How ‘liquid of life’ is under threat in the Middle East

A Palestinian boy, left, cools off with water from a jerrycan during a heatwave at Al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City. Cleaning up after a flash flood in the Saudi capital Riyadh, below, in 2016. (FP)
Updated 22 March 2019
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How ‘liquid of life’ is under threat in the Middle East

  • An increasing number of people in the region do not have access to clean water and basic sanitation
  • In 2015, there were more than 51 million people in the Arab region lacking access to basic drinking water services, and more than 74 million without access to basic sanitation services

DUBAI: World Water Day had somewhat of an abysmal feel to it across the Middle East this year, as the region witnesses a growing number of people with no access to supplies of the vital resource.

Although the issue of supply has always been critical for the Arab region, known to be one of the most water-scarce in the world, matters are only getting worse with a rise in refugees and the displaced.

“The freshwater scarcity situation is aggravated by several factors, such as dependency on shared water resources, climate change, pollution, non-revenue water losses from aging systems, intermittency, inefficient use, and high population growth,” said Ziad Khayat, first economic affairs officer in water resources in the Sustainable Development Policies Division at the United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA). “Occupation and conflict also affect people’s ability to access water and sanitation services. The Arab region is perhaps the only one in the world still experiencing direct military occupation.”

He spoke of the Israeli occupation of Arab territories, which affects access to water resources and the ability of countries to properly manage and provide required water and sanitation services, with a ripple effect on food security, health and development. “Armed conflict in the region has resulted in the destruction of the water and sanitation infrastructure, hampering the provision of safe drinking water and sanitation,” he said. “In response to shortages, households resort to unregulated water vendors relying on compromised resources, such as unprotected wells. In addition, damaged wastewater systems have resulted in river waters and shallow wells becoming contaminated.”

Water shortages and electricity outages have rendered many health care facilities non-functional, while vulnerability to the outbreak of waterborne diseases, particularly for people living in conflict-affected countries, has greatly increased. “The systemic conditions affecting the Arab region’s water security are not expected to improve in the near future,” he said. “In fact, climate variability and change are projected to impose additional pressures, with adverse impacts on the quantity and quality of freshwater resources in an already water-scarce region, affecting its ability to ensure food security, sustain rural livelihoods and preserve ecosystems.”

A higher frequency and intensity of floods, droughts and extreme weather is being experienced in many countries, which aggravates the situation of vulnerable communities and has led to economic losses and environmental degradation in several parts of the region. “The region has a high population growth rate and is one of the most urbanized in the world, with more than 58 percent of the population now living in cities,” Khayat said. “It has witnessed significant and uneven urban transformations, with some countries undergoing rapid wealth generation, others confronting economic challenges, and several afflicted by conflicts that have led to major displacement and migration of large sections of the population.”

Such trends are expected to place more stress on the urban infrastructure, particularly in water, given the scarcity conditions in the region. And with 86 percent of the region’s population — or nearly 362 million people — living in countries under water scarcity or absolute water scarcity, action is needed. “The predictions are that water scarcity is only going to get worse unless we change the way we manage the resource,” said Monika Weber-Fahr, executive secretary at the Global Water Partnership. “I remain an optimist. We were able to meet some of the water-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and now, with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there is a new and broader resolve to, not just improve water supply and sanitation, but take a more holistic approach to managing water, including its transboundary aspects.”

“Leaving no one behind” is the theme of this year’s World Water Day at the UN. The central challenge, Weber-Fahr believes, is that to achieve efficient, equitable, and sustainable water management, all parties must have genuine opportunities to actively participate in water management decisions. “Only then can decisions be taken that reflect how we all value water — reflecting its social, economic and environmental value,” she said. “We need to create a safe space for people to come together to build common ground for water management decisions, working with everyone, everywhere.”

In 2015, there were more than 51 million people in the Arab region lacking access to basic drinking water services, and more than 74 million without access to basic sanitation services. Access to water and sanitation  is also lacking in rural areas compared with urban areas. “The record shows that in the past 10 to 12 years in the Arab region, the overall proportion of population with access to safe drinking water has improved from 85 percent to 90, almost reaching the global average of 91, but deteriorated in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Yemen, where it dropped from 94 percent to 88 due to military occupation, civil conflicts and insufficient investments,” said Dr. Waleed Zubari, professor in water resources management at the Arabian Gulf University in Bahrain. “Disparity between urban and rural population in both services continues to be considerably large, especially in the lower-income countries. This is expected to continue with the civil conflicts in Syria and Yemen and in Iraq, and under the military occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of the Gaza Strip.”

If only excess water during rainy days can be stored for use during the dry months, water shortage wouldnot be much of a problem. (AN file photo)

Climate change and drought are also expected to worsen river flows, which is the main source of water for many Arab countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria. “Whether we have achieved a universal access to water for all the population or not, there are some challenges that will stay with us in the Arab region,” he said. “Scarcity of water resources and limited endowments facing increasing water demands due to increased population will continue to be a major challenge in the region. Another issue that needs immediate attention is the water supply and use efficiency, recycling and reusing water, considered very low in the region, and if worked on, will reduce water stress tremendously.”

Peace and stability will also help improve the situation, as well as rebuilding the water sector in countries shattered by civil war and occupation. Similarly, water management, efficiency and conservation in policies will need to progress.

For Dr. Ahmed Murad, dean of the college of science at United Arab Emirates University, said that providing clean water for the population is essential for all communities. “Historically, the absence of water could increase conflicts between nations,” he said. “Latest statistics show that about 844 million people in the world live without access to safe water, and one in nine lack the access to safe water.”

He spoke of more pronounced circumstances in the Middle East, with high temperatures and a low amount of rainfall. “Such conditions with population growth may reduce the availability of clean water due to a high demand on water resources,” he said. “The limited and diverse water resources will pressurize natural resources, and this will continue to deteriorate if no action is taken.” 

 


Media blitz as Palestinians oppose ‘Deal of the Century’

Updated 28 min 33 sec ago
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Media blitz as Palestinians oppose ‘Deal of the Century’

  • A number of Palestinian officials talked to a number of media outlets in an attempt to counter the US narrative

AMMAN: Palestinian officials, activists and the public at large stood unusually united on Tuesday in their opposition to the US-led, economic-based Israeli-Palestinian peace effort. They launched a wide-ranging public and media blitz in protest against the start of the two-day Peace to Prosperity economic workshop in Bahrain.

Palestinian government spokesman Ibrahim Milhem told Arab News that watching Jared Kushner make his opening speech at the workshop about the so-called “Deal of the Century” reminded him of the financial machinations of Wall Street.

“I saw a salesman trying to push a particular product, talking about numbers and opportunities without the slightest interest in the fact that he was talking about our lives and our situation,” he said.

Milhem and other Palestinian officials talked to a number of media outlets in an attempt to counter the US narrative. President Mahmoud Abbas, who presides over a divided authority that is in perpetual financial crisis and depends on donor nations, invited members of the Foreign Press Association to his Ramallah headquarters. “We need the money and, really, we need assistance,” he told them. “But before everything, there is a political solution.”

Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh appeared on the Christiane Amanpour program on CNN International and wrote a column for the Washington Post headlined “Palestinians want freedom not Trump administration bribes.”

After Kushner’s speech, political analyst Lamis Andoni said that Palestinians are being asked to accept that if the prison conditions under which they live are to improve, the occupation
will continue. The US proposal is designed to silence Palestinians by giving them enough to survive, while giving a minority the chance to get rich, he said. “It didn’t work before and will not work now,” he added.

Husam Zulmot, head of the Palestine mission in the UK and former head of the Washington DC mission, said: “Palestine is not for sale.” He described Kushner’s plan as “deceptive” and “disingenuous,” arguing that it does not address the core issue: the occupation.

In Nablus, the deputy head of Fatah, Mahmoud Aloul, issued a stern warning to Arab participants in the Bahrain workshop: “We tell our brothers that they have stabbed us in the back and your intervention in our cause has gone overboard and we will not allow that.” He qualified this by adding: “The US and Israel will continue to be our enemy but we will not consider you enemies; we will leave you to your own people and hope that your hibernation will not last long.”

The Palestinian Al Quds daily newspaper ran the front page headline “Opposition to the Deal of the Century hold protests throughout the homeland and the diaspora,” with a photo of the demonstrations in Ramallah covering the rest of the front page. It also published a two-page supplement quoting politicians from a number of movements, including Fatah and Hamas, along with analysts and pundits, all criticizing the Manama workshop.

Hani Elmasri, the head of the Masarat think tank in Ramallah. wrote an article in which he said that the “Trump deal will not succeed without a Palestinian cover, and will fail sooner or later, but while the plan has not succeed in liquidating Palestinian nationalism it has succeeded in stressing the facts of the occupation and made the possibility of a Palestinian struggle much more difficult. This means that it is not enough for Palestinians to reject this plan but they need to respond with a holistic strategy that must be political, economic and has to be a struggle by the people on all levels.”