acute water crisis in the Middle East.

Already, the annual number of days with precipitation exceeding 10 mm significantly decreased between 1986–2008, when averaged over the whole Arabian Peninsula region4

Andries de Vries, professor of atmospheric chemistry at the Max-Planck Institute for Chemistry, highlights the importance of gathering more data from many stations, rather than analyzing the region as a whole.

Several studies particularly project decreases in precipitation levels in the upper Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which will ultimately affect river flow towards the marshlands5. It is expected that, by 2025, water flow will decrease by more than 50% and 25% in the Euphrates and Tigris, respectively6.

The western part of the region (Algeria, Morocco, and Mauritania), however, showed a consistent tendency towards wetter conditions during the past 30 years1. Further, rainfall in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula and along the coast of the Red Sea increased during 2000–2009, compared to 1980–19893 7

The water from these rain showers can be beneficial for replenishing fresh water sources. However, increasingly, more of the region’s precipitation is falling in a single, large events, rather than a series of small ones. This leads to extreme water runoff, which jeopardizes water balance and elevates the risk of flooding. 

For instance, there has been an increase in the number of major floods that have occurred in Saudi Arabia, since 2009, the most recent of which occurred in Jeddah in November 2017. According to the International Disaster Database the flash flood in Jeddah in 2009 caused more than 100 fatalities and an economic loss estimated to be in excess of 900 million U.S. dollars (USD).

These unstable rainfall patterns also increases the frequency and intensity of drought. For example, the drought in Syria during 2007–2010 was the most severe in 1,100 years and caused considerable economic losses and the displacement of more than one million people.

Taken together, increasing temperatures, sporadic rainfall patterns, and flood events are expected to affect the availability of freshwater in the Middle Eastern region. 

Based on the recommendation of a recent meeting of the United Nations and the League of Arab States and their specialized agencies convened at the League of Arab States Secretariat, a Working Group on Water has now been established within the framework of the Regional Coordination Mechanism in the Arab Region. 

The aim of the Working Group is to “foster cooperation and coordination of programs, plans, and activities affecting water resources management and the delivery of water-related services in the Arab States.”


  1. United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) et al. Arab Climate Change Assessment Report – Main Report. Beirut, E/ESCWA/SDPD/2017/RICCAR/Report. (2017)
  2. Hasanean H and Almazroui M. Rainfall: Features and variations over Saudi Arabia, A Review. Climate http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/cli3030578 (2015)
  3. United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) et al. Compendium of Environment Statistics in the Arab Region 2014-2015. E/ESCWA/SD/2015/3. (2015)
  4. AlSarmi, SH. and Washington, R. et al. Changes in climate extremes in the Arabian Peninsula: analysis of daily data. Int. J. Climatol., http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/joc.3772
  5. Ministry of Health and Environment in Iraq. Iraq Initial Communication to the UNFCCC. http://unfccc.int/files/national_reports/non-annex_i_natcom/application/zip/irqnc1.zip (2014)
  6. United Nations Integrated Water Task Force for Iraq. Managing Change in the Marshlands: Iraq’s Critical Challenge. http://www.unesco.org/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/FIELD/Iraq/pdf/Publications/Managing%20Change%20in%20the%20Marshlands%20-%20English.pdf (2011)
  7. Zolina O, Dugour A, Gulev SK, Stenchikov G. Regional Hydrological Cycle over the Red Sea in ERA-Interim. http://dx.doi.org/10.1175/JHM-D-16-0048.1 (2017)
  8. Black, E. The impact of climate change on daily precipitation statistics in Jordan and Israel. Atmosph. Sci. Lett. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/asl.233 (2017)