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MENA region is running out of water. It is time to do something about it

Experts weigh in on multisectoral pressures on water resources and what can be done to tackle the crisis

MENA region is running out of water. It is time to do something about it
[Source photo: Krishna Prasad/Fast Company Middle East]

In early 2018, Day Zero in Cape Town was the first time a horrified world saw what happens when a major city runs out of water. In 2024, Bengaluru in India is becoming perilously close to Day Zero as the water crisis worsens. 

This water crisis is not unexpected. It has been a long time coming, and climate change is amplifying the problem.

If not tackled with a sense of urgency, the same story will play out, sooner or later, in many cities and towns in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

The water crisis is in the making in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria and happening in Jordan, Yemen, and Palestine, as the region is one of the scarcest areas in the world.

Globally, seven out of the ten most water-stressed nations are in the MENA region. In those countries, the average water stress level is 820%, which means that the annual water withdrawal is eight times higher than the water supply from renewable resources.

“A water crisis has already been brewing in the region due to its long-standing hot and dry climate and limited sources of freshwater supplies. But climate change has pushed this to a tipping point, where even the few renewable surface water supplies in the region are being challenged regarding reliability,” says Mohammed Mahmoud, Director of the Climate and Water Program at the Middle East Institute.


For years, multiple agencies have been predicting that the region would soon witness acute, persistent water shortages. The causes for the water shortages were also well-known —  population growth, urbanization – huge industrial farms and sprawling cities are draining aquifers that could take hundreds of years to replenish if they recover — and a climate crisis unfolding, underfoot and out of view.

“The region is facing multisectoral pressures to its water resources sustainability due to increasing demand, inefficient water uses, poor water governance, climate change, over-pumping of precious groundwater resources, influx of refugees and transboundary issues,” says Dr Hazim El-Naser, former Jordan minister of Water and Irrigation and chief of Middle East Water Forum. “The result is that around 362 million people in the Arab region live with water scarcity.”  

The severity of the crisis varies across countries within the region. “The situation is likely to worsen without significant interventions,” says Dr. Walid Saleh, water resources management specialist and head of the Water and Natural Resources Programme at FAO, Yemen. 

“Water challenges require urgent attention and concerted efforts from governments, stakeholders, and the international community to ensure sustainable water management and security for future generations,” he adds.

Although water security has been recognized as an important priority in the region, as evidenced by the early utilization of desalination to boost local water resources, Mahmoud says the sense of urgency on this issue has been relegated instead to other climate and environmental priorities. “[It’s necessary to have] a renewed focus on this topic along with the investments and innovations to address it in the region.” 

The World Bank report The Economics of Water Scarcity in MENA: Institutional Solutions notes that by the end of this decade, the amount of water available per capita annually will fall below the absolute water scarcity threshold of 500 cubic meters per person, per year. It also estimates that by 2050, an additional 25 billion cubic meters of water a year will be needed to meet the region’s needs. That is equivalent to building 65 desalination plants the size of Ras Al Khair plant in Saudi Arabia, which is currently the largest in the world.

Also, depending on who you ask, the solution to the crisis involves technology solutions like building apps that give real-time data, digitalizing water sectors, leak detection, and smart irrigation systems, such as hydroponics. 

But there’s a bigger problem. Over 80% of wastewater in the region is not recycled. 

“This presents a major threat to human and environmental health but also could be a useful opportunity toward water demand satisfaction,” says Dr. El-Naser. 

Properly treated wastewater can be considered a new renewable water source. Using treated wastewater in restricted agriculture can help maintain and sustain produce at affordable prices and support national food security, as in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. 

Another big obstacle is groundwater depletion, an unseen yet essential natural resource barely regulated. The problem is that practices that have drained aquifers, such as overreliance on groundwater in fast-growing urban areas, need to be more examined at the regional scale.


Over the next ten years, the investment needed to achieve water security in the region depends on factors such as population growth, water demand, existing infrastructure, and the severity of water scarcity, says Dr. Saleh.

A World Bank report estimated that achieving water security in the MENA region would require around $21 billion annually in water supply and sanitation infrastructure, with additional investments needed in water management, governance, and climate resilience measures.

“There are varying estimates of investment needs, but most agree that significant financial resources are required to achieve water security in the MENA region,” adds Dr. Saleh.

In addition to domestic investment, international cooperation and support are crucial for mobilizing additional funding, sharing knowledge and expertise, and promoting regional water management and allocation cooperation.

Some Arab countries consider water insecurity a national security element and a government priority; however, most deal with it as any other services sector. 

“The financing gap for achieving the SDGs in the Arab region is estimated at least $230 billion annually, which can also be an opportunity for investment and economic growth,” says Dr. El-Naser.


A crisis doesn’t happen overnight. It escalates over several years, and when we have time, we try several things to address it.

Managing demand through a combination of carrot and stick, including tariffs, incentives, water conservation awareness, and promoting more integrated and harmonized public policies that connect agriculture, water, energy, and the environment are a few long-term approaches. 

The most important is driving behavioral change. Massive investment should be made in public education about the water crisis to get through it. 

“It’s important to enlighten people on threats, opportunities, priorities, and actions needed,” says Dr. El-Naser. 

To this end, NGOs, civil society organizations, and government agencies in the region are undertaking initiatives to raise awareness about water conservation and efficiency among the public. 

Also, technology is vastly understated when it comes to water security. 

In the region, countries built desalination plants. Given the abundance of seawater in many countries in the region, desalination has become a crucial technology for increasing freshwater supply. 

“Advances in desalination technology, such as improved energy efficiency and membrane technologies, are making desalination more cost-effective and environmentally sustainable,” says Dr. Saleh.

​​Though comprehensive expansions into water security projects across the region are still not fully realized for several reasons, including cost and capacity, Mahmoud says, “innovative measures like cloud seeding to enhance rainfall in the region have been advancing as well.”

Another challenge is keeping pace with the demand for food. To match crop production to expected demand, water use for irrigation would have to increase by 146% by the middle of this century. The problem is water is already maxed out. Since huge amounts of water are wasted in agriculture, enhancing irrigation efficiency is vital.

“Improvements in food growing practices associated with the water consumption of that sector can go a long way towards achieving water and food security, as the agricultural sector accounts for the largest consumptive use of water,” says Mahmoud.

Meanwhile, innovations in irrigation technology, such as drip irrigation and sensor-based irrigation systems, which are increasingly adopted in the region, are helping farmers optimize water use and reduce water waste in agriculture.

“These systems improve crop yields while conserving water resources,” says Dr. Saleh.

Investing in green infrastructure, such as constructed wetlands, green roofs, and permeable pavements, helps reduce stormwater runoff, mitigate floods, and recharge groundwater aquifers, thus contributing to water security and climate resilience.

But relying on technology alone, without political measures, doesn’t work.

“Several countries in the MENA region are engaging in transboundary water cooperation to jointly manage shared water resources,” says Dr. Saleh. “Bilateral and multilateral agreements, such as the Nile Basin Initiative and the Jordan River Basin, facilitate dialogue, data sharing, and coordinated water management efforts among riparian states.”

Mahmoud says that achieving sustainable water security in the region will require a multi-pronged approach across different sectors and applications. A combination of water augmentation investments, water conservation projects, and better water management practices will be a path forward for the region.

“Much more needs to be done, and substantial investments are needed over the next decade to ensure access to safe and sustainable water for all people in the region,” adds Dr. Saleh.

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Suparna Dutt D’Cunha is the Editor at Fast Company Middle East. She is interested in ideas and culture and cover stories ranging from films and food to startups and technology. She was a Forbes Asia contributor and previously worked at Gulf News and Times Of India. More