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Ship wrecks contribute to water quality problems.
Source: UNDP

While water scarcity is a chronic problem in West Asia, accentuated water shortage in urban areas in 2004 highlighted how growing demand is pressing on finite supplies. The main pressures boosting demand are rapid population growth, expansion of irrigated agriculture and the fast pace of industrialization (Abu-Zeid and others 2004).

Water shortage means increasing competition for water among the various sectors. Agriculture accounts for 85 per cent of water use in West Asia, domestic use for 10 per cent and industry five per cent. The agricultural share is well above the world average of 70 per cent (ESCWA 2003a, GEO Data Portal 2004).

High population growth (2.6 per cent) and rapid urbanization (ESCWA 2003b) present major challenges in the struggle to meet increasing domestic water demand (Figure 1) with scarce public funds (ESCWA 2003a). Although most people have access to clean drinking water and sanitation services (Box 1), services are not always reliable - especially in lower-income areas.

Water shortage for domestic use is a problem in key cities in the region, especially Sana'a, Amman and Damascus (Elhadj 2004, ESCWA 2003b). In Yemen, annual water abstraction is running at about one and a half times the rate of recharge, with even higher rates in the Sana'a Basin (World Bank 2003). Rapid population growth (3.6 per cent a year) is outpacing new water supply schemes. Although the city of Sana'a faces severe water shortage, water resources have been increasingly diverted to grow Qat. This narcotic plant consumes about 40 per cent of groundwater extraction for agriculture in the basin - more than the water consumption of the city itself (WEC 2001). Another problem is the uncontrolled spread of private agricultural wells now numbering 13 400, which have been lowering groundwater levels in the Sana'a basin by 3-6 metres a year (WEC 2004).

Figure 1: Water demand by sector in West Asia

Source: ESCWA 2003a and b

In Amman, Jordan, shortages have reached the point where many residents receive water only one day a week. The government is undertaking a series of initiatives to address this problem, including piping water to the city from the Disi aquifer some 325 km away. The sustainability of supply remains a concern. The aquifer holds fossil water, and is already showing signs of depletion and increasing salinity (Water Industry 2004, World Bank 2004a).

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries face even greater water scarcity. Demands are being satisfied overwhelmingly by groundwater mining (91 per cent), though there is rapid growth in desalination (seven per cent) and expansion in wastewater treatment and reuse (two per cent), along with harvesting of surface runoff water. If present trends in population growth and water consumption prevail, the water shortage problem will soon reach crisis level (Al-Zubari 2004).

While the GCC countries have adequate financial resources to meet urban water needs, rising demand for domestic water will require additional desalination plants and wastewater treatment facilities, demanding heavy capital investment (ESCWA 2003a). Desalination also raises environmental concerns, especially over brine disposal and air pollution. Dealing with these would raise investment costs even higher (ESCWA 2001).

All the GCC countries have realized that efficient development and management of water resources require water policy reforms, with emphasis on supply and demand management measures and improvement of legal and institutional provisions (Al-Zubari 2004).

Box 1: MDGs in urban areas and integrated water resources management

A comparatively high percentage of people in West Asia has access to water supply and basic sanitation and the region is favourably placed to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for these sectors. These goals aim to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015.

However, the development of integrated water resources management and water efficiency plans between 2000 and 2004 has been slow. They will require effective national institutional frameworks; adoption of national water plans; improvement of irrigation systems; and cooperation in shared river basins. Sound water resources assessment in several countries requires monitoring networks and databases.

Poor water resources management threatens aquatic ecosystems in the region. To protect them, the issues of pollution and increased salinity, recycling of wastewater through treatment and reuse, and water harvesting must be addressed.

An Economic and Social Commission for West Asia report submitted to the 13th Session of the Commission on Sustainable Development underscored the need for sufficient funds, training and credible information. Among its recommendations were the:

  • Establishment of an Arab fund to finance preparation and implementation of water development projects;
  • Development of a regional programme for education, training and awareness raising; and
  • Creation of regional water monitoring and information networks.

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