Introduction Groundwater in Its MENA Context

The first purpose of this chapter is to identify and explain the importance of groundwater in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in the second half of the 20th century. The second is to demonstrate that one of the most important roles of the MENA region's very limited groundwater (Table 4.1) has been as an enabler of an important rural socio-economic transition. Groundwater played this important transitional role by strengthening individual family economic circumstances in rural areas. These stronger family economies were able to provide a stable pattern of expenditure, which enabled the acquisition of skills by the younger family members. Thus equipped, significant proportions of whole generations have moved to urban centres. Many rural communities in the region experienced relatively high rural incomes for about three decades on the basis of groundwater use.

At the same time, there is no question that those running the MENA political economies presided passively over a water-managing system that overused environmental capital - groundwater - that underpinned the process. This socioeconomic groundwater-related phenomenon has also been identified in South Asia where numerous strategies have enabled similar transitions (see Tushaar, Chapter 2, this volume; Burke and Moench, 2000). Llamas and Custodio

©CAB International 2007. The Agricultural Groundwater Revolution:

Opportunities and Threats to Development (M. Giordano and K.G. Villholth) 63

Table 4.1. A typology of MENA economies useful in analysing the management of groundwater in the MENA region. (From the author.)

Low-income economies Partially industrialized economies

Oil-enriched economies with different groundwater endowments:

• With modest renewable groundwater

• Mainly with non-renewable (fossil) groundwater

• Very poor groundwater endowment Industrialized diverse economies with poor water endowment


Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco

Algeria, Iraq Saudi Arabia, Libya

Kuwait, UAE, Oman, Qatar Israel

For the purposes of this overview Turkey and Iran in relatively hydrologically favoured parts of the region have not been included.

(2003a,b, pp. 13-26) have drawn the attention of water professionals and water policymakers to the importance of taking a balanced view of the drawdown of groundwater aquifers. They show that lowering aquifer levels for productive economic purposes can bring economic and environmental benefits. Using the water stored in aquifers leaves space for the recharge following major rainfall events. The MENA region is particularly subject to such erratic rainfall patterns. Lowering groundwater levels where they have been at, or close to, the surface reduces evaporation and also transpiration where vegetation has been supported by groundwater (Llamas and Custodio, 2003b, pp. 18-19). It will be shown that there have been remarkable experiments in managing groundwater storage in the MENA region. However, the most significant feature of MENA groundwater management has been the revelation that groundwater resources are never sufficient to underpin food self-sufficiency. At best they can be an element in a complex of resource management strategies that achieve overall water security. Economic instruments and processes beyond hydrology and hydrogeology are the locus of water security.

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