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GEO-3: GLOBAL ENVIRONMENT OUTLOOK  
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Increasing water demand

The major cause of the increasing demand for water is rapid population growth. The region's population increased from 37.3 million in 1972 to 97.7 million in 2000 (United Nations Population Division 2001). A high annual population growth rate of more than 3 per cent in the Mashriq sub-region has seen the annual per capita share of available water resources decreasing from 6 057 m3 in 1950 (Khouri 2000) to 1 574 m3 in 2000 (see box below) .

Water stress index: West Asia
  Mashriq Arabian Peninsula West Asia region
population (millions, 2000) 50.7 47.0 97.7
available water (km3/year) 79.9 15.3 95.2
water used (km3/year) 66.5 29.6 96.1
water stress index (%) 83.3 >100 >100
per capita available 1574 326 974
Source: ACSAD 2000 and United Nations Population Division 2001

Domestic water demand has also been rising due to an increase in per capita consumption. In many countries, water rationing is used to limit demand. For example, Jordan restricts water supplies in Amman to only three days a week. In Damascus, water can be used for less than 12 hours a day.

Water uses in West Asia

Origins and uses of water resources in the West Asian subregions; the Arabian Peninsular depends mainly on groundwater, the Mashriq countries on surface water - but both use most of their water in agriculture

Source: Khouri 2000

Agriculture is the main user of water in West Asia, accounting for nearly 82 per cent of the total water consumed compared to 10 per cent and 8 per cent for the domestic and industrial sectors, respectively. In the Arabian Peninsula, agriculture utilizes about 86 per cent of the available water resources, and about 80 per cent in the Mashriq (Khouri 2000). To satisfy water demand, especially for irrigation, groundwater abstraction has increased dramatically during the past three decades.

In the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, the total annual water supply increased from 6 km3 in 1980 to 26 km3 in 1995, with 85 per cent of the water used for agricultural purposes (Zubari 1997). In 1995, the GCC countries had water resources equivalent to 466 m3/year per capita and a per capita water use of 1 020 m3/year, producing an average annual water deficit of about 554 m3 per capita, provided mainly by mining groundwater reserves (Zubari 1997).

The water stress index in West Asia (expressed as a percentage of water used to available water resources) is more than 100 per cent in five of the seven countries in the Arabian Peninsula, and is critical in the remaining two. These countries have already exhausted their renewable water resources and are now exploiting non-renewable reserves. In the Mashriq, except in Jordan, the water stress index is lower (see table above). While per capita water resources in 9 of the 12 countries in West Asia are below 1 000 m3/year, they are also below 500 m3/year in seven countries. The overall value of the water stress index for West Asia is more than 100 per cent (see table above).

Over the past three decades, the adoption of food self-sufficiency policies has encouraged agricultural expansion. Governments offered subsidies and incentives which resulted in a large-scale expansion of farming, increasing water demand which was satisfied mainly by mining deep aquifers. Furthermore, unregulated pumping, absence or minimal irrigation water tariffs, lack of enforcement measures against unlawful drilling, poor irrigation practices and lack of farmer awareness have resulted in excessive water usage.

Intensive agriculture and heavy application of agrochemicals have also contributed to the contamination of water resources. For example, the concentration of nitrates in Gaza's tap water exceeds WHO guidelines (10 mg/litre) and nitrate concentrations are increasing at a rate of 0.2-1.0 mg/litre per year in the country's coastal wells. Adherence to WHO standards would place half of these coastal wells off limits as drinking water (PNA 2000).

Water use for irrigation in West Asia

Subsidies and incentives have led to a large expansion of the private agricultural sector in West Asia, and to the extension of supplementary irrigation into some rainfed farming areas. For example, the total irrigated area in Syria has nearly doubled over the past three decades, increasing from 625 000 ha (10.9 per cent arable land) in 1972 to 1 186 000 ha (25.2 per cent of arable land) in 1999 (FAOSTAT 2001). In Iraq, the percentage of irrigated land increased from 30.3 per cent in 1972 to 67.8 per cent in 1999 (FAOSTAT 2001). Irrigation efficiency - the percentage of water that actually reaches the crop - does not exceed 50 per cent in the region, and sometimes falls as low as 30 per cent, leading to high water losses (ACSAD 1997).

The water used in wheat farming in Saudi Arabia during 1980-95 was about 254 km3 (Al-Qunaibet 1997), equivalent to 13 per cent of the country's total fossil groundwater reserves of 1 919 km3 (Al Alawi and Razzak 1994).

Available water resources in West Asia (million m3/year)
  Mashriq Arabian Peninsula West Asia region
surface water 68 131 6 835 74 966
groundwater 8 135 6 240 14 375
desalination 58 1 850 1 908
agricultural drainage reuse 3 550 392 3 942
total 79873 15 318 95 191
Source: Khouri 2000