DUBAI: For decades, the Middle East and North Africa region has struggled to meet its growing water needs. With populations booming and natural sources of freshwater rapidly depleting, finding sustainable solutions to address the precarious state of the region’s water security is more urgent than ever.
Water insecurity has exacerbated conflicts and political tensions in many Arab countries, significantly impacting the health and well-being of its people. In nations such as Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and even several of the Gulf states, many communities lack access to plentiful clean water.
While about 40 percent of the global population experiences water scarcity, the MENA region is considered among the world’s most water-insecure, with about 90 percent of children living in areas of high or extremely high water stress. According to UNICEF, the region is home to 11 of the world’s 17 most water-stressed countries.
“Countries with rapid population growth, an arid climate, and heavily water-consuming agricultural activities are at a much higher risk of facing significant water scarcity before 2050. These nations will therefore require larger counter operations in order to negate the pending impact,” Walid Saad, CEO and co-founder of World of Farming, told Arab News.
“This is a challenge that requires a collaborative approach between public and private sector organizations, and the implementation of technology and innovative solutions across industries, to help ensure greater water efficiency and security for future generations.”
A 2020 report by Orient Planet Research found that the Gulf Cooperation Council area’s water needs will reach 33,733 cubic meters per year by 2050. However, the region’s projected future storage is just 25,855 cubic meters.
This means the region needs to boost its water stocks by 77 percent to meet the requirements of its population within the next 30 years.
Identifying ways to mitigate and adapt to climate pressures has become a top priority for regional governments. The coming year is expected to be one of the hottest on record, with extreme weather events likely to grow in scale and frequency and, in the process, exacerbate existing problems of the water-stressed region.
11 World’s most water-stressed countries (out of a total of 17) that are in MENA region.
90% Children in areas of high or extremely high water stress in MENA.
77% Increase in water stocks needed by 2050 to meet GCC population’s requirements.
By the end of the century, scientists expect average temperatures in the Middle East to rise by 5 degrees Celsius, making parts of the region potentially uninhabitable if action is not taken urgently to tackle the causes of man-made climate change.
In addition to extreme weather, climate-related water scarcity is expected to wipe up to 14 percent off the region’s gross domestic product over the coming 30 years, according to the World Bank.
As about 60 percent of the region’s freshwater originates from external territories, international relations also play a crucial role in water security.
The Nile River, for instance, runs through or along the border of 10 other African countries before it reaches Egypt, making Ethiopia’s GERD dam project a point of contention, while Iraq and Syria are fed by the Tigris and Euphrates, which both originate in neighboring Turkiye where large dam projects are also underway.
Jordan and the West Bank, meanwhile, rely on the Jordan River, whose source lies in Israeli territory. Conflicts, rivalries and failures to cooperate on shared water access can lead to pollutants, fish-stock depletion and water shortages further downstream.
In the face of these challenges, several Arab governments are now prioritizing investment in new innovations and technologies to help conserve freshwater sources, recycle and reuse wastewater, and reduce the environmental harm of desalinating seawater.
“Technologies such as membrane bioreactors, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet disinfection are being used to treat wastewater to a high standard, making it suitable for reuse in irrigation, industrial and even potable uses,” Fawzi Al-Dibis, manager of sustainability and climate change at WSP Middle East, told Arab News.
Another solution is localized greywater treatment, which allows for the use and reuse of water at source, thereby avoiding additional pumping costs. At present, about 80 percent of the world’s wastewater is being discharged untreated into the environment, according to the UN.
Atmospheric water harvesting is another promising means of overcoming water scarcity by collecting water from the air through various methods, including condensation, dew collection and fog harvesting.
Agriculture accounts for almost 80 percent of the MENA region’s water usage, compared to the 70 percent global average. According to the World Bank, freshwater is being drawn from natural underground aquifers faster than it can be replenished.
To monitor and control this dwindling resource, new smart water management systems, employing artificial intelligence technology, are being developed, Al-Dibis told Arab News.
“These technologies help to analyze data from various sources, such as weather forecasts and sensor networks, to make more accurate predictions of water availability, and to optimize the distribution and use of water resources,” he said.
If farming and irrigation can be made more sustainable, Saad says that the region could also reduce its carbon footprint by growing more of its own crops, thereby cutting its reliance on imported goods.
“The use of smart irrigation and automation in agriculture provides savings in water consumption by optimizing the amount of water needed, in controlled time periods,” he said. The process can be automated using remote wireless sensors that gather live data to make accurate predictions regarding irrigation schedule, location and requirements.
A more holistic approach, implementing “a closed-loop system” in agricultural operations, could reduce the strain on all elements of water supply in the region and ease the existing reliance on transportation, outsourcing, and infrastructure beyond the local ecosystem.
Clean technologies and other innovations are also being deployed to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other harmful byproducts during the desalination process. “Fortunately, the science of new materials is offering new solutions to current desalination plants,” Al-Dibis said.
Saad concurs that leveraging new technologies is crucial to reducing the region’s dependence on desalination to meet its water needs. “The Middle East is leading the charge for many of these developments, spurred on by the drier climate and heavy reliance on importation,” he said.
The UAE launched its Net Zero 2050 strategy in 2021, aiming to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions in line with its global climate commitments and to address its own environmental challenges.
The UAE’s water table has dropped by about 1 meter a year over the past 30 years, giving the country less than 50 years until all its natural freshwater resources are depleted.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia has rolled out its Vision 2030 initiative, part of which focuses on the optimal use of water resources, reducing consumption and using renewable water, together with its Saudi Green and Middle East Green initiatives.
The Kingdom’s NEOM smart city giga-project taking shape on the Red Sea coast also aims to reduce average water loss from 30 percent to 3 percent by building infrastructure and optioning innovative technology through ENOWA, its energy and water subsidiary.
“This endeavor will provide a blueprint for achieving sustainable water and resource management at scale, and once achieved, a success model the rest of the world may adopt or adapt,” Saad said.
While acknowledging that technology and real-time innovation are essential to reducing water waste, Saad believes the preservation of natural resources can only be achieved through cooperation between governments, businesses and consumers.
“The decisions we make when we source and consume our food and the way we live our day-to-day lives can all have an impact,” he said.
“Everyone can contribute to the overall goal of sustainability by addressing our own day-to-day habits and decisions.”
Turkish military’s push into Iraqi territory risks deeper conflict
Escalation risks further destabilizing a region where foreign powers have intervened with impunity
Updated 31 January 2023
SARARO, Iraq: Looming over the deserted village of Sararo in northern Iraq, three Turkish military outposts break the skyline, part of an incursion that forced the residents to flee last year after days of shelling.
The outposts are just some of the dozens of new military bases Turkiye has established on Iraqi soil in the past two years as it steps up its decades-long offensive against Kurdish militants sheltered in the remote and rugged region.
“When Turkiye first came to the area, they set up small portable tents, but in the spring, they set up outposts with bricks and cement,” Sararo’s mayor Abdulrahman Hussein Rashid said in December during a visit to the village, where shell casings and shrapnel still litter the ground.
“They have drones and cameras operating 24/7. They know everything that’s going on,” he said, as drones buzzed overhead in the mountainous terrain 5 km from the frontier.
Turkiye’s advances across the increasingly depopulated border of Iraqi Kurdistan attract little global attention compared to its incursions into Syria or the battle against Daesh, but the escalation risks further destabilizing a region where foreign powers have intervened with impunity, analysts say.
Turkiye could become further embroiled if its new Iraqi bases come under sustained attack, while its growing presence may also embolden Iran to expand military action in Iraq against groups it accuses of fomenting unrest at home, Kurdish officials say.
The former secretary general for Kurdistan’s Peshmerga forces, Jabar Manda, said Turkiye had 29 outposts in Iraq until 2019 but the number has mushroomed as Ankara tries to stop the Kurdistan Workers’ Party launching attacks on its own territory.
“Year after year the outposts have been increasing after the escalation of battles between Turkish forces and the PKK,” he said, estimating the current number at 87, mostly in a strip of border territory about 150 km long and 30 km deep.
A Kurdish official, who declined to be named, also said Turkiye now had about 80 outposts in Iraq. Another Kurdish official said at least 50 had been built in the last two years and that Turkiye’s presence was becoming more permanent.
Asked to comment on its bases in Iraq, Turkiye’s Defense Ministry said its operations there were in line with article 51 of the UN Charter, which gives member states the right to self defense in the event of attacks.
“Our fight against terrorism in northern Iraq is carried out in coordination and close cooperation with the Iraqi authorities,” the ministry said in a statement, which did not address questions about the figures cited by Kurdish officials.
Turkiye’s presence in northern Iraq, which has long been outside the direct control of the Baghdad government, dates back to the 1990s when former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein let Turkish forces advance 5 km into the country to fight the PKK.
Since then, Turkiye has built a significant presence, including one base at Bashiqa 80 km inside Iraq, where it says Turkish troops were part of an international mission to train and equip Iraqi forces to fight Daesh. Turkiye said it worked to avoid civilian casualties through its coordination with Iraqi authorities.
A report published in August by a coalition of NGOs, End Cross-Border Bombing, said at least 98 civilians were killed between 2015 and 2021. The International Crisis Group, which gave a similar civilian death toll, said 1,180 PKK militants were killed between 2015 and 2023.
According to an official with Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government, the conflict has also emptied at least 800 villages since 2015, when a ceasefire between Turkiye and the PKK broke down, driving thousands of people from their homes.
Beyond the humanitarian impact, Turkiye’s incursion risks widening the conflict by giving carte blanche to regional rival Iran to step up intelligence operations inside Iraq and take its own military action, Kurdish officials say.
Tehran has already fired missiles at bases of Kurdish groups it accuses of involvement in protests against its restrictions on women, displacing hundreds of Iranian Kurds and killing some.
Pro-Iranian militias in Iraq also have a pretext to respond to Turkiye’s presence, analysts say, raising the prospect of escalation between Turkish troops and groups besides the PKK.
Hamdi Malik, a specialist on Iraqi Shiite militias at the Washington Institute, said pro-Iranian groups such as Liwa Ahrar Al-Iraq (Free People of Iraq Brigade) and Ahrar Sinjar (Free People of Sinjar) rebranded themselves last year as the resistance against the Turkish presence.
According to a Washington Institute report, attacks on Turkish military facilities in Iraq increased from an average of 1.5 strikes per month at the start of 2022 to seven in April. If the groups, which are deeply hostile to Washington, step up operations that would also undermine the influence of the United States and its 2,000 troops in Iraq, said Mustafa Gurbuz, a nonresident fellow at the Arab Center Washington.
“Turkiye is underestimating the strength of opposition and the fact that these facilities will become targets in the future and more so as hostilities increase,” said Sajad Jiyad, Baghdad-based analyst for The Century Foundation, a US think tank.
Northern Iraq’s fragmented politics mean that neither the federal government in Baghdad nor the KRG regional authority are strong enough to challenge Turkiye’s presence — or to meet Ankara’s goal of containing the PKK themselves.
The Baghdad government has complained about Ankara’s incursions but has little authority in the mainly Kurdish north, while the region’s ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party does not have the firepower to challenge the PKK, despite seeing it as a potent and populist rival.
The KDP has historically cooperated with Turkiye but has limited influence over a neighbor which wields far greater military and economic clout.
“We ask all foreign military groups — including the PKK — to not drag the Kurdistan Region into any kind of conflicts or tensions,” KRG spokesman Jotiar Adil said.
“The PKK are the main reason that pushed Turkiye to enter our territories in the Kurdistan Region. Therefore, we think the PKK should leave,” he said. “We are not a side in this long-standing conflict and we have no plans to be on any side.”
Iraqi Kurdish Prime Minister Masrour Barzani said the conflict between Turkiye and the PKK was a matter of concern, but less pressing than the threat from Daesh.
Hariam Mahmoud, a leading figure in the Kurdistan Liberation Movement, a civilian opposition group in Iraq influenced by the ideas of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, said no matter how much Turkiye squeezes them they will continue to resist.
“In our opinion, this is an occupation and fighting resistance is a legitimate right,” said Mahmoud, who lives in Garmiyan district south of Sulaimaniya.
Civilians, meanwhile, continue to pay the price. Ramzan Ali, 72, was irrigating his field in Hirure a few km from Sararo in 2021, when he heard a huge blast. The next thing he remembers is being on the ground covered in blood.
He said a Turkish shell had crashed into his property — a regular occurrence when Turkish troops respond to PKK attacks with artillery.
Algeria’s Tebboune to visit Russia in May: Presidency
Tebboune and Putin discussed "bilateral relations between the two countries, especially energy cooperation", the Algerian presidency said
Algeria is a major buyer of Russian arms
Updated 31 January 2023
ALGIERS: Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune plans to visit Russia in May, his office said Tuesday after he spoke on the phone with his counterpart in Moscow, Vladimir Putin.
Algeria has had warm ties with Moscow for decades, but Africa’s biggest gas exporter has also become crucial for Europe’s energy supplies in the fallout of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Tebboune and Putin discussed “bilateral relations between the two countries, especially energy cooperation,” the Algerian presidency said in a statement.
Tebboune is also set to pay a state visit to former colonial ruler France in May, but officials have not specified which country he will visit first.
Algeria, which pumps gas directly to Spain and Italy via undersea pipelines, has in recent months hosted a string of top European officials — including French President Emmanuel Macron in August — seeking to find alternatives to Russian energy supplies.
Algeria is a major buyer of Russian arms, and in 2021 bilateral trade was worth three billion dollars, despite the coronavirus pandemic.
The North African country is in a decades-long struggle with its regional rival Morocco, particularly over the disputed Western Sahara territory, and cut off all ties with its neighbor in 2021 over alleged “hostile acts,” which Rabat has denied.
As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Russia has a direct influence over the Western Sahara file.
EU envoys return to Aden in support of Yemeni government’s military unity and peace efforts
The delegation held talks on Tuesday with the head of the Presidential Leadership Council
Three Al-Qaeda operatives reportedly were killed on Monday in suspected US drone strike on their car in Marib
Updated 31 January 2023
AL-MUKALLA: A group of EU envoys to Yemen have returned to the southern port city of Aden, the country’s temporary capital, in a show of support for the internationally recognized government and its efforts to unite the nation’s fighting forces, stabilize the economy, and facilitate a peace agreement to end the war, Yemeni officials said.
The delegation, led by Gabriel Munuera Vinals, held talks on Tuesday with Rashad Al-Alimi, head of the Presidential Leadership Council, during which they reportedly discussed ways to promote peace, the government’s economic policies to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people, and the council’s efforts to unify the military and security forces and other armed groups under its command.
During a separate meeting with Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Mohsen Al-Daeri, the ambassadors praised the government’s commitment to the peace process and its efforts to unite the nation’s forces. They also discussed with Foreign Minister Ahmed Awadh bin Mubarak efforts to restore the UN-brokered truce.
A Yemeni government official, who asked to remain anonymous, told Arab News that the envoys visited Aden to show their support for the government but no new proposals for ending the conflict were discussed.
“They (the EU envoys) have nothing fresh to bring about peace, but rather (came) to reaffirm the international community’s support for the (Presidential Leadership) Council and the government after returning to Aden,” he said.
The UN’s special envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, is expected to visit Aden next week, the official added.
The latest visit to Aden by EU ambassadors follows one in early December during which they similarly voiced support for the Yemeni government, while international mediators traveled between Sanaa, Aden and other cities in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade the warring factions to revive the UN-brokered truce that expired in October.
Meanwhile, three Al-Qaeda operatives were killed on Monday in a suspected US drone strike on the car in which they were traveling in the central province of Marib, according to local media reports.
They were in the remote Al-Samada area of Wadi Abeda region of Marib when a missile from the drone hit their vehicle, Al-Masdar Online reported. “The strike was precise and the car’s occupants were killed instantly,” it said.
Other local media outlets said Abu Hassan Al-Hadrami, an Al-Qaeda bomb maker who escaped a previous drone attack in the same area near Marib in December, was among the dead.
Elisabeth Kendall, a terrorism expert and mistress of Girton College at the University of Cambridge, told Arab News that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has not confirmed the death of Al-Hadrami, or any other members recently killed.
“Neither AQAP’s official channels nor its main fan channels have confirmed the death of any operative by this name,” she said. “However, the group’s announcement of martyrs does tend to lag behind real-time events. AQAP has not announced any new martyrs since Jan. 7.”
The number of US drone strikes targeting Al-Qaeda militants across Yemen has fallen significantly over the past six years, as Yemeni military and security forces have steadily expelled extremists from their main urban strongholds in Abyan, Aden, Shabwa, Hadramout and Lahji. Most recently they were pushed out of longstanding hiding places in Abyan and Shabwa’s vast and rugged mountains and valleys.