From Crisis to Opportunity

Published online 20 December 2017

Producing enough freshwater in today’s Middle East and North Africa can be a difficult, energy-intensive task, which makes it difficult to grow enough food to supply the burgeoning population.

Dan Ferber

Dan Ferber, Grand Challenges executive editor.
Dan Ferber, Grand Challenges executive editor.
Courtesy of Dan Ferber
To build sustainable and healthy societies, the world requires adequate supplies of freshwater, food, and energy, but these resources are beginning to be stretched thin. To make matters more challenging, supplying one of these critical resources can disrupt supplies of another—a series of connections researchers call the food-energy-water nexus. For example, growing crops consumes one quarter of the world’s energy and 70 percent of the world’s water, and producing and transporting food makes up 30 percent of the world’s energy consumption. 

Although the challenges of the food-energy-water nexus are global, perhaps nowhere are they more pressing than the Middle East and North Africa, as the following special package of stories and multimedia content on the region’s water crisis makes clear. 

As a region, MENA strains to produce enough fresh water and food from the arid land to supply its growing population, and it relies on unsustainable supplies of fossil fuels. The region is already water-stressed, with too little water to wash in Jordan and too little water to drink in Yemen, and already 85 percent of the water used in the region goes to agriculture, Sarah Hiddleston writes. To make matters more challenging, people in the region are migrating more and more to cities, where they make more money and eat more meat, which requires far more water and energy to produce than plant-based foods, according to environmental engineer Peter Rogers of Harvard University. What’s more, climate change will make the problem worse.

But from crisis springs opportunity. The Middle East and North Africa have abundant sun and seawater, and Hiddleston describes important advances in solar-powered desalination, which, if scaled up, could replace the fossil-fuel-guzzling desalination methods available today. Other new desalination technologies save energy by generating partly salty water, rather than completely fresh water—which could be good enough for crops like a new barley strain bred from wild relatives that can tolerate salty water and salty soils, writes Seeder El-Showk. Other researchers are testing other innovative solutions—innovative hydroponics solutions, even plant-friendly microbes that could boost crop yields in what one researcher called “an ecological green revolution.”

It’s likely that many, if not most, of these solutions will be needed in the Middle East as the 21st century progresses, and these solutions will likely find uses in other water-stressed regions of the world. That means that the researchers responding to the region’s water shortage today could very well reveal how to help the world manage in the challenging decades ahead. 

Dan Ferber is Executive Editor, Grand Challenges, at Springer Nature, the publisher of Nature and Nature Middle East.