Low Arab water wealth blocks bid to ease poverty

Renewable water resources plummeted from 3,200 cubic metres per person to 1,000 cubic metres

Rapid population growth has sharply depressed renewable water resources in most Arab countries over the past 50 years and this has obstructed efforts to tackle festering poverty, according to the United Nations.

Since 1960, the population of the Arab members of the UN Economic and Social Commission on West Asia (ESCWA) has grown by around 2.4 per cent, nearly double the world average, the Group said in a study.

It put the combined population of its 14 member states at around 227 million in 2010 and projected the figure to climb above 300 million in 2025.

In contrast, renewable water resources plummeted from a record 3,200 cubic metres per person in 1060 to only around 1,000 cubic metres per person in 2008, the Beirut-based organization said without giving data for the following years.

“Scarce water resources are one of the defining features of the ESCWA region. The high population growth rates have reduced the per capita supply of freshwater in every ESCWA country, hindering efforts aimed at alleviating poverty and promoting sustainable development,” it said.

“The emerging change in climatic conditions places additional stress on limited resources. As conventional water resources have became insufficient to meet demand, ESCWA countries have increasingly turned to non-conventional water

resources to fill the gap. Non-conventional water resources in ESCWA countries

consist primarily of desalinated water and the use of treated wastewater.”

The report estimated the total desalination production capacity in ESCWA, mostly in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), at around 26.9 million cubic metres per day but noted such projects are draining the coffers of their governments given the high costs of production and maintenance.

Poor water resources in the Arab world have been cited among the main factors for the low farm productivity and soaring food imports. This allied with slow growth in food exports to largely widen the region’s farm gap.

According to the Khartoum-based Arab Organization for Agricultural Development (AOAD), a key Arab League establishment, regional nations have reeled under a cumulative food gap of more than $180 billion over the past 10 years to emerge as the largest single farm importer in the world.

The farm gap, the difference between imports and exports of food products, peaked at around $29.8 billion in 2008 due to a surge in global food prices before it edged down to nearly $27.5 billion in 2009.

The level is nearly quadruple the cumulative gap of around $45 billion during the preceding nine years, when the region’s population did not exceed 240 million in early 1990s compared with around 334 million in mid 2008. At the end of 2009, the total Arab population was projected at around 351 million.

AOAD blamed poor water resources in the region, low land utilization and investments, and what it described as defective Arab farm policies.

Nearly three years after they approved a 15-year common farm strategy in 2005, the Arab countries have become more reliant on farm imports as such a strategy remains inefficient in the absence of right policies and sufficient funds, it said.

 “There are several obstacles and challenges facing the development of the Arab farming sector…they include low investments, defective government policies, poor water resources, inefficient use of available land and water wealth, and the low level of utilization of cultivated areas,” it said.

“The biggest obstacle has been and will remain the relatively small water resources available in the region. This obstacle has blocked investment in the farming sector and will hinder any programme aimed at exploiting those areas.”

The report said the Arab world is one of the poorest areas in the world in terms of water wealth, with the quantities of available renewable water resources standing at only around 1.3 per cent of the world’s total renewable water wealth although the Arab region accounts for more than 10 per cent of the total world land area.

 “The Arab region is considered one of the most arid areas in the world and the per capita share of the water wealth is among the lowest as it has remained much below the global water poverty level of 1,000 cubic metres per year…in some countries, this level is even below 500 cubic metres,” the report said.

“As for arable land, it is estimated at nearly 550 million hectares but only around 12 per cent is exploited…even in that 12 per cent part, the farming efficiency does not exceed 60 per cent of the world level…this means the Arab world is facing a real problem of not only low exploitation of arable areas but low efficiency in the cultivated land and its productivity.”

In a report last week, AOAD said regional nations are considering launching an ambitious strategy involving investment of nearly $65 billion in the next 20 years to expand their farming sector and ensure food for their fast growing population.

It said the three-stage plan includes sharply increasing the production of wheat and other key products by expanding cultivated areas and irrigation systems.

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