Jay Karkaria, a water management consultant based out of Hong Kong, tells FoodNavigator that the Arab Spring and consequent uprisings all over the Middle East have overshadowed the more pressing problem of water shortage in the region.
“It is widely understood that the region will face severe water shortages from somewhere in the middle of 2015. And if solutions are not found, we can pretty much expect a crippling of society and industry by these water shortages by 2020,” he said.
Karkaria pointed to a 2010 study by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED), which was the first to suggest that by 2015, the annual per capita share of water will be less than 500 cubic metres.
“This is below one-tenth of the world's average, estimated at over 6,000 cubic metres [in 2010]. Water scarcity is a limitation to economic development, food production, and human health and wellbeing,” the report said.
Scrambling to save
These predictions might already have come true. Earlier this year, NASA’s twin Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellites detected the depletion of the Tigris and Euphrates river basins, two vital fresh water sources for the Middle East—terming the groundwater loss to be the size of the Dead Sea.
This increasing water shortage is leaving the countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—scrambling to conserve, secure and come up with new water sources.
Dr. Thani Al Zeyoudi, UAE director of Energy and Climate Affairs, said at a conference this week that the country is addressing the nation’s interconnected water and food challenges as a matter of utmost priority.
“We are addressing the challenges of nexus management in many ways, namely by increasing energy and water efficiency and productivity, diversifying our resources, and adopting appropriate policy and regulatory frameworks,” said Zeyoudi.
“We recently launched the region’s first renewable desalination pilot project, aimed at dramatically reducing the amount of power we consume to produce potable water,” he added.
The Saudi government has set aside around $7bn to spend on water sector related projects in 2013, and this is expected to go up as more projects are in the pipeline, especially desalination and wastewater treatment projects, said a government report.
On the question of local food production going forward, Karkaria says that it is unlikely that food producers would consider any part of the Middle East in their wider production plans. “Maybe Turkey...can’t see them going anywhere else.”
The GCC region already produces less food than it consumes and 80-90% of the consumption is met by imports.
One official with a large dairy cooperative in India, which also exports to some of the GCC countries mainly to cater to the Indian expat population, said that exports to the Middle East are expected to grow.
“Their local dairies and cattle farms are not good for their water problem. Growing fodder for the animals is an issue. It is my understanding that they might shutter some of these,” he said on condition of anonymity.
Some winding down of food production is already on the way.
A recent report from the British think tank Chatham House pointed out that faced with a collapsing water table, the Saudi government began phasing out wheat production in 2008 and it is now slated to end in 2016. By 1992, Saudi Arabia had become the sixth largest wheat exporter in the world, albeit on a highly subsidised basis.
However, others have not heeded this experience.
Qatar recently announced an ambitious goal to achieve 70% food self-sufficiency by 2023, the report said.
“The attraction of sustainable food self-sufficiency to GCC states is obvious, but environmental constraints and economics render it unachievable in practice.”