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Five questions about water use efficiency and practices in the Middle East

A number of countries in the  Middle East will be under water stress. Photo: Oliver Laumann
A number of countries in the Middle East will be under water stress by 2040. Photo: Oliver Laumann

This is five quick questions about water and the Middle East answered by researcher Tareq Emtairah from Lund University.

Tareq Emtairah is a researcher in renewable energy and energy efficiency, specialized in water efficiency in the Middle East at International Institute for industrial Environmental Economics (IIIEE) at Lund University.

He has here answered critical questions about water management, use and development in the Middle East, a region that is facing water shortages and will for years to come. An analysis concludes that water supplies across the Middle East will deteriorate over 25 years, and many of the region’s countries will be under acute water stress by 2040. This could force more people to move to already overcrowded cities and hamper economic growth.

IIIEE researcher Tareq Emtairah
IIIEE researcher Tareq Emtairah

1) What are the key issues related to water in the Middle East today?

The most alarming concern is water availability. Most of the countries in the Middle East suffer from water scarcity. Using per capita water availability measures, 13 countries from the Middle East are among the world's nineteen most water-scarce nations. Water supply sources, both surface and ground, have been stretched to the limit.  Due to population growth and economic development, groundwater resources have been over-exploited beyond safe yield levels; raising a second concern about water pollution. The over exploitation of ground water has resulted in significant declines in water tables and in the pollution of aquifers.

A third concern comes with the potential effects from climate change on rainfall. The region is one of the driest in the world. More than 70% of the land is dry and rainfall is sparse and poorly distributed. According to climate change models, by the end of the 21st century, the region is predicted to experience an alarming 25% decrease in precipitation and a 25% increase in evaporation rates. 

2) How can we increase water use efficiency in the Middle East and globally?

Water use in the Middle East is dominated by agriculture, which utilizes about 85% of the water resources, against a world average of 70%. Irrigation efficiency is very low in most countries. A shift in focus is needed from agricultural productivity in terms of tons produced per hectare of land to tons produced per cubic meter of water so that water usage can be captured as part of the cost of production.

In other use sectors, we need to start thinking in terms of closed water cycles. Currently, over 40% of wastewater in the region is discharged without treatment, while a very small fraction is reused. Huge potential exist in most countries of the middle east for increasing water use efficiency, recycle and reuse. One significant barrier can be found in the dominant water pricing regimes which do not create sufficient incentives for rationalization of use and/or investments in efficiency technologies.   

3) What changes in water management needs to be made to secure the future water supply in the Middle East?

Traditionally, the focus of water management in the Middle East has been on developing new supplies. This is no longer viable. There is an urgent need for a strategic shift from a culture of water development to one of improving water management. This includes creating incentives for efficient use of water, encouraging reuse and protecting water supplies from overuse and pollution.

4) How can research and innovation help to tackle these challenges?

Research and innovation can help at many different levels. The scope is still wide open for more technical innovations for enhancing water use efficiency in agriculture and other sectors. However equally important is the research emerging within other disciplines such as management, behavioural science, governance and policy and within the inter-disciplinary research community in showing and demonstrating integrated approaches and strategies for the management of the water challenges in the Middle East. 

5) What is your research about? 

I am particularly interested in water efficiency practices among end users such as industrial and households. Although one could argue that water pricing is the key to drive rational use of water, but it is not often the case. End users need also the knowledge and tools to make informed decisions on how best to improve their water behaviours. 

One example is the development of mapping and communication tools to assist industrial facilities to understand water cycles in their operations and easily identify opportunities for closing the water cycle and other potential co-benefits (e.g. energy savings), which can improve the business case for investments in water efficiency.

Learn more about Tareq Emtairah research and work.