UN: 90% of people in the Arab world suffer from lack of water

At least 50 million people lack water for "basic needs" and 390 million are on the threshold of "scarcity". For Executive Secretary Escwa, 'water diplomacy' between countries is a 'fundamental issue'. With 67% of consumption for agricultural needs, an integrated system is needed to meet demand.

New York (AsiaNews) - Almost the entire population living in the Arab world suffers from water shortages. Translated into numbers, this means that about 50 million people lack drinking water "for basic needs" and 390 million individuals, or 90%, live in countries that "suffer from water scarcity".

These are the findings of a report published on the occasion of the three-day UN Water Conference 2023. An alarming picture, which was discussed at an event sponsored by the Arab League on 24 March in New York on the sidelines of the UN summit and entitled: 'Joint Arab Region Commitment to Accelerate Water Security Acheivement'. 

Rola Abdullah Dashti, executive secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (Escwa), points out that the Arab region is not delivering on its sustainable development plan commitments, which include clean water and sanitation for all by 2030.

"Water in the Arab region is a source of prosperity, but it is also a potential cause of instability and conflict. It is a matter related to water security, food security, prosperity and a decent life," she explained. Emphasising the importance of cooperation in terms of fresh water across borders, between sectors and stakeholders, the ESCWA official noted that "water diplomacy between countries is a pivotal matter."

According to data from an in-depth 2018 FAO survey, the region identified by the acronym Mena (Middle East and North Africa) is the one with the greatest risk globally when it comes to water, with at least 14 out of 17 nations considered 'under stress' with several nations (Yemen, Jordan and Palestine among others) with levels of 'absolute scarcity' according to the Falkenmark index. 

Moreover, according to projections by the World Resources Institute (Wri), water stress levels are expected to worsen for most of the Mena countries under the current climate scenario. An analysis of total water withdrawal percentages for 2018 shows that agriculture is the main user in the region with an average of 66.7%, followed by domestic use for 27.4% and the remaining margin for industrial purposes.

On a regional scale, the priority themes at the centre of the proceedings are: integrated water resources management; water for all; transboundary water collaboration; water and climate change; water use efficiency; and unconventional water resources. Accelerators proposed during the discussion day cover financing for water, data to inform decision-making, monitoring and implementation, innovation, capacity building and regional knowledge networks.

Escwa recently launched the 'Riccar' project, which on a regional basis aims to assess the impact of climate change on water resources and social and economic vulnerability in different sectors in the Arab world. One of the tasks is to provide information to facilitate collaboration, coordination and dialogue between nations, organisations and stakeholders.

"The Arab region," adds Ambassador Shahira Wahbi, head of the Natural Resources Risk Reduction and Sustainability Department for the Arab League, "is the one with the greatest water shortage in the world, with 19 out of 22 countries experiencing problems" in terms of supply.

Hence the request to improve collaborative projects in the sector and the capacity to cope with change by mobilising additional financial resources. It is necessary, he continued, to put in place 'an integrated system for the use of unconventional water and benefit from every available drop' to achieve sustainable development goals.

The Yemeni Minister of Environment and Water, Tawfiq Al-Sharjabi, agrees that climate change has exacerbated the existing challenges in the area, while also highlighting a decrease in the per capita share of available water by about three-quarters. In the next two years, he concludes, 14 Arab nations will experience water shortages and 10 will suffer severe water scarcity.