People in the Arab world need fuller and freer information about shrinking water supplies but their governments are withholding it for fear of fuelling unrest, a United Nations expert said on Thursday.
Arable land makes up just 4.2 percent of the Middle East and North Africa and is expected to shrink due to climate change - a potential source of political instability, analysts say, in a region where economic privation has sometimes sparked conflict.
"Arab countries do not disclose enough information on their water out of concern that transparency could fuel unnecessary public concern and unrest," said Hosny Khordagui, regional program director of the UN Development Program (UNDP) Water Governance Program for Arab States.
Disclosing figures on water scarcity might be perceived as reflecting bad management on the part of Arab states and so is generally avoided, he told a UNDP round-table on Arab environmental issues.
"If we have public participation, we would have better management, participation and more justice," Khordagui said, adding that ministers were accountable to those who appointed them and not to the public.
"Don't expect accountability without real democracy and free elections," he said.
People in the Middle East and North Africa have access to an an average of just 1,000 cubic meters of water a year, seven times lower than the worldwide rate, according to the UNDP's Arab Human Development Report.
As climate change takes its toll and the region's populations grow at nearly twice the global average, that figure is projected to shrink to just 460 cubic meters by 2025.
Coordinated water policy will be a challenge in a region where water politics is often seen as a zero-sum game and can be used as a lever in larger political feuds.
"If we lose one more drop of water and our capacity to give Arab citizens their right to food, this is a political issue par excellence," said Ismail Serageldin, a former World Bank environmental expert.
In one example, a temperature rise of 1-1.5 degrees in one area of Sudan in 2030-2060 would slash maize production by 70 percent, the UNDP report said. Such scenarios could be repeated elsewhere in the region.
Agriculture consumes more than 85 percent of water in the region, home to the Fertile Crescent in which the first civilizations of the Middle East emerged. Less water could make it impossible for already poor farmers to earn a livelihood, pushing them to move to overcrowded cities.
Droughts in Syria have already displaced hundreds of thousands of people. A September U.N report found that climate-related natural disasters displaced 20 million people in 2009, nearly four times more than conflicts.
"More people in Yemen will leave their villages because of water and environmental reasons," said Ali Atroos, manager of the planning department in Yemen's Ministry of Water.
Yemen is one of the region's most water-stressed countries, with per capita access to water seven times below the average in Europe. Some villages are pumped water only once a month, Atroos said.
Experts urged immediate action to confront the dire issue.
"Water is a security factor. If people do not have water to drink and to use for food production, that would be a direct threat to national security," said Hassan Janabi, Iraq's permanent ambassador to UN agencies in Rome.
At the MEED's 2010 Arabian Power and Water Summit that started on March 29 in Abu Dhabi, MEED said new power capacity requirement to 2015 is 7,500MW and new desalination requirement to 2015 is 310 million gallons per day, which calls for substantial investment.
The summit raised issues that will need to be dealt with going forward, such as how governments can create commercial and economic frameworks that will ensure that the most economic investment decisions are made. Governments still need to determine what the ideal portfolio for GCC future power generation is and how to integrate alternative fuel sources into existing structures.
Edmund O'Sullivan, MEED Events chairman, said "the purpose of the Arabian Power and Water Summit is to provide a platform for the industry leaders to come together and discuss the best way to meet the key strategic and technical challenges that lie ahead. The success of the power and water industry is vital to the region's growth so it is imperative that the industry's decision makers are fully informed of the different solutions available to fulfill power & water demand." For the first time anywhere in the Middle East, the summit also featured a presentation regarding the challenges Iraq is facing as part of their reconstruction effort.
John Dempsey, generation adviser, Iraq Transition and Assistance Office (ITAO) and Jeff Larkin, country manager - Iraq, Parsons Brinckerhoff, outlined the plans to raise the $26 billion that the country's Minister of Electricity has estimated is needed to refurbish and increase the electrical sector capacity in the country.
"It is of critical importance that companies and individuals have their fingers firmly on the pulse of industry developments and the opportunities within it. The involvement of so many of the region's governmental organizations is testament to the high regard that our annual summit is held within the region's power and water sectors, and the value that it offers delegates," O'Sullivan pointed out.
( The Saudi Gazette )