The Middle East and North Africa’s Water Resources in a Changing Climate


The Middle East and North Africa’s Water Resources in a Changing Climate

Women carrying water barrels in Egypt 2008
Egypt is already using 92 percent of its renewable water resources; Photo: Nasser Nouri/Flickr; Licence: CC-BY-NC-SA

October 31, 2012
Nadim Farajallah
Increased water demand due to population growth, growing economies, and land-use changes have resulted in major stresses on freshwater resources (Heathwaite 2010). It is expected that worldwide there will be a 40 percent increase in demand for water by 2030 (Catley-Carlson 2011). All this has been compounded by a changing climate in which, globally, temperatures are going to rise and precipitation levels will fall (IPCC 2007), leading to diminishing resources coupled with increasing demand. Wingqvist (2010) stated that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is particularly vulnerable to climate change because of its already scarce water resources, the high levels of aridity, and the long coastal stretch.

The MENA region is considered to be the most water-scarce in the world, with actual renewable water resources per capita of about 1,100 m³/year (World Bank 2007), which is far below the water security threshold of 1,700 m³. Further, it uses more of its renewable water resources than other regions and more water than it receives each year (World Bank 2007). For example, Ragab and Prudhomme (2000) estimated that Tunisia is using 83 percent of its available renewable resources, whereas Egypt is using 92 percent, Libya 644 percent, and Gaza 169 percent. The FAO (2012) estimated that all Gulf Cooperation Countries, with the exception of Oman, are using in excess of 100 percent of their available freshwater resources. The World Bank (2007) reported that the average national percentage of total renewable water resources withdrawn in the MENA region was nearly 338 percent for the period 1998–2002. By 2050 it is expected that the demand for fresh water in the MENA region will increase by 50 percent, coupled with a halving of the per capita water availability (World Bank 2007; UN ESCWA 2006). Currently, nearly 75 percent of the water resources in the MENA region is allocated to agriculture, 22 percent to domestic use, and 3.5 percent to industries (FAO 2012).

Most MENA countries are using their precious water resources excessively

This situation is not going to improve for – as several studies indicate (Evans 2009; Kundzewicz et al. 2007; Ragab and Prudhomme 2000) – the precipitation in the MENA region will decrease by between 5 percent and 30 percent. Thus, recharge of groundwater and replenishment of surface waters in the region will decrease. The World Bank (2012) reported that 2010 was the warmest year since the 1800s, with 5 of the 19 countries setting national high-temperature records being Arab countries. Average global surface temperature are likely to rise between 0.6° to 4°C by 2100 (Barghouti 2009), leading to an increase in evaporation and evapotranspiration. These projected trends, when combined, would indicate increases in floods and droughts, which would negatively affect the populations and economies of the region. An important observation was made by Gregoire (2012), who reported an increase in the frequency of natural disasters in the MENA region. He noted, through collation of data from FAO and CRED, that the frequency of reported weather-related natural disasters more than doubled between the two periods 1988–1997 and 1998–2007, where 50 occurrences of droughts, floods, and extreme weather were reported in the former and 116 in the latter. Gregoire noted that droughts have been associated with more intense rainfall, resulting in soil erosion, land degradation, excessive runoff, and flooding.

The expected impacts of climate change on water resources may be summarized as follows:

  • Decreased flows in most rivers due to reduced precipitation. The Nile may be a significant exception
  • Deterioration of freshwater aquifers due to seawater intrusion resulting from sea-level rise
  • Increase in the intensity of floods
  • Reduction in snow cover in many mountainous areas
  • Increases in the frequency and duration of droughts

Adaptation to such impacts must start from now to build up the resilience of the affected countries and communities within. Some of these adaptation measures include:

  • Improve investment in water sector
  • Change emphasis from engineering solutions to those that rely on better management, with good governance being the corner stone of such efforts. Some of these would include (but are not be limited to):
    - Integrate water resources management into the national and regional development strategies
    - Rely more on demand management than development of new sources
    - Improve institutional framework for more streamlined water resources management
    - Coordinate national and transnational resource management
  • Resolve water allocation conflict in a manner that would ensure the livelihoods of rural communities and the maintenance of a decent quality lifestyle
  • Invest in renewable energy sources

What was observed between 1988 and 2007 in terms of natural disasters serves as a small-scale preview of what might occur in the future should the reaction to climate change remain “business as usual,” with little effort given toward adaptation or mitigation and even less toward building resilient communities able to survive the coming changes with a decent quality of life.


Barghouti, S. 2009. Issues related to water scarcity in Middle East and North Africa region. Presentation from the 2009 World Water Week in Stockholm.

Catley-Carlson, M. 2011. Connecting water resources 2011. Conference organized by the Canadian Water Network, February 28–March 3. Ottawa, Canada.

Evans, J. 2009. Global warming impact on the dominant precipitation process in the Middle East. Theory and Applied Climatology. Published online May 19.

FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). 2012. FAO AQUASTAT. Available at: (accessed May 2012).

Gregoire, G. 2012. Climate change adaptation in the water sector in the Middle East and North Africa: A review of main issues. Technical Note prepared by METAP under the EC-funded SMAP III project “Promoting awareness and enabling a policy framework for environment and development integration in the Mediterranean with a focus on Integrated coastal Zone Management.” Available at: (accessed October 2012).

Heathwaite, A. L. 2010. Multiple stressors on water availability at global to catchment scales: Understanding human impact on nutrient cycles to protect water quality and water availability in the long term. Freshwater Biology 55 (Suppl. 1): 241–257.

IPCC. 2007: Summary for policymakers. In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, eds., S. Solomon, D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K. B. Averyt, M. Tignor, and H.L. Miller . Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kundzewicz, Z. W., L. J. Mata, N.W. Arnell, P. Döll, P. Kabat, B. Jiménez, K. A. Miller, T. Oki, Z. Sen, and I. A. Shiklomanov. 2007. Freshwater resources and their management. In: Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, eds., M. L. Parry, O. F. Canziani, J. P. Palutikof, P. J. van der Linden, and C.E. Hanson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 173–210.

Ragab, R., and C. Prudhomme. 2000. Climate change and water resources management in the southern Mediterranean and Middle East countries. The Second World Water Forum. The Hague. March, 17–22.

UN ESCWA (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia). 2006. Regional cooperation between countries in the management of shared water resources: Case studies of some countries in the ESCWA region. New York: United Nations.

Wingqvist, G., 2010. A concept note on water in the MENA region. University of Gothenburg.

World Bank. 2007. Making the most of scarcity: Accountability for better water management results in the Middle East and North Africa. Washington, DC.

World Bank. 2012. Adaptation to a changing climate in the Arab countries: A case for adaptation governance and leadership in building climate resilience. Ed., D. Verner. Washington, DC.


Seasons of Change: Climate, Energy and Resource Politics in the MENA Region

In the midst of turbulent times in the Middle East and North Africa, the State of Qatar is hosting the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP 18) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Doha from November 26 to December 7, 2012. This trilingual webdossier presents analysis and perspectives from a wide range of international and regional experts on how climate change, resource and energy politics relate to political and social change.

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