As the world’s most water insecure region, the Arab region is facing a mounting climate emergency which is only predicted to worsen in the next few years.
If global temperatures continue to rise, extreme weather patterns will cripple sustainable development. Droughts will devastate farmlands and jeopardize food security. Household water taps will run dry.
Water resources across the region are diminishing faster than they can be replaced by precipitation – particularly in countries with significant irrigation demands from agriculture.
By 2050, it is projected that at least one in four people will be affected by recurring water shortages. And close to 90 million inhabitants in the Arab region are on track to suffer varying degrees of water stress by 2025 if the climate crisis is not immediately addressed.
Inaction will be costly. If left unchecked, the climate crisis will exacerbate long-standing governance issues, shock economies and exacerbate health issues like malnutrition and the spread of infectious disease. It will also compromise the resilience of water and sanitation services which will put us further behind on achieving UN Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals.
These are the issues that the Arab Countries Water Utilities Association (ACWUA) is working to address. As a non-profit non-governmental organization that serves as a global center of excellence in water and wastewater management, we have conducted numerous studies to define the challenges that prevent the water sector from achieving its development objectives.
Through our needs assessments, we have identified seven key challenges facing the water sector in the Arab region that policymakers, as well as partners from civil society, academia and the private sector, urgently need to address.
First, there is a significant gap between water supply and demand. More than 50 per cent of the population in the region has little or no access to drinkable water and over 70 percent of the region’s GDP is exposed to high water stress. Policymakers can mitigate these issues by improving water governance. This means implementing tools like national water master plans, strategically allocating water and improving budgeting, and creating water and sanitation safety plans.
Second, there is an urgent need to improve the management of water resources. In many countries across the Arab region, 85 per cent of water is consumed by the agriculture sector. Leaders can improve efficiency in irrigation systems, change patterns of agricultural production and expand reclaimed water usage.
Third, funding shortages mean that many water and sanitation improvements are left on the table. To bridge the funding gaps, we need to attract more private sector investment in water and sanitation projects and implement better financial strategic planning.
Fourth, there is currently a high cost of water production (groundwater abstraction, surface water treatment and desalination) and wastewater treatment. In Jordan, for example, water resources are far from consumption areas and energy costs are extremely high. Additionally, some water plants are old and poorly maintained due to the lack of operational and maintenance standards. Political unrest has also impacted infrastructures such as in Iraq, Syria, Gaza, and Libya. To address these challenges, governments can develop asset management strategies and improve operation and maintenance procedures. Additionally, they can also reduce energy costs by ensuring facilities are energy efficient.
Fifth, confusing legislation and regulation have often hindered improvements in the water and sanitation sector. In order to prevent gaps and duplication of efforts, it is important to clearly define the duties and responsibilities of different ministries and agencies, as well as other stakeholders like civil society and private sector partners.
Additionally, poor human resource and capacity-building strategies have led to a sector brain drain. If we want to solve our water crisis, we need to invest in highly trained personnel who understand the challenges and the solutions. Furthermore, we need to equip government leaders with the knowledge to make wise policies and strategic investments that will make our communities more resilient to crisis. This means developing capacity building and certification programs at all levels including operation and maintenance in water and wastewater systems, and managerial and leadership empowerment.
Finally, as climate change threatens our water and sanitation systems, countries can develop adaptation and mitigation strategies and develop climate change forecasting.
As ACWUA looks ahead to the upcoming Sector Ministers’ Meeting on 18-19 May, our goal is to see these solutions adopted, not only in the Arab region but worldwide. Additionally, we hope the meeting will establish an international water and sanitation alliance between governments, research centers, utilities, universities, international organizations such as UN Water, funding agencies, NGOs, and water users. The mission of this alliance will be to create a road map and lead to concrete strategies and plans to achieve the main pillars of SDG 6: “water and sanitation for all.”
Now is the time to catalyze commitment on water and sanitation to protect our communities from climate disasters, to ensure our health and well-being, and foster economic growth.