In terms of groundwater depletion, “Yemen and Gaza are probably the two places worst off in the Middle East,” Aaron Wolf told ECSP in a recent interview. Wolf, a water expert and geography professor at Oregon State University, said population growth across the broader Middle East region has led to intensified groundwater pumping in recent years. This trend has raised the prospects for water-related conflict down the road, as countries drain their groundwater stocks faster than the aquifers can recharge. Potentially complicating matters further, said Wolf, is that most aquifers in the Middle East cross international boundaries.
Despite the region’s history of water tensions, Wolf said the unprecedented level of demographic change currently being experienced across the Middle East is not necessarily a recipe for future confrontations over the resource, in part thanks to the existence of water-sharing agreements in the area. Nevertheless, mounting demand will likely force water-users across the region – especially within the agriculture sector – to change the ways they utilize the resource.
Accounting for 80 to 90 percent of total water usage in some Middle Eastern countries, agricultural operations have already been forced to adjust to the evolving water-access situation. While moving from flood irrigation to drip irrigation represents one policy option if sufficient funds are available, Wolf said doing away with local food production “is a path that a lot of countries are going to have to take” to ensure a relatively stable water supply for their populations’ drinking, cooking, and cleaning needs.
Wolf added that one frequently discussed but not entirely realistic option for addressing the region’s water-supply concerns involves desalination. To date, widespread deployment of the technology has been hampered by high costs and substantial energy requirements, although that hasn’t stopped a few countries in the region – among them the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Israel – from becoming partially reliant on converted fresh water.
Wolf maintained that desalination’s hefty price tag means the technology is useful only for urban population centers near the coast. Moving converted sea water further inland remains a non-starter, he said, because transporting it requires an enormous amount of energy (a cubic meter of water weighs a metric ton).
For the same reasons, Wolf asserted, using desalinated water for agriculture doesn’t seem to be in the cards any time soon. “Right now a cubic meter of desalinated water costs about 40 cents, and you can’t use that for agriculture unless it drops down to about 8 cents a cubic meter,” Wolf said. “So until you can irrigate with desalinated water, it really doesn’t go a long way towards mitigating the larger water crisis.”