UNDP: Arab Water Crisis is, at its core, a matter of governance

Nov 28, 2013

Regional Report underlines need for policy shift from managing supply to sustainable demand and from crisis management to long-term planning.

Manama – Water challenges must be addressed if the Arab region is to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, attain prosperity, and reach a future of sustainable human development, says a new United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report launched today in Bahrain. Addressing water challenges now can also help strengthen resilience by managing the risk of potential crises that could result from inaction: such as unplanned migration, economic collapse, or regional conflict, according to the report entitled: “Water Governance in the Arab Region: Managing Scarcity and Securing the Future.”

The Report stresses that the waters scarcity in the region is fast reaching alarming levels, with dire consequences to human development. The statistics are known. While the region accounts for  five percent of the world’s population and 10 percent of its area, it accounts for less than one percent of global water resources, its  share of annual renewable water resources is also less than one percent, and it receives  only 2.1 percent of average annual global precipitation. Over 87 per cent of the region’s terrain is desert and 14 of the world’s 20 most water-stressed countries are in this region. The average Arab citizen has eight times less access to renewable water that the average global citizen and more than two thirds of surface water resources originate from outside the region.

“While emerging challenges to water quality and quantity, such as climate change, are being experienced in many countries, those in the Arab States region are of particular concern as water scarcity is already acute here,” said UNDP Administrator Helen Clark. “Increased demand for water from expanding populations and economic growth is likely to deepen what is often described as a regional ‘water crisis’.” 

Commissioned by UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Arab States, the Report argues that while scarcity is the foundation of the water crisis, the crisis is also one of governance of this under-valued and vulnerable resource. Major challenges for the water sector in the region include: fragmented institutions with unclear and overlapping responsibilities; inadequate capacities; insufficient funding; centralized decision-making; lack of compliance with regulations and ineffective enforcement; and limited public awareness.

“The water crises must be dealt with as a matter of priority and urgency. It deserves increased political attention and commitment even amid the challenging political environment of the region today,” said UN Assistant Secretary-General, UNDP Assistant Administrator and Director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States, Sima Bahous. “Indeed, we must seize the opportunity presented by the current Arab political and economic transformations to advance water governance reform.”

Key elements of good water governance discussed in the report include equity, transparency, accountability, environmental and economic sustainability, stakeholder participation and empowerment, and responsiveness to socio-economic development needs. The report argues that by reorienting policy; reforming institutions, promoting education and awareness; increasing stakeholder participation; establishing international agreements; and linking policy to research and development (R&D), governance can ensure efficient water management practices. It also emphasizes that cost-effectiveness analysis can establish water’s real value and identify the most socially, economically and environmentally cost-effective policy options.

The Report underlines that the complex nexus between water scarcity, food security and energy further emphasizes the social, economic and political implications of the water crisis in the region. Water security is inseparable from social, economic, environmental and health considerations. All sectors—agricultural, industrial and municipal—and users must have equitable, reliable and sustainable access to water, and must use water efficiently. Effective governance must be flexible, able to adapt to climate change and incorporate the social and political changes accompanying modernization.

Adapting to water scarcity

Water scarcity in the Arab region is an established reality. However, the report argues that the adaptive capacity of any society—a complex function of infrastructure, wealth, economic structure, and physical, human and institutional resources—is what determines how scarcity affects it. Socio-economic scarcity arises from an economic inability to develop additional water resources or a social inability to adapt to conditions of physical scarcity. Forced scarcity arises from occupation and political conflict. To strengthen adaptive capacity, water governance must address all types of scarcity, the report stresses.

Investing in innovative approaches to augment water availability already in use across the region

To meet steadily rising demands for water, Arab countries have resorted to a host of approaches to bolster water availability and sustainability and reduce the risk of water-related disasters.

Where conventional water resources (surface water and groundwater) are available, countries with highly variable rainfall and trans-boundary waters have invested in water storage and conveyance networks, dam building, and increasingly drawing on shallow and deep groundwater resources, many of which are non-renewable fossil aquifers. Groundwater overexploitation in the region is not only depleting resources but also damaging the environment. Water salinization has dried natural springs and degraded or destroyed surrounding habitats and ecosystems.

Several Arab countries have also expanded their use of nonconventional water resources including desalination; treated wastewater; rainwater harvesting; cloud seeding; and irrigation drainage water.

For example, the Arab region leads the world in desalination, with more than half of global capacity. Desalinated water is expected to expand from 1.8 per cent of the region’s water supply to an estimated 8.5 per cent by 2025. Most of the increase is expected to concentrate in high-income, energy-exporting countries, particularly the Gulf countries, because desalination is energy- and capital-intensive.

As well, Arab countries are using more treated municipal wastewater—currently estimated at 4.7 billion cubic metres a year and rising.  All such approaches require long-term policy, regulatory innovation, and greater investments in infrastructure and research and development (R&D), to improve their efficiency, allow scalability and enhance sustainability.

To meet rising demands for food, many Arab countries have been forced to acquire water by importing agricultural commodities requiring large amounts of it. Because the Middle East and North Africa imports half of its grain, virtual water trade is necessary. The amount of virtual water imported in the region doubled from 147.93 billion cubic meters in 2000 to 309.89 billion in 2010.

Water governance that focuses on sustainability, energy efficiency, investment and R&D in water technology is essential to maximize water supply. International coordination and agreements in managing shared water resources are also imperative to ensure their sustainability.

Challenges to effective water governance

The report details a number of key challenges that water governance faces in the region including:

  • Balancing multiple water uses: Currently, agriculture which contributes only minimally to GDP, consumes more water (85 percent) than industrial (seven percent) and municipal users (eight percent). Arab countries will have to increase irrigation efficiency, use more nonconventional water and manage crops better, says the report.
  • Water equity: The report notes that while access to water has expanded across the region, progress has been slow in many countries. In 2010, about 18 percent of the Arab population still lacked access to clean water and around 24 percent lacked access to improved sanitation. Rural areas, women, poor people and other marginalized groups usually top the list of those who lack of access. The report argues for bottom-up approaches to water governance in order to ensure equity, which requires that all stakeholders, especially poor people and women, participate in water management.

  • Water-related conflict: The report states that inadequate governance of shared water resources continues to threaten the region’s stability and impose uncertainty on water resource planning in downstream countries, highlighting that competition over trans-boundary waters is at the heart of regional political conflicts.

  • The water, food security and energy nexus: Effective water governance, according to the report requires understanding the interdependence of food security, water and energy. On the one hand, to achieve national food security, governments must maximize agricultural productivity, optimize water productivity, increase trade in virtual water by expanding water-intensive food imports, and work towards regional agricultural integration. On the other hand, energy-intensive technologies of using nonconventional water resources, such as desalination, should be linked to investments in the use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

  • Environmental degradation: The report calls for water governance approaches that balance socio-economic needs and environmental protection. Overexploitation and pollution have led not only to lower water quality and quantity, but also to ecosystem degradation, which has both economic and social costs.

  • Privatization: The report highlights that due to multiple inefficiencies, the water sector, which is predominantly publicly owned across the region, has amassed large funding gaps. Arab countries may need to invest as much as $200 billion in water-related infrastructure over the next ten years—an investment beyond the economic means of many Arab countries.  Privatization of water management and distribution may contribute to greater efficiency and more effective water pricing that will constrain waste and optimize consumption. However, privatization may lead to exclusion of vulnerable and poor people from an essential life-sustaining element. Different modalities of public-private partnerships are being explored in the region.

The way forward: Building blocks of effective water governance

The report argues for a multidimensional approach to the Arab water crisis incorporating social (non-exclusionary, equitable access), economic (efficient use and recognition of the economic value/role of water), political (democratic access to decision making to ensure equity) and environmental (sustainable use preserving the ecosystem) concerns. It presents the following guiding principles and recommendations to realize effective water governance in the region:

  • Reorienting policies: In water-stressed Arab countries, expanding supply while neglecting use and allocation efficiency has led to unsustainable use and has failed to deliver water security. Policies must shift from managing supply to managing sustainable demand and from crisis management to long-term planning. Required policy shifts should be consultative, engaging all stakeholders; avoid politicization of resource competition; link water economy and policies to other economic sectors; make provisions for cooperative management of trans-boundary water resources.
  • Instituting reform: Most Arab countries have institutional frameworks that can contribute to good water governance but lack the legislative instruments to support implementation. New challenges require innovative tools, such as decentralization; employment of participatory approaches; strengthened local technical and financial capacities; dialogue and consensus; effective enforcement and compliance; and better water institution performance.
  • Addressing inadequate and weakly enforced legislation: Ensuring compliance and enforcement of water legislation requires updating legislation through a participatory approach; garnering public support through education and awareness raising among the public; providing technical assistance and economic incentives; as well as developing inspection and monitoring capacities to investigate, report and where needed penalize violations.
  • Empowerment: Social equity should anchor policy choices. Policies should allow meaningful participation of all stakeholders, regardless of social status or power. All social groups should be able to voice their claims and concerns in an open, transparent environment. Incorporating social and gender equity concerns in policy formulation and programmes is a prerequisite for effective water governance. To realize the goal of inclusiveness, countries must go beyond legislative arrangements and staged participatory processes to work towards cultural change. Civil society engagement; involvement of end users through users’ associations; public debate over water issues facilitated by research and academic institutions; and access to relevant and timely information on the water sector, will all be essential tools of empowerment.
  • Sustainability: the companion of success: To achieve equity and justice essential for social sustainability, active and meaningful engagement of relevant stakeholders should be an established policy at all governance levels. Economic sustainability entails calculating benefits and costs of water policies. Environmental sustainability should account for the need for continued water availability while rationalizing the use of renewable water resources and ensuring ecological preservation of the natural environments. Countering desertification and preserving wetland and oases ecosystems are among the most urgently needed steps.
  •  Addressing water-related challenges and nexuses: Mitigating water scarcity and variability and ensuring that water of adequate quantity and quality is available when and where it is needed, requires broad and sustained efforts of all involved stakeholders, including decision-makers, planners, engineers and the public. A top priority for adaptation in the water sector should be reducing the vulnerabilities of poor and disadvantaged people. Securing environmental and ecological sustainability is another major priority. Coping with water scarcity requires adaptive behaviours and actions. This will allow for better management of challenges such as climate change, water and food security and the water-energy nexus, among others.
Contact information


Ali Salman, Communication Focal Point, UNDP – Bahrain
Tel: +973 17319423         
Mobile: +973 39 766 366               
e-mail: ali.salman@undp.org


Nejib Friji, Director, United Nations Information Centre - Bahrain
Tel: +973 1 7311676
Mobile: +973 39 772 197
e-mail: friji@un.org


Noeman AlSayyad, Regional Communication Advisor, UNDP - Regional Centre in Cairo
Mobile: Manama  +973 36 077 336
Cairo +20 10 0181 1876  
e-mail: noeman.alsayyad@undp.org

UNDP Around the world

You are at UNDP Bahrain 
Go to UNDP Global