The numbers are enough to raise alarm bells: The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region faces a 10% to 25% decrease in rainfall. Combined with rapid population growth, water availability is predicted to drop from 1,100cubic meters per person per year now to 550 cubic meters by 2050.

Water scarcity is nothing new for MENA. It’s been a feature of the region for millennia. But with the demographic boom of the 1970s, the focus on water shifted from securing supply and harnessing temperamental rainfall to curbing demand. The trouble is that while supply was mostly a technical issue resolved through cunning engineering, demand is a socio-economic constraint and a political hot potato.

Entering the debate about water resource management in MENA is like opening a Pandora’s box: The social, economic, political and environmental considerations are endless and yet inextricably linked. So much so that policies that might not seem to have anything to do with water — say, deciding which industry to nurture, the types of crops to grow or even the tariffs to charge — can have a far greater impact on water resources than water policies themselves.

The biggest culprit in that respect is agriculture, the livelihood of much of the region’s poor: It absorbs 85% of the water consumed in the MENA region. Unfortunately, many of the crops grown in the region – cereals, fodder and potatoes, to name a few — have low value. Politic’s influence on the sector is also hard to ignore. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, many MENA countries enthusiastically promoted food security as a way to maintain both social stability and international standing.

At the height of its wheat production days in the 1980s, Saudi Arabia was the world’s sixth biggest wheat exporter. But achieving that ranking came at a price. Wheat is grown using non-renewable groundwater resources and with irrigation efficiencies as low as 45%. The World Bank calculated that the value of excessive groundwater withdrawals cost a Middle Eastern country the equivalent of 1.2% to 2% of its GDP. Throw in the cost equivalent of another 0.5% to 2.5% of GDP for water-related environmental problems (increased soil salinity, pollution and so on) as well as the business risk of scarcer supplies (such as the increased cost of drilling, pumping and water treatment), and there are plenty of reasons why good water management is an economic necessity.

Much Resistance, Little Awareness

But in the MENA region, coming to grips with water management is proving easier said than done. It has taken Djamel Latrech, program director at the Observatoire du Sahara et du Sahel (OSS), a nonprofit environmental-monitoring organization, the past 10 years to raise awareness about the unsustainable levels of withdrawals from the Northwestern Sahara Aquifer System (NWSAS), a vast reserve of fossil water spreading across one million square kilometers of Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Withdrawals have now leveled off and in 2007, the three countries agreed to jointly manage the aquifer.

Latrech is now about to launch his most sensitive work yet — a study looking at how water is used in agriculture. “We would not have been able to do this study four years ago. There was too much resistance and not enough awareness for us to start questioning the status quo,” he says. “But with globalization, the debate on climate change and the work we have done, attitudes are changing.” The ultimate goal of OSS’s work on NWSAS is to rationalize the use of fossil water. This raises all sorts of questions: What is a good use of water? Can water be managed more efficiently? Which sectors or activities should be prioritized if resources are scarce?

Other similar initiatives are under way across the region. Mohamed El Rawady, a water resource specialist at the Cairo-based Center for Environment and Development for the Arab Region and Europe (Cedare), says a huge amount of research is being done. “We are looking into every possibility and its opposite; in most cases, the pros and cons even out,” he says.

Among the options Cedare and others are looking atto save water are changing cropping patterns, controlling water-intensive crops (rice, avocados, bananas), improving irrigation efficiency (drip irrigation or sprinklers), introducing water meters or increasing water tariffs. Charging for water usage is also being studied; no MENA country charges enough for irrigation water to even cover supply costs. It’s a particularly sensitive topic, stoking significant debate in all echelons of society.

El Rawady notes that farmers oppose the idea of paying for water simply because they have never had to. “It’s not in the culture,” he says. Latrech adds that lobbyists, businesspeople and anyone else with a stake in the agricultural sector will also be resistant to the idea. But he reckons MENA countries have no alternative. “The days of free water for the agricultural sector are over,” he says. “Politicians have no choice” but to support that initiative.

The Virtual Value

What’s intriguing is how such a precious resource has been allowed to be so under-valued in the past, and why this continues to be true. By way of explanation, Tony Allan, a professor of geography at King’s College London, refers to "virtual water," a term he coined in the early 1990s that refers to the water embedded in imported goods. It takes 1,000 tons of water to produce one ton of wheat, so a community that imports one ton of wheat effectively saves itself 1,000 tons of water. This kind of reasoning would help countries re-allocate water resources to their most profitable use — for instance, away from low value-added agriculture to high-tech industries or finance.

Allan estimates that the volume of virtual water that the MENA region trades every year is the equivalent of 25% of its total freshwater resources. Unsurprisingly, countries with the most limited water resources tend to rely most heavily on virtual water: In Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Israel and the West Bank, it accounts for more than half of water needs. In that sense, virtual water has been a de facto trade for decades, but not everyone is comfortable with the idea of increasing their reliance on third parties for food supplies.

According to Latrech, a major education and information drive is still needed before taking things further. “People have to know their resource before they can manage it,” he says. The Middle East suffers from a chronic lack of reliable information and data, and much of the OSS’s work has been focused on filling the gap. Latrech recalls spending the first few years of work at NWSAS trying to convince countries to share data.

The key to solving water scarcity lies in the intangible, but potentially powerful, concept of integrated water resource management. It’s a big idea – water should be a resource shared and managed across sectors and all its uses considered together during policy making. But El Rawady says that although policy makers are interested in the concept, few know the best way to develop it. There is much work to do with sector reform to start with, notably in terms of multi-stakeholder involvement.

For their part, consultants at McKinsey published an influential 200-page report advocating integrated water resource management late last year, the result of a yearlong analysis with case studies from China, India, South Africa and Brazil. The report provides lessons for other countries, including those in MENA, and concludes that technical solutions aimed at maximizing supply and improving water productivity only provide solutions for the short rather than long term.

Long-term water conservation will stem from a systemic shift away from water-intensive economic activities. In other words, policy makers must recognize “that growth in energy, agriculture and manufacturing has real implications for the water budgets of river basins and countries,” the report concludes. “The trade-offs they face go well beyond the issue of water: They will need to consider everything from the impact on growth and jobs to the implications for trade and geopolitics.”

Allan draws similar conclusions: “Water sustainability has nothing to do with infrastructure building or the regulation of water,” he explained at a seminar on virtual water at King’s College London. “It has to do with whether countries have the economic diversity, strength and adaptability to provide jobs in sectors that use less water than agriculture.”

In that respect, countries from the MENA region face a challenge of unequal proportions. Israel is perhaps the only country to have successfully reduced the size of its agricultural sector, from 20% of GDP in 1956 to 2.6% today. Countries from the Gulf have exploited the wealth provided by their hydrocarbon resources, and smaller nations such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain or Djibouti haven’t had to worry about providing food for a large population. But Latrech says for resource-poor and populous nations, such as Egypt, Morocco or even Jordan, the challenge is far greater.

It will take time, a lot of experimenting and courageous politicians to achieve long-term water sustainability. Most experts agree it’s a tall order.