Around 50 million people in the Arab world lack basic drinking water, and 390 million people in the region, or nearly 90 per cent of the total population, live in countries suffering from water scarcity. The figures were confirmed recently by Rola Abdullah Dashti, the Executive Secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), during an event organised in cooperation with the Arab League on the fringe of the UN Water Conference in New York.
The event was titled “Joint Commitment of the Arab Region to Accelerate Water Security Achievement”, and was attended by several Arab ministers, officials and experts.
According to Dashti, the Arab region is not on the right track regarding the achievement of the sixth of the Sustainable Development Goals, which relates to providing clean water and sanitation services for everyone by 2030. “Water in the Arab region is a source of prosperity, but it is also a potential cause of instability and conflict. It is a matter related to water security, food security, prosperity and a decent life,” she explained. Emphasising the importance of cooperation in terms of fresh water across borders, between sectors and stakeholders, the ESCWA official noted that “water diplomacy between countries is a pivotal matter.”
She pointed out that ESCWA recently launched the Regional Knowledge Centre, known as “RICCAR”, which is a regional initiative to assess the impact of climate change on water resources and the vulnerability of social and economic sectors in the Arab region. The centre provides access to information that can facilitate cooperation, coordination, dialogue and exchange among Arab countries, organisations and stakeholders, raising awareness and enhancing networking at the regional level to address climate change and water resource-related issues.
“The Arab region is the most water-scarce among all regions of the world, with 19 of the 22 Arab countries falling within the water scarcity range,” said Ambassador Shahira Wahbi, head of the Natural Resources Sustainability, Partnerships and Disaster Risk Reduction department at the Arab League. “Twenty-one out of 22 Arab countries obtain their primary water resources from transboundary waters.”
In an interview with the UN News Site, Ambassador Wahbi referred to the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which described the Arab region as the most affected in the world by climate change, and that climate change is accelerating. She called for a particular focus on enhancing opportunities for projects that support Arab regional cooperation in the field of water, strengthening the capacity to address climate change, and helping Arab countries mobilise additional financial resources.
“The available water in the Arab region from our well-known traditional sources will not increase,” she added. “The solution and addressing the issue of Arab water security and scarcity — as experts have confirmed — lies in the use of non-conventional water resources in the Arab region, including desalinated water, the use of wastewater, sewage and agricultural water, and the safe use of groundwater, brackish water and rainwater harvesting.” The Arab League official stressed the “necessity of putting in place an integrated system for the use of non-conventional water and benefiting from every available drop of water in the Arab world” to achieve sustainable development goals.
The Yemeni Minister of Water and Environment, Tawfiq Al-Sharjabi, added that climate change has exacerbated the existing challenges in the Arab region, pointing to a decrease in the per capita share of available water by about three-quarters. He touched on reports indicating that within the next two years, 14 Arab countries will witness a shortage of water, and 10 countries will suffer from a severe shortage of water.
To face these challenges, Al-Sharjabi called for measures that include enhancing scientific research, working to establish local and national databases, benefiting from modern technology, cooperating in the field of transboundary waters, exploiting unconventional water resources, and also using water harvesting technology.
The UN Water Conference 2023 concluded its three-day event with the participation of about 10,000 people from various sectors, launching a Water Action Agenda containing about 700 commitments.