Published on Arab Voices

More crop per drop in the Middle East and North Africa


Water is a scarce commodity: we should take care of it.

In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region there is really very little choice. The region only receives about two percent of the world’s annual precipitation and holds about 1.2 percent of the world’s renewable water resources. This makes water a deeply precious and scarce resource.  The statistics are stark: The amount of water consumed in the United States averages 2,800 cubic meters per person per year, whereas in Yemen, it is 100 cubic meters per person.
Add to this, the rapid population growth and urbanization; both of which are adding pressure on water resources. And while some countries can afford desalination plants, others are forced to overdraw on non-renewable water resources, or drawing on aquifers faster than they can be naturally replenished.   

People in the region have adapted to climate variability and scarcity for thousands of years, but at this time these changes are happening faster and are more severe.  Further, over the past decades we have seen a downward curve in overall precipitation numbers. For example, the most recent rainy season in Jordan and Lebanon, from the end of 2013 to the present, brought only about a third of the long-term average rainfall. The previous rainy season brought only about 80 percent of the long-term average. The region has not seen such low rainfall since at least 1970.
Today, the eastern Mediterranean – in Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Israel, Syria, and Iraq are suffering from an extended period of drought. These year-on-year drought occurrences make it extremely hard for the countries to adapt and create the adjustments and resilience needed for this new reality.

Droughts and displacement can also be contributing factors with much broader geopolitical impact. For example, prior to the civil war, Syria had endured the longest drought in four decades. By the time the three-year drought finally ended in 2010, somewhere around 1.5 million people had been forced to migrate due to the drought. Many of these displaced people came from the worst affected areas in the north-east and settled in the south, in Daraa, to work as farm laborers. Many analysts have drawn the link between this forced migration to the uprisings that subsequently erupted in Daraa and therefore as a contributing factor to the terrible crisis that we are witnessing today.

The current combination of war and drought could slash wheat production in Syria to less than a third of the pre-crisis output of 3.5 million tons. This will make the dire food security situation even worse. About 6.3 million people inside Syria, or about one third of the population, are in urgent need of food assistance. This is in addition to the 2.5 million Syrian refugees living in neighboring countries.

The eastern Mediterranean drought finally broke in the second week of March of this year. It was heralded by torrential rains and widespread flooding and snow across the region. While water reservoirs were finally filled up, it is not clear what additional crop damage could have been caused by the flash floods and sudden drop in temperature. What is clear is that Syrian refugees in their makeshift tents were especially exposed and suffered widespread damage.
According to estimates, the recent weather extremes are the region’s new normal. North Africa is expected to undergo the greatest increases in temperatures, some two to three degrees, with some increased precipitation. The temperature increases in the rest of the region will be more moderate but precipitation is likely to fall. On the whole, MENA is expected to get hotter and drier.
People in MENA are well aware of the seriousness of the situation. Opinion polls show that 80 percent of the region’s population recognizes climate change as a serious problem. Tunisia’s new constitution includes a specific reference to the threat of climate change and the need to take actions to mitigate its impact on both its citizens and environment.
When it comes to using water well, there are aspects of crop choice that need to be explored. The goal, as we like to say at the World Bank, is to get “more crop per drop.” The key questions are:  Which crops can be optimized? What crops have the highest value? What crops can be maximized both in terms of productivity and nutrition?  More research and development is needed.  In MENA, cereal yields are only at 56% of the world average and only at 25% of the yields attained in Europe.  So, there are huge opportunities for producing greater agricultural outputs with the same amount of land and water. 
The people of the Middle East and North Africa Region have millennia of experience in managing, optimizing and thriving with water scarcity. And while with climate change the situation has become more urgent, there are solutions and ways forward.  The World Bank is proud to work with the region to create greater resilience and to help ensure that every drop counts.
This blog is based on a transcript of an interview given to BBC World television by Inger Andersen, the World Bank’s Regional Vice-President for the Middle and North Africa


Inger Andersen

Former Vice President, Middle East & North Africa

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