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Arab countries must address water security or risk instability

Doha, Qatar – Address water scarcity or risk instability – that’s the stark warning delivered to the Arab world by one of the region’s leading experts on the issue.

With parts of the region hit by political and economic uncertainty, Hazim el-Naser, the founder of Middle East Water Forum, said prosperity, poverty and employment rates are directly related to the average share of water an Arab citizen gets a year, which he described as one of the world’s lowest.

Al Jazeera spoke to el-Naser, who is also Jordan’s former water and irrigation minister, about the importance of water security in the Middle East, the threats faced by some of the countries in the region and what needs to be done to tackle the problem. The interview below has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Al Jazeera: What’s the situation today in terms of water resources and water consumption in the Arab region, and what does the future look like?

Hazim el-Naser: With a population of about 420 million people, the Arab region is the world’s poorest in terms of water scarcity and percentage of water per individual – the average percentage share of water for an Arab individual does not exceed 600 cubic metres per year. Countries like Jordan, Palestine and Yemen are the poorest, with an average that does not exceed 200 cubic metres per year.

The real issue is that water scarcity is directly related to poverty and economic growth. The United Nations says 1,000 cubic metres are the minimum needed in a year for an individual in terms of drinking water, food production and participation in economic activities. This means that if the average is smaller – like in many Arab states – you will have to import food and suffer from poverty and high unemployment.

If we remove the Gulf states from the discussion, we will see that water scarcity has a direct impact on the economy of states such as Jordan, Yemen, Tunisia and Palestine, which suffer from high rates of poverty.

Al Jazeera: Is water scarcity a strategic threat for Arab countries?

El-Naser: Yes. If water allocated for drinking and economic activities in a country is very limited, then that country will face the risk of destabilisation.

The economic instability in Iraq is directly affected by shortages of water coming from its two rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris. This is because Turkey has built dams over those rivers in its territories, which limited Iraq’s share of the rivers’ waters.

As a result, Iraq has lost billions of cubic metres of water and will continue to lose more if the government does not reach an agreement with Turkey. Egypt is also going to face water problems when Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam becomes operational in the near future.

Al Jazeera: What’s the situation in the wealthy Gulf region?

El-Naser: The Gulf countries have no water shortages because they have desalination plants. Even though the cost is too high, it is not an issue for them as they have cheap energy. But other Arab states without the same financial muscle and cheap energy cannot afford that luxury.

Al Jazeera: What about countries like Jordan, Yemen and Tunisia that don’t have the same financial resources?

El-Naser: The main issue for these countries is their lack financial resources. With money, seawater can be desalinised and provide water for all kind of economic activities.

Al Jazeera: What about Israel?

El-Naser: The average annual income of Israeli citizens is almost 10 times of those in some Arab countries. Israel has strong financial resources and it also has the technology to build its own desalination plants to provide water for its population. The strength of the Israeli economy is directly related to its abundance of water.

Al Jazeera: You were a minister of water in Jordan for 11 years. Why can’t Jordan do what Israel does?

El-Naser: Jordan is a poor country by all accounts, and water is not the only issue faced by the government – it is also dealing with a number of issues related to healthcare, the economy, including servicing its high debt, as well as security and fighting terrorism.

That said, Jordan has made strong steps by concentrating its efforts on managing water consumption instead of investing in new water infrastructure projects. Jordan has invested in increasing public awareness and water conservation. The other important issue is developing the technology and irrigation systems for the agriculture sector.

Today, Jordan is using water technology that uses water in a smart way and highly effective. For example, in the Jordan Valley, which is an agricultural region, it now uses only half of the water it used in 1990 but produces three times the quantity of agricultural products. This is mainly because of the introduction of new technologies.

Al Jazeera: Despite the major efforts that you mentioned, why Jordan still the poorest in the world in water allocation for its citizens? According to USAID, which spends millions on Jordan water projects, 50 percent of water supplied by the municipality network is lost to leakage and theft.

El-Naser: Jordan has absorbed 1.5 million Syrian refugees since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011 which has increased the pressure on our water resources and infrastructure. Also, the illegal usage of water is a contributing factor in the country’s water scarcity.

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