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Liquid assets

Water is set to play a huge role in the future of the Middle East, with countries vying to control this increasingly valuable resource, says Trends magazine.

February 11, 2010 10:43 by

The next time you let the faucet run while you brush your teeth, think about the past year. It was an important 2009 for the issue of water scarcity in the region. Negotiations that have been taking place among the countries sharing the Nile – although failing to produce a formal treaty – have produced some tangible results.

The 2008 spike in food prices has sent major food importers such as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries scrambling to buy tracts of agricultural land in Africa. Plans are also underway for the Red-Dead canal, which would transport two billion cubic meters of Red Sea water to the Dead Sea, replenishing the latter and desalinating water for Jordan.

Food and its production is one of the key issues when it comes to water. While the water used in homes and for industrial purposes makes up 10 percent of global consumption, 90 percent – ‘big water’ as hydrologists call it – goes to food production, which is why countries that import most of their food are also importers of what is called ‘virtual water.’

The term was coined by Tony Allan, who lectures on water issues in the Middle East at King’s College and the School for Oriental and African Studies in London. He says that 80 percent of countries are net importers of virtual water – only ten countries are water exporters.

The water available – in river basins and aquifers or through rainfall – only provides food for 200 million people, whereas the actual population of the Middle East is 300 million, and rising fast. But, says Allan, water scarcity in itself should not be an issue.

He points to Singapore as an example. “[It’s] a tiny country with a population of 4.5 million, which does not even have enough ‘small water.’ It meets its needs by importing water from Malaysia and desalinating sea water. It can do this because it has a stable political environment, good governance, friendly relations with its neighbors, and a strong diversified economy.”

He contrasts Singapore with Yemen, a country that actually has plenty of rainfall but is overusing its resources and running out of water fast. Says Allan: “Yemen’s government [is in] conflict with various groups and does not control most of the country. Because of its dependence on dwindling oil resources, it has not created a strong economy.’ Yemen’s rapid water depletion is just one of many serious issues the country faces.

Yemen’s northern neighbor also faces problems, although not as serious.

Saudi Arabia, while having a stable political situation, has been wasting its water resources in a misguided effort to be self-sufficient in food production, something which never really worked, says Allan.

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