September 7, 2010 6:33 pm

Arid cities face future without water

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Arid: the city of Sana’a in Yemen

Nestling in Yemen’s rugged highlands, the city of Sana’a has hosted ancient dynasties and survived countless foreign invaders during its more than 2,500 years of existence.

Part of its historic allure was the cultivation and trade of spices, which was made possible by elaborate irrigation systems.

So impressed were the Greeks and Romans with Yemen’s relative fertility, in contrast to the region’s hostile deserts, that they described it as “Arabia Felix”, the Latin translation for happy or flourishing Arabia.

Yet today Sana’a is facing a crisis that has the potential to threaten its existence as the Yemeni capital. Man and nature have combined to rob it of its most precious resource – water.

“If we continue at this rate, water will be completely gone from Sana’a in the next 10-12 years,” says a Yemeni government official.

Across the Middle East, governments are grappling with the reality of this looming crisis as populations swell and water resources decline rapidly. And while Yemen, the most impoverished of the Arab states, is an extreme case, the problem is also affecting its richest oil-producer neighbours.

The average renewable water resources for the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) are roughly 1,000 cubic metres per person – the point at which a nation is bracketed as being water poor.

But many Arab states already fall well below that mark, with Yemen struggling with a paltry 198 cubic metres per capita. Kuwait does not even register on the scale.

This compares with a world average of roughly 8,000 cubic metres. The World Bank warns that by 2025, when the Mena region’s population will have reached ever larger numbers, its level of water availability per capita will have fallen almost by half.

“If you look at the numbers, it is a problem that can keep you up at night,” says Walid Fayad, an analyst at Booz and Co, the consultancy.

Governments are beginning to address the problem, but their capabilities of dealing with it vary wildly. Those with the buffer of huge oil wealth at least have the luxury of spending billions of petrodollars on expensive desalination plants that suck up salty sea water and transform it into drinkable water.

In the region, the United Arab Emirates, for example, ranks only above Kuwait in terms of available renewable water resources per capita. But the tourism and business hub is home to water theme parks, grassy parks and a swathe of upscale golf courses that can consume up to 10,000 cubic metres per day.

More than 40 per cent of the world’s desalination capacity is in the Gulf, of which roughly 75 per cent is in the UAE and Saudi Arabia alone. And, according to Fayad, nearly half of the $112bn that the Middle East is projected to invest in drinking-water schemes over the next six years will go towards desalination.

But for cities such as Sana’a the solutions are far more complex.

While 50m cubic metres of water flow into the Sana’a water basin each year, 220m cubic metres go out, according to the government official. The situation is made worse by the fact that diesel used to pump water is heavily subsidised and that much of the water is used to irrigate qat, a semi-narcotic leaf chewed by Yemenis. In 2008, the equivalent of $500m in diesel subsidies was used to pump water for agriculture, almost half of it in the Sana’a basin, the official adds.

But tackling the issue of poor water management can be a sensitive issue for governments throughout the region. “The key thing is the political economy around the water – the relationship between farmers and government, and between government and consumers,” says Alex Kremer, senior economist at the World Bank. “This makes it much more difficult to put in place efficient systems for water management – for political reasons it never seems to get done.”

It is hoped that desalination could provide a solution for Sana’a, but with the ancient city lying in a mountain valley at an altitude of 7,200 ft, far from the coast, that will be an expensive and technically challenging task.

A focus on other issues also exacerbates the problem faced by Sana’a and the rest of Yemen. “As a priority it [the shortage of water] is not even up there. There are many other problems,” the government official says.

Other countries are, however, urgently seeking to address the issue through improved water management projects, greater use of waste water and treated sewage, and desalination.

In Jordan, which, according to the World Bank, has fewer water resources than Yemen, a committee formed to address the issue envisaged JD5.86bn ($8.3bn) of government funds being spent on water up to 2022.

Amman also hopes to develop a desalination plant that would pump water from the Red Sea and send brine into the Dead Sea while producing 500m cubic metres of water to plug its deficit.

Yet the “Red-Dead Sea Conveyor” project may prove tricky, and an environmental impact study has to be completed before it is able to move forward. If it does go ahead, it is likely to be phased and not complete by the original timeline of 2022.

“Desalination is a must. It is a last resort and we know it is very expensive, but we cannot keep people thirsty,” says Maysoon Zoubi, a senior official at Jordan’s water and irrigation ministry. “We have to try everything.”

Jordan hopes to finance desalination by awarding build, operate and transfer contracts. At present, desalination accounts for 1.8 per cent of the region’s water supply, and that could reach up to 8.5 per cent by 2025, most of it in the Gulf states, according to the World Bank.

But even as the costs of desalination fall and new technologies are developed, this alone will not be a sustainable long-term solution, experts say.

“The next stage is what can be done in terms of incentives for people to use water more sparingly,” says Kremer at the World Bank. And that means altering mind-sets among populations that have often come to take water for granted, in spite of the arid environments they inhabit.

The Yemeni official contrasts this challenge with the situation only two generations earlier.

“They had a common well they would get water from,” he says. “Everybody knew that was where the water was coming from, and how much was left. But then the city expands and the water comes to you in a pipe. And you don’t know where it’s coming from.”

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