MENA groundwater in relation to the total water resources of the regions economies

Renewable groundwater is an important resource but a minor one in relation to the surface waters enjoyed by a few of the region's economies - Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt. The fossil water resources of three of the region's economies - Libya,

Egypt and Saudi Arabia - are vast but not able to be used to meet water needs in all sectors in current technological and economic circumstances.

Table 4.1 provides estimates of the water resources of the economies of the region. It gives basic information on current estimates of the water resource status of the 18 economies of the MENA region that endure water resource problems. The general impression provided by the data-set is that the Tigris-Euphrates economies are still relatively well endowed with water resources. Lebanon is also relatively secure with respect to water. All the other economies are enduring serious water deficits with respect to their capacity to produce enough food for self-sufficiency. And the situation is worsening as a result of rising populations. Future demographic trends will be very significant vis-à-vis water resources in the MENA region during the 21st century. The population of the MENA region will probably double before the mid century. This rate of increase is higher than most economies in Asia and South America and similar to those in Africa. The MENA region has indirectly benefited greatly from the population policies of Asia's major economy, China. China has lifted out about 300 million of its population from poverty in the last three decades. The population of the 18 economies of the MENA region considered here is only 280 million at the beginning of the millennium. In this type of calculus the role of water can be seen to be minor compared with the scale of the global demographic shifts and in population policies in other regions.

Table 4.1 provides estimates of the very limited volume of renewable groundwater in the MENA region. The 18 economies listed have in total only about 28 km3 of renewable groundwater annually - 15% of the total freshwater used and 9% of the total water needed for food self-sufficiency. Most of this renewable groundwater has been used without giving attention to the institutions, regulations and technologies that would match water withdrawal with regional hydrological regimes for over four decades. This volume is sufficient for the domestic and industrial water needs of about 250 million people - a number close to the total population of the 18 economies. Domestic and industrial water use is about 10% of the total water that an individual or an economy needs. The remaining 90% of water needs is covered partially by renewable surface and soil water, with the deficit remedied by virtual water.

These macro-level estimates of the elements of water availability and use are subject to poor precision, with estimates of soil water being the least precise. However, it is interesting that the author's estimated figure of 40 km3 of annual regional soil water was entered before the numbers for virtual, surface and groundwaters and before all sources were added together. Apart from the estimates for soil water all the others are based on best practice in respected agencies such as the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) for surface and groundwaters, or in a research institute such as the Institute for Water Education (IHE) for the virtual water data. The estimates used are: 154 km3/year for annual surface water use; 28 km3/year for renewable groundwater and fossil water use; and 80 km3/year for virtual water and desalinated water. The very approximate estimate of 40 km3/ of annual soil water use for rain-fed crop production brings the numbers for use and for estimated total regional water needs to a reasonable convergence with the estimate of water needed to secure the food and job needs of the region's population. If the absence of a more reliable estimate for soil water troubles hydrologists and soil scientists, they are invited to provide it. Meanwhile water users, managers and policymakers will remain comfortably unaware of the role of soil water. Ignoring soil water in a national water budget is part of normal political behaviour. Politicians, and political processes more generally, have to deal with all sorts of uncertainties including the absence of knowledge on most issues of importance. Water scientists could help if they can provide (accurate) evidence on soil water and offer such data to political processes in a friendly language register.

A very approximate water balance for the 18 economies of the MENA region considered in this discussion is shown in Table 4.1.

Table 4.1 and Fig. 4.1 are helpful in putting the MENA region's finite groundwater into perspective. The volumes of groundwater available are small. Renewable and fossil water at the beginning of the millennium amounted to only:

18% of all freshwater use in the region;

11% of the total water needed by the region's peoples and economies; 35% of the unconventional water use - virtual and manufactured water.

In addition, the MENA history of intense groundwater use is very short, i.e. about four decades. The era spans from the initiation of intensive use in the 1960s to the end of the millennium, by which time most renewable groundwater users were reducing pumping because the aquifers were damaged.

There are several strategic implications of these circumstances for water policymakers in the MENA region:

• The spectacular contribution of renewable groundwater to the very important urbanization transition in the MENA region in the past four decades was an important, but brief and unsustainable, moment in the region's economic history. Renewable groundwaters were too easy to develop in a cultural setting that rejected any regulatory regime. Renewable groundwaters have been dangerously impaired in some economies.

• As the region's renewable waters, including groundwaters, have been severely mismanaged, the priority should be to remedy their poor water quality and to initiate measures that restore some of the essential environmental services of renewable surface and groundwaters. The priorities should be, first, to put water back into the environment and, second, to reduce pollution. Experience in the region indicates that reforms will only be possible when the economies are diversified and strong.

• The future water security of the region's much higher population will be mainly addressed by measures outside the region's water sector. These measures enable the import of water-intensive commodities from global production and trading systems. In the region itself these non-water-sector processes are socio-economic development and especially economic diversification. The manufacture of desalinated water will also be a very important remedy for those economies that do not have sufficient water to meet domestic and industrial needs as most of the region's population lives either near the coast or on major river systems.

Fig. 4.1. Map of trans-boundary aquifers in Africa.

The rest of the discussion will examine the short history of intensive renewable groundwater use. It will show how a brief phase of intensive groundwater utilization has played a very important positive role because groundwater has a number of qualities for those facing immediate water scarcity. These qualities make renewable groundwater a fatally attractive source of water, especially in political economies that have not yet devoted substantial political energy to developing norms and laws to establish ownership, or to regulating water use to achieve efficiency and environmental consideration. The qualities of groundwater that make it fatally attractive are:

• Groundwaters can be beneath, or extremely close to, the projects and needs of water users.

• Groundwaters are often very close to the surface, at least when they are first developed, and can be developed at low cost.

• Groundwaters can be accessed by individual farmers and other individual users without the constraints of a regulated and bureaucratized water distribution infrastructure.

• Users can use water at will - provided only that they have the resources to acquire, operate and maintain the equipment and fuel it. This flexibility makes groundwater a very useful primary source of water for irrigation and an especially useful supplementary source in the extensive marginal rainfall tracts in the MENA region. A very important feature of the control that individual users have over groundwater is the capacity to address water scarcity in more than one annual cycle. The economic significance of this capacity to withstand droughts for more than 1 year is of immeasurable importance to those who have risked raising cash crops.

The qualities of groundwater that make it hard to monitor are technical, social and political:

• Users have little awareness of the impact of individual groundwater users on regional levels of use, especially in the early phases. The absence of awareness of the need for collective action is the norm.

• Renewable groundwater is regarded as a common pool resource - anyone who can access it is entitled to use it. This approach exists in all the economies of the region except Israel. Attempts to license wells and to limit groundwater use have generally failed.

• The impact of overuse is gradual and in the common pool circumstances of the MENA region a 'tragedy of the commons' has been accelerated (Handley, 2001; Lichtenthaler, 2003).

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