The region is facing a triple challenge: Emerging climate patterns herald a future where water resources lie below sustainable levels; rapid population growth is threatening to imperil food security; and over reliance on oil is curtailing governments’ ability to act. The situation requires new thinking on sustainability, scalable technological adoption and radical agricultural transformation.
Nowhere else is the water crisis more acute than in the MENA region. Next to food security, water scarcity represents the region’s greatest threat to human and ecological security. The lack and inefficient use of water has caused droughts, soil salinity and pollution, land subsidence and rural exodus. It has also helped trigger conflicts, including Syria. In Iran alone, 10.4m rural dwellers are at high risk of territorial redistribution over the coming decades, most of them around Tehran, Mashhad, Shiraz, Isfahan, Hamadan and Kerman.
Agriculture major contributor to water scarcity in MENA
A major culprit behind water scarcity in the region is agriculture and food production. Globally, the sector not only accounts for one-fifth of total greenhouse gas emissions but also 70% of total water usage. In MENA, which is far from being agrarian, this figure averages 87% and is as high as 93% in Yemen.Agriculture accounts for just 13.5% of GDP and 26.8% of the labour market in MENA on average. This reflects the sector’s many inefficiencies, particularly in terms of water usage.
Iran is a prime example of agricultural inefficiency: Half of its farmlands are located on “poor quality” land, where farming greatly endangers the renewal of water resources and even renders it impossible on 20% of that land. This has led to unsustainable groundwater pumping, which represents 55% of current demand from farmers but exacerbates droughts by increasing soil salinity. In addition to having an average irrigation efficiency of just 35%, Iranian farmers often focus on summer crops, fruits and nuts, which demand high water consumption. For example, producing a single pistachio requires 3.4 litres of water.
Israel demonstrates potential for agricultural transformation in MENA, but major reforms required
Part of this inefficiency is inherent to farming. Of all water used to irrigate crops, less than 1% finds its way into the final edible product. There are few places in the world where water use is optimised, but one of them is Israel: the country’s accelerated development of desalination helped it turn around its water scarcity problem to become food self-sufficient at 95% with a water surplus.
Israel’s success provides a blueprint of sorts for other MENA nations. While desalination may not be an optimal or sustainable solution to water scarcity, as it is expensive and energy intensive, Israel has demonstrated that it is possible to fully invest in and implement an agricultural transformation.
The first step to achieving this requires governments in the region to enact high-level regulatory and policy reforms, especially in terms of energy subsidies.
The main objective in providing generous subsidies for power and water is to promote self-sufficiency. However, by keeping utility bills artificially low governments risk obstructing the region’s global energy and ecological transition. By introducing tiered water pricing and quality, restricting some cultivation, and channelling subsidies into distributed renewable energy systems, which are more accessible to farmers, sustainable farming – in both energy and water use – could become the panacea for the region’s environmental crisis.
That is not to say governments should seek to “revive the rural economy” by focusing on sustainable small-scale farming, as it will not provide the necessary yields to face the region’s demographic boom nor does it represent a good locus to scale tech-based solutions. Nor should countries divest from agriculture all together: Reliance on food imports, which is common in countries like the UAE – it imports 90% of its food in what could be conceived as a contemporary “oil for food” scheme – is also unsustainable, especially for cash-strapped countries.
Instead, MENA will need to quickly find avenues to develop, democratise and implement agricultural solutions on a scale large enough to meet the upcoming demographic challenge. At the same time it must restore the ecosystem, thus dealing with water scarcity.
Technology has potential to meet food demand in sustainable way
The answer to achieving sustainable food production on a large scale could be found in the fourth industrial revolution. If properly developed, next-generation technology has the potential to provide affordable, abundant and quality food without the environmental side effects associated with modern farming.
For instance, hydroponics and vertical farming in high-tech greenhouses, which minimise heat and humidity, could become the prime provider of water-intensive and transport-sensitive crops. Local desalinating plants could help countries like Iran purify groundwater, while telemetry and artificial intelligence could enable solutions like adaptive irrigation, rainfall recuperation and, eventually, quasi-circular water consumption.
Adoption of agritech will require policy changes and incentives
Such innovations can only be realised if governments catalyse and incentivise them. This can be done through localised and innovative regulations in land ownership and access; the development of agricultural insurance; social safety nets for rural migrants and out of work farmers; improved access to water; and subsidies for renewable energy, so tomorrow’s agriculture depends upon the region’s abundant solar – and to a lesser extent wind – energy instead of current suboptimal oil-fuelled power.
High-income governments of the region have understood the precepts of such a transformation. In March 2019 Abu Dhabi announced a $272m incentive package for agritech, while the Saudi Agriculture and Livestock Investment Company has, since 2009, invested in whichever country has a competitive advantage for food exports to nourish the kingdom.
While these steps are welcome, the region’s agricultural transformation is far from ready to meet the twin challenges of population growth and climate change. A lot of unanswered questions remain: Will agricultural transformation be affordable to lower-income countries? Will trade-offs be understood in a way that sustainable water use in agriculture becomes the priority? And finally, will states’ initiatives be enough to woo investors in a risky yet essential sector? Failing to adopt creative policies for smarter and more resilient water and food systems in MENA risks raising the region’s exposure to environmentally abnormal conditions in the future and could endanger global human and ecological security.
Daniel Moshashai is the regional analyst at Castlereagh Associates. He specialises in Iran, the GCC, economic diversification in national agendas and geopolitics in the Middle East.
“Beyond Scarcity: Water Security in the Middle East and North Africa,” World Bank group, 2018
 “Agriculture and Economic Transformation in the Middle East and North Africa,” UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), 2018
 “A National Adaption Plan for Water Scarcity in Iran,” Mohsen B Mesgaren and Pooya Azadi, Stamford Iran 2040 Project, 2018
 “The Fate of Food,” Amanda Little, Oneworld Publications, 2019
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