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Can the Middle East solve its water problem?

dry earth iran
CNN  — 

In one of the hottest, driest places on earth, water is so scant it needs to be filtered from the sea.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is the world’s most water-scarce region, with 17 countries below the water poverty line set by the United Nations.

Much like money spent from an overdrawn bank account, water in the region is being withdrawn faster than it can be replenished, meaning MENA countries are essentially “living beyond their means.”

This is the finding of a recent World Bank report, which outlines how the region can move beyond water scarcity to greater water security.

Home to six percent of the world’s population, yet just one percent of the world’s freshwater resources, the report found that the MENA region needs to take critical action to narrow the gap between water supply and demand.

Confronting ‘absolute water scarcity’

Water scarcity has been a challenge for hundreds of years in MENA.

Today, rapid population and economic growth, shared water supplies across borders, and the effects of climate change including frequent droughts, declining rainfall and high evaporation rates have significantly impacted water supplies in the region, according to the 2018 Arab Regional Report.

A total of 13 countries in the MENA region fell under the benchmark for “absolute water scarcity” in 2014, as per the latest available data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN.

Countries suffer from absolute water scarcity when their annual water supply from natural sources drops below 500 cubic meters per person to satisfy household, agricultural and industrial needs.

Seven of these countries facing absolute scarcity are found in the Arabian Peninsula, known for its fierce desert climate and minimal precipitation.

As a result, some countries are consuming much more water than they can sustain.

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Unsustainable consumption

Unsustainable water use occurs in areas where water is taken from rivers and underground layers of rock saturated with water, known as aquifers, at a rate faster than it is replenished by rain, according to the World Bank report.

“When you draw down more water than is replenished, then you begin to degrade the aquifer itself,” Claudia Sadoff, director general of the International Water Management Institute, tells CNN.

“You harm the ecosystems that are dependent, and you disrupt economic production and household welfare.”

However, degradation is not irreversible, explains Sadoff, one of the lead authors of the World Bank report.

“It’s possible that after a year of very strong rains, those aquifers could be restored,” she says.

According to the World Bank, unsustainable use of groundwater occurs across the Arabian Peninsula, the Maghreb and in Iran. But some countries in the Middle East and North Africa have become incredibly resourceful in producing their own water.

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Removing salt from the sea

A popular way to supplement the insufficient water supply is to separate salt from seawater in a process called desalination. MENA accounts for nearly half the world’s desalination capacity, according to World Bank calculations, making it the largest desalination market in the world.

Desalination is practiced in 150 countries worldwide and the International Desalination Association (IDA) estimates that more than 300 million people around the world depend on desalinated water for some or all of their daily needs.

But desalination in the Middle East has a large carbon footprint as the region is reliant on energy-intensive thermal desalination plants. This process uses fossil fuels to generate heat to evaporate and condense water to a purified form.

Added to this, chemicals and brine – water saturated with salt – left over from the process are discharged into the sea, and can damage marine ecosystems.

To offset the environmental cost, several ambitious projects in the region are experimenting with solar-powered desalination and reverse osmosis desalination – a less energy-hungry process that removes salt from water by pushing seawater through a semi-permeable membrane.

Secretary General of the IDA, Shannon McCarthy, says she is optimistic that renewable energy will make the process both cheaper and cleaner.

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Buying their way out of the water crisis

The greatest amount of desalinated water is produced in the Gulf region, where some countries are 90% reliant on desalinated water for domestic use, explains McCarthy.

“These countries have a high dependence on desalination because there is not really an alternative,” she adds.

However, these kinds of nonconventional water supplies can be expensive to implement, making them less common in poorer countries.

According to Sadoff, there are cheaper alternatives for producing water.

“Other technologies short of desalination, like wastewater treatment, groundwater recharge, the capture of rainwater and storm water to recharge aquifers, aren’t necessarily particularly expensive,” she says.

However, poorer territories like Yemen, Libya, the West Bank and Gaza still largely rely on groundwater resources, in lieu of producing their own water. It is these places that pay the highest price for inadequate water supply and sanitation.

The World Bank report found that inadequate supply of water and sanitation costs the MENA region approximately $21 billion per year in economic losses.

That includes healthcare costs, lost productive time due to being sick, and premature mortality.

The pressures of population and economic growth and climate change are expected to further exacerbate water stress in MENA. The World Bank report suggests this will increase competition for water resources that are shared across borders, and, in turn, heighten political tensions.

If things continue “business as usual,” 60% of the MENA region will face high to extremely high water stress by 2040, according to World Bank estimates. By 2050, the World Bank says climate-related water scarcity will cost the region 6 to 14% of its GDP.

For Sadoff, there are three clear strategies to enhance limited water supplies.

“You can become more efficient with the water that you use, you can use water for different things than you’re using it for now, and the third way is to make more water, to create these nonconventional water resources,” she says.

As water grows ever more scarce, all three strategies may be key to securing water for future generations.

Graphics created by Gabrielle Smith, animated by Natalie Leung, CNN.