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Governance in a Water-Scarce Middle East

Abidi Mohamed is one of 200 smallholder farmers working with Green Farm through USAID's Morocco Economic Competitiveness project
Abidi Mohamed is one of 200 smallholder farmers working with Green Farm through USAID's Morocco Economic Competitiveness project.
Oussama Benbila, USAID/MEC

From the Euphrates to the Tigris and the Jordan to the Nile, water has played a crucial role in the development and longevity of civilizations across the Middle East. For thousands of years, managing the water supply in the Middle East has been integral to ensuring the stability of communities, countries, and regions. In ancient Egypt, the Pharaohs prayed to Hapi, the god of the Nile, that the river’s waters would flow freely. In Yemen, the earthen Ma’rib Dam, more than 50 feet high, 2,000 feet long, and flanked by spillways, delivered water to a system of irrigation canals for more than a thousand years. Today, Middle Eastern leaders work with USAID to harness cutting-edge scientific methods to ensure there is enough water to meet their countries’ needs.

Home to 5 percent of the world’s population, the region has only 1 percent of the world’s renewable fresh water. Lack of drinking water, rising food costs, water-borne diseases, and rolling blackouts jeopardize health, livelihoods, and security in the region. While population growth plays a role in the increased demand, the agriculture sector accounts for more than 70 percent of water use throughout the region. As water resources dwindle, governments and citizens alike are being forced to ramp up efforts to avoid serious shortages.

Data-Driven Decision-Making

USAID has been working for several decades to build local capacity to manage water resources in the Middle East. But never have these initiatives been more important. “Population growth and increasing demands for food, housing, and jobs place extreme pressures on water resources, increasing the need for inclusive stakeholder engagement supported by sound understanding of the economic, social, hydraulic, and hydrologic factors that influence the sharing of scarce water resources,” said Mark Peters, regional water advisor at the USAID Office of Middle East Programs (OMEP).

That is where USAID comes in. The Agency works with governments across the region to increase the effectiveness of their water use and allocation decision-making. One key way is by increasing access to accurate data on groundwater resources, vegetative cover, projected water demands, and climate events which affect water availability. This has proven critical, as the region’s governments have not traditionally relied on verifiable and agreed-upon data in making water decisions. In Jordan, for example, the government has only a small number of meteorological stations to track and forecast water availability. “Accurate data, with no gaps in physical coverage, is essential to decision-making related to water use,” said John Harris, OMEP’s development outreach and communication specialist. 

In Morocco, sound data has made all the difference. USAID's Morocco Economic Competitiveness (MEC) program works with government irrigation agencies and river basin management agencies in the Doukkala-Abda and Oriental regions of Morocco to help them build and manage information systems. These information systems enable accurate modeling and forecasting of water availability at the watershed level and the allocation of water to farms, helping each agency to better provide water services to 100,000 hectares of irrigated farmland. “Improving water use efficiency in irrigated agriculture in the two regions is a crucial factor for agricultural sustainability,” said Andrew Watson, MEC chief of party.

Initiatives like MEC that enable governments to make water decisions based on data are beginning to make waves throughout the Middle East. USAID, NASA, the World Bank, the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture, and national agencies in Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco now work together to develop a suite of advanced land surface models to provide regional-scale hydrological data that is relevant to water resource planning and management. The outputs of these satellite data models are validated by local government measurements and fed into analytical models to turn raw data into the foundations for sound decision-making.

“As a result of USAID activities such as these, water and wastewater services to the region’s citizens are improved, water shortages can be better managed, and countries’ abilities to adapt to climate change and maintain food security are increased,” said Mr. Peters. In Egypt, a USAID project pulling together national utility performance indicators enabled government water managers to better meet citizens’ needs. Dr. Mohamed Hassan, executive director of the Egyptian Water Regulatory Association, said this “allows the water sector regulator to track the performance of water and wastewater utilities and customer based level of service indicators.”

Ground-Up Governance

While improving governments’ decision-making capacity within individual ministries and agencies is important, it is not enough. Water flows across administrative borders, making collaboration between government ministries and agencies necessary. Ministries charged with overall water resource allocation and regulation are often different than those which develop bulk water arrangements and separate still from those that provide water to end users. “Our work is focused not only on developing better information to help governments and other stakeholders improve water management, but also on fostering communication between ministries, agencies, and sectors. It is only when all parties share the same evidence-based understanding of a situation that tradeoffs can be discussed and resources effectively managed,” said Mr. Peters.

Furthermore, building on-the-ground capacity to manage water resources is essential to sustainability. In order to ensure that all voices are heard during resource discussions, USAID programs are striving to replicate their work with governments among smaller grassroots groups. In addition to its work with government agencies, MEC provides Moroccan water users associations comprised of 20 to 40 small-scale farmers with cutting-edge data that enables better water resource management. The project gives small-scale farmers access to a mobile phone-based texting service that provides real-time agricultural updates and advice about irrigation. The project also introduces water-saving agricultural techniques to the farmers, promotes higher value water-efficient crops, and provides training on drip irrigation, reducing water loss, and increasing revenue. “Now, farmers will be able to access water 24-7,” said Driss Moulay Rachid, former director of the Regional Investment Centre in Morocco’s Oriental Region.

Moroccan farmers have noticed the difference. Ben Miloud Smaili, president of a cooperative water users association in Morocco’s Oriental region, said, “With USAID assistance, we are planting fruit trees and vegetable crops chosen to meet market demand. As a result, we are guaranteed better income, while saving on water and expenses. By 2015, we plan to increase our market production by half.”

For thousands of years the Middle East has been an arid region, and the only way to secure the future of civilization there is by guaranteeing adequate water supply. It will take the continued efforts of USAID and other donor agencies, the private sector, governments, and determined individuals across the region to ensure these gains continue and that the Middle East is equipped to face the many serious water challenges that threaten it. But with improved technology, a willingness to work across country lines, and the commitment of governments, local leaders, and citizens, a water-secure future may be possible for the Middle East.

C. Zeilberger

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Last updated: April 22, 2013

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