Middle Eastern Water Stress Could Cause Widespread Regional Instability in the Years to Come


28 AUGUST 2019

 Kitila Davies, Research Assistant, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme


The World Resources Institute recently identified 18 countries that are likely to suffer from extreme levels of water stress (due to their propensity to use more of their water resources than can be naturally replenished). Of those 18 countries, 11 are located in the Middle East.

Another study found that around two billion people rely on groundwater as their only source of water and that by 2030 global water requirements will be 40 per cent above current sustainable levels. The top six countries in the WRI report; Qatar, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine (ranked fourth although unofficially included), Iran and Jordan, all suffer from varying degrees of internal and regional instability. These states do not have the financial resources, or technical ability, to manage water resources or seek alternatives to alleviate water stress. This presents an opportunity for co-operation, but regional tensions are increasing the likelihood that water stress will simply act as a catalyst to geo-political instability, as has been the case in the past.


The supply of water in the Middle East has been unable to keep up with the increased demand that has accompanied recent economic, environmental and socio-political trends. Water insecurity in the region intersects with ‘poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions’ to create a climate of instability. This situation will continue to worsen if unaddressed.

Poor governance and a lack of regional co-operation have reduced the quality and quantity of natural water resources in the Middle East. Factors stemming from mismanagement include overdrawing groundwater reserves, increased construction of dams, pollution and wasteful irrigation systems, which have all reduced the available water supply. The lack of regional stability has also made co-operation regarding issues of climate change difficult. Climate variables, such as drought and decreased precipitation, have put further strain on water supplies in the already arid region.

The UN Statistical Database estimates that population growth in the Middle Eastern countries identified in the WRI report, averaged 2.2% between 2015 and 2020. This was roughly double the global rate for the same period. Although population growth in these countries is expected to decline between 2020 and 2025, projections can be inaccurate in regions of instability. In these areas conflict and rapid fluctuations in migration are common results of both short-term and protracted economic, social, political and environmental factors.

Prolonged droughts, which are expected to worsen with the effects of climate change and groundwater exploitation, have forced rural agricultural communities into urban centres. In 2006/2007, 1.5 million Syrians migrated from rural areas as government mismanagement contributed to excessive groundwater extraction, which made them more vulnerable to the effects of drought. Most of the countries identified in the WRI report do not have the political climate or public infrastructure to cope with the pressure that increased urbanisation places on water resources. The health and welfare of populations are at increased risk as water scarcity forces people to rely on unsafe drinking water.

The health crisis in southern Iraq in 2018, due to a lack of available fresh water, saw 180,000 people hospitalised and contributed to mass-protests across the country. Food insecurity is an often overlooked catalyst for widespread social instability. Decreased food production is a direct result of water shortages that, in conjunction with population growth, compounds the stresses on global markets. The countries identified by the WRI report will have to modify their economies to offset the production deficits of water-intensive products, such as wheat and meat. Effective governance is needed to cope with managing population growth, urbanisation and the effects of rapid demographic changes on encouraging instability.

The use of water resources for diplomatic leverage among states (that is using their ability to support and construct water related infrastructure projects to obtain regional influence), is an increasingly likely trend for major regional actors such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel. A 2012 report, published by the United States Intelligence Community, found the risk of direct conflict over water resources among the regional states to be low. As stresses increase, however, water infrastructure, such as pipelines, dams and desalination plants, will be increasingly at risk from non-state actors.

To subvert the effects of water stress, regional co-operation and management is needed to increase agricultural efficiency, support and revise water-sharing agreements, invest in grey and green infrastructure, increase trade in water-intensive products imported from outside of the region, and improve the usage and efficiency of water related technology.

Heightened water stress could lead to reduced drought resilience, degraded food security and increased tensions over water management and development activity. States could increasingly use water as a tool to gain political and economic leverage over one another. Extreme water stress is a common regional issue among most of the countries in the Middle East. Support is needed from the international community, as many of these states do not have the internal capacity to alleviate their water stress.

If the co-ordinated action that is needed to mitigate water stress is not achieved, it could become a catalyst for social and political tensions. The key to avoiding instability remains prevention through improved technologies and water management. Risk-mitigation strategies will be ineffectual if socio-political tensions rise.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.


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