United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
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Chapter 2: Regional Perspectives

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West Asia

Major Environmental Concerns

[ Land | Biodiversity | Water | Marine and Coastal Environments | Urban and Industrial Environments ]

The West Asia region [Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates (UAE), West Bank and Gaza, and Yemen] represents a diverse group of countries and territories surrounding four regional seas-the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, and the Red Sea. The countries are characterized by great differences of surface area, natural resources endowment, population, income, and level of socio-economic development.

All West Asian countries are located in the arid and semi-arid zones, with more than 70 per cent of the region being arid (UNEP/WHO, 1991). The region is characterized by low, unpredictable, and variable rainfall, and by high evaporation rates. Most of the rainfall occurs during winter, with the summer lasting 5-9 months each year. There is considerable rainfall variability, making it difficult to plan for rain-fed agricultural activities (UNEP/WHO, 1991).

The countries face serious problems of environmental degradation that must be addressed immediately because failure to act now will greatly compound the cost and complexity of later remedial efforts, and because environmental degradation is beginning to pose a major threat to human well-being, especially among the poor in the region.

The West Asia region has varied environmental priorities and concerns; the major ones identified by the West Asia Region (UNEP, 1996) are:

  • land degradation, desertification, and deforestation;
  • management of marine and coastal environments and their resources;
  • development and management of water resources;
  • human settlements;
  • conservation of biodiversity;
  • industrial pollution; and
  • toxic chemicals, and hazardous and radioactive wastes.

Of these, the most pressing environmental concerns have been identified as development and management of water resources, the management of marine and coastal environments and their resources, and land degradation and desertification.


Land degradation is a common problem throughout most of West Asia, resulting both from natural environmental factors and from the misuse of land. Periodic droughts along with extensive pressure from overgrazing, uncontrolled cultivation, fuelwood gathering, wind-blown soil materials, inappropriate use of irrigation water, uncontrolled urbanization, and sand encroachment have all contributed to the process of land degradation in the region (LAS/UNEP, 1992).

More than three quarters of West Asia is desert, and an increasing part of the permanent pasture areas is subject to erosion because of reduced vegetation cover (LAS/AOAD, 1995b). Additionally, much of the cropland is losing its inherent productivity due to poor agricultural practices. (See Figure 2.22.) The direct loss of agricultural land is most acute in Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, and Yemen, where fertile land is scarce and concentrated in the narrow coastal strip and river valleys (ESCWA, 1995). In the irrigated areas close to the main urban centres in Jordan, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and the Syrian Arab Republic, established agricultural land is being lost to alternative uses, including urbanization, industrialization, and transport infrastructure. To compensate for this, new land is being brought into production through reclamation. The productivity of the reclaimed land, however, is in many cases only a fraction of the old, and new land is being brought into production more slowly than old land is being lost.

In Lebanon, land degradation is most acute on fragile steeplands with extensive deforestation and soil erosion (Government of Lebanon, 1996).

Overgrazing in desert areas is a major cause of plant cover loss, particularly in the northern regions of Saudi Arabia and the southern parts of Oman. Countries such as Bahrain have also lost substantial vegetation cover as a result of urbanization (UNEP/ESCWA, 1991a). The coastal plains of Oman have suffered a particularly severe loss of vegetation as a result of overgrazing, off-road vehicles, construction, and tourist activities (UNEP/ESCWA 1991).

Dry land salinity, mainly due to high evaporation, is another serious problem, particularly in the low-lying parts of West Asia. In Iraq, for example, salinity and waterlogging are problems in more than 50 percent of the lower Rafidain Plains (El-Hinnawi, 1993).

Fragile, marginal lands cover extensive areas in West Asia and constitute an important resource for animal husbandry. Rapid change in life-styles and the introduction of modern production systems in such areas have triggered an increasing imbalance between the exploitation of such areas and their carrying capacity. This has led to increasing land degradation and desertification, with negative impacts on traditional life-styles of nomads and desert inhabitants (UNEP, 1991). Existing statistics for Yemen show that the average annual rate of cultivated land abandoned due to soil degradation has increased from 0.6 per cent in 1970-80 to about 7 per cent in 1980-84 (UNEP, 1991).

Desertification and land degradation, including soil erosion, have implications for the region's food security. West Asia had a food gap estimated at US$10.7 billion in 1993, up nearly 4 per cent from the previous year (FAO/ESCWA, 1994). With increased desertification coupled with the high population growth rates, this food gap will increase dramatically in the future, along with the high levels of dependency on food imports for most countries of the region (FAO/ESCWA, 1994).


Indigenous plant and animal life in West Asia is under increasing threat due to the impact of development (LAS/UNEP, 1992). Overgrazing and mismanagement of rangelands have led to the loss of natural plant cover. Deforestation is now a major concern in the highlands of Yemen, Oman, and Jordan. Overfishing, pollution, and destruction of habitat (from land reclamation and filling in of wetlands) have all had a negative impact on marine biodiversity. As a result, declining fish and shrimp harvests have become a common feature in the Persian Gulf region (ROPME/IMO, 1996).

The depletion of underground water levels on the western side of the Gulf is leading to the loss of a unique ecosystem of natural fresh-water springs, affecting large numbers of plants and animals. This ecosystem was once widely distributed in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia and in Bahrain (UNEP, 1996). The Azraq Oasis in Jordan was declared a wetland under the RAMSAR Convention because it was endangered due to the overextraction of ground water. The overextraction is not only depleting the ground water, it is leading to increased salinity, which in turn negatively affects wildlife and plant species in the area.

In West Asia, wildlife such as fallow deer, ostrich, wild goat, and antelope have been threatened with extinction due to indiscriminate hunting. The threat to wildlife is worsened through the destruction of their habitats, particularly deforestation. The region lost 11 per cent of its remaining natural forest during the 1980s, and natural forest cover now averages less than 1 per cent of the total land area (FAO, 1995b).

On the whole, there is little information on species, and good data are generally limited to certain mammals and birds. Species inventories are currently being undertaken in a number of countries in the region [such as Jordan and some Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries].


Water availability in the West Asia region depends on the physiographical and hydrogeological setting. Iraq, the Syrian Arab Republic, and Lebanon have relatively dependable surface water sources in the form of rivers and springs. (See Table 2.12.) This supply is supplemented through extraction from ground-water reserves in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, and West Bank and Gaza. Jordan is faced with water deficits, with demand outstripping supply. West Bank and Gaza, with limited surface water and renewable ground-water reserves, also faces problems in meeting water needs, particularly in view of the unbalanced use of available water resources. The Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic, the Orients and Latani rivers in Jordan and the Syrian Arab Republic, and the lower Jordan River in Jordan represent major water sources for domestic, industrial, and agricultural requirements within these countries.

In contrast, the GCC countries and Yemen are characterized by a harsh desert environment devoid of rivers and lakes. The water resources consist of limited quantities of runoff resulting from flash floods, ground water in the alluvial aquifers, and extensive ground-water reserves in deep sedimentary formations. Some of these countries also rely on non-conventional water sources such as desalinization of sea and brackish water and limited use of renovated wastewater. Ground water in the shallow aquifers in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen is the only renewable water source in these countries.

Water requirements for all sectors in Iraq are met mainly from river flow, while Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, and West Bank and Gaza use ground water to satisfy water demand. The major problem associated with the management of renewable water, particularly rivers, is its transboundary nature. The lack of formal agreements for sharing rivers such as the Euphrates have created shortcomings in the efficient utilization of water. The problem is also apparent for ground-water resources, with the Palestinian territories, for example, unable to use the totality of their renewable resources.

Total water demand for agriculture, industrial, and domestic purposes in West Asia in 1990 was about 82 billion cubic metres. (See Table 2.13.) Agriculture accounts for the bulk of water use, followed by the industrial sector. The agricultural sector uses approximately 68 billion cubic metres of water, while the water demand for industrial activities in the region reached 6 billion cubic metres. Domestic water demand accounts for about 7.7 billion cubic metres (ESCWA, 1995).

Human water consumption per capita in the region, including for domestic, agricultural, and industrial uses, is now very high, ranging from 300 to 1,500 litres per day (UNEP/WHO, 1991). Rapidly rising incomes in some countries, with the resultant increase in living standards, and water losses in the network have led to higher per capita water consumption. Intensive agriculture under arid conditions is also demanding an ever-increasing quantity of water.

Based on current trends, water shortage is expected to increase as a result of increased demand and limited renewable supplies in most West Asian countries. Current water resources such as perennial surface water, renewable ground water, desalinization, and reclaimed wastewater are insufficient to meet expected demand.

On the basis of the past experiences of the moderately developed countries in arid zones, renewable fresh-water resources of 1,000 cubic metres per capita per year have been proposed as an approximate benchmark below which most countries are likely to experience chronic water scarcity on a scale sufficient to impede development and harm human health (WRI/UNEP/UNDP/WB, 1996). By this measure, many countries in West Asia suffer from water scarcity, with Bahrain having less than 18 per cent of the minimum threshold (WRI/UNEP/UNDP/WB, 1996). Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Yemen all have water resources below 1,000 cubic metres per capita per year (WRI/UNEP/UNDP/WB, 1996).

Existing wastewater treatment facilities face difficulties in handling the ever-increasing volumes of wastewater generated by higher water consumption and urbanization. Wastewater discharge from major urban centres is polluting shallow alluvial aquifers and coastlines. The quality of drinking water and sanitation services in most West Asian countries is poor, although it is improving in some cases. Efforts to achieve water quality targets established for urban areas are encouraging, but rural communities remain inadequately serviced in terms of safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, and accessibility. (See Figure 2.23.)

Poor sanitation and sewage treatment systems, in addition to industrial wastes, are increasingly affecting water quality in the region. Access to safe drinking water and sanitation services in the cities of West Asia is relatively good. However, only 20 per cent of urban wastewater is treated (World Bank, 1994). Concentrated industrial development is leading to pollution problems for ground and surface waters in certain areas (UNEP/WHO, 1991).

In some areas, irrigation is resulting in salinization and degradation of soils. Overexploitation of ground-water resources is therefore a major concern in the region, causing a decline in ground-water levels as well as a deterioration of water quality.

Water salinity is also a concern throughout the region. With the dropping of water tables due to excess harvesting of ground water, salt-water intrusion becomes a serious problem. Sea-water intrusion into the aquifers of Bahrain, Oman (Batenah Plain), and UAE is particularly severe. Total soluble salts measured in the ground water at different sites in the United Arab Emirates exceeded 10,000-20,000 milligrams per litre (UNEP/ESCWA, 1991b). It is estimated that the saline interface between sea and ground waters advances at the rate of 75-130 metres a year in Bahrain (UNEP/ESCWA, 1991a).

The region is thus characterized by the anomaly of high per capita consumption and very limited fresh-water resources (UNEP/WHO, 1991). The increasing pressure on all the water resources of the region, in terms of quality and quantity, combined with the increasing demand for water, will lead to serious water shortages in the near future.

Marine and Coastal Environments

Most of the GCC subregional population resides along the coast, with population densities ranging from 605 (Oman) to 5,700 (Kuwait) persons per square kilometre (UNDP, 1993). In addition, for many countries in West Asia, the marine environment is an important source of development. Besides offshore oil resources and fisheries, the coastal areas in some countries constitute important sites for industries and tourism. These areas and marine environments have come under increasing pressure, and the degradation of the ecosystem has adversely affected both fisheries and tourism, one of the largest sources of foreign exchange revenue for several countries (LAS/UNEP, 1992; World Bank, 1994).

Oil pollution in the region is very pronounced. In addition to the danger of oil spills from ship and pipeline accidents, chronic pollution occurs from disposal at sea of oil-contaminated ballast water and dirty bilge, sludge, and slop oil. Some 1.2 million barrels of oil are spilled into the Persian Gulf annually (ROPME/IMO, 1996). The Gulf and Red Sea ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to oil pollution: the low rate at which sea water is flushed through these systems suggests that natural cleansing processes are slow (ESCWA, 1991). These problems are compounded in many countries by the lack of adequate port facilities for handling wastes from oil tanks and for cleaning up oil spills (ESCWA, 1991).

The Red Sea and the Kuwait/Oman areas probably receive more oil pollution than anywhere else in the world (GESAMP, 1990). At the same time, the Mediterranean accounts for 17 per cent of global marine oil pollution, even though it constitutes only 0.7 per cent of the global water surface (ESCWA, 1991). It has been estimated that in 1986 alone, nearly 3 billion tons of wastes (mostly ballast waters) were discharged into the Persian Gulf (ESCWA, 1991).

Fisheries are one of the most important resources in the GCC countries, particularly in the UAE and Oman, with annual fish production in the region of 298,000 tons in 1994 (LAS, 1995c). There has been a sharp decline in fish harvests in some countries over the past few years due to overexploitation and inadequate fisheries management, land reclamation and coastal dredging, excessive trawling, and increased marine pollution from waste discharge and oil pollution (UNEP, 1990; ROPME/ IMO, 1996). (See Figure 2.24.) Mangroves and associated intertidal areas and marshes are under increasing threat in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and are rapidly declining in other GCC countries as a result of infilling and reclamation. The geographic concentration of industrial complexes in coastal and estuarine areas around the Arabian Peninsula means that many pollutants are deposited directly into the sea (UNEP/WHO, 1991).

In summary, the coastal zone is an invaluable economic resource for development and tourism. It is regarded, however, as having one of the most fragile and endangered ecosystems in the world and is seriously affected by severe sources of pollution, by stress through deliberate and accidental oil spills, by sewage and industrial wastewater discharges, and by commercial shipping.

Urban and Industrial Environments

In the past two decades, the cities of West Asia have seen the most radical transformation ever experienced. The urban growth rate in the region was 4.2 per cent between 1990 and 1995 (UN, 1994b). The high rate of growth has been fuelled by massive rural to urban migration, prompted by rural poverty and degradation of agricultural land, itself a consequence of overcultivation and overgrazing and induced by a general increase in the region's population. Almost 70 per cent of the population is estimated to be living in urban areas (UN, 1994c). (See Table 2.14.) This unplanned migration has caused deterioration of the environment in urban areas (LAS/UNEP, 1992). It has also caused a marked deterioration of natural resources in rural areas due to increasing neglect of agricultural lands (LAS/UNEP, 1992).

Historically, cities have grown alongside the fertile lands that supported them and consequently have expanded onto them. Prime agricultural land has therefore had to support structures and road networks in a region where fertile agricultural land is very scarce.

The most pressing environmental problem facing big cities in the region relates to waste management. As populations grow at an unsustainable rate, sewerage and other waste disposal systems are unable to cope with the volume, and environmental degradation sets in. The crowding of the poor in communities lacking infrastructure and decent housing leads to an accumulation of waste, which leads to contamination and attendant health hazards.

The region also faces urban air pollution problems. Industries owned or subsidized by the public sector have little access or incentive to adopt cleaner technologies. Protective trade regimes and the lack of environmental regulations have permitted the survival of old, highly polluting industries. Obsolete vehicle engine technology, low fuel efficiency, leaded gasoline, and high sulphur fuels have exacerbated urban air pollution (World Bank, 1994). Changes, however, are occurring. In Oman, for example, new industries are obliged to comply with environmental standards before they are established (UNEP, 1996).

Industry plays an increasing role in social and economic development in West Asia and also constitutes a major source of pollution in the region. Much of the industry is highly concentrated in few locations in most countries in the region and has led to areas of potentially severe industrial pollution of surface and ground-water bodies. Uncontrolled discharge of industrial effluents, undetected seepage of toxic substances into aquifers, and the unprotected dumping of hazardous wastes are increasing as rapidly as industry expands (UNEP/WHO, 1991).

There is serious potential environmental degradation arising from toxic chemicals and hazardous and radioactive wastes. The phosphate industry, for example, is associated with environmental problems such as the contamination of water as a result of wastewater from the washing of phosphates. This could potentially contaminate ground water. Gypsum, a by-product of the fertilizer industry, contains radioactive elements that affect ground water, as well as harmful heavy metals such as cadmium. In Jordan, phosphate residue is reported to cover up to 60 per cent of the total area (Tell, 1996).

The potential risks of radioactive waste resulting from armed conflict in the area cannot be underrated. Possible accidental radioactive leakage from nuclear reactors in the region, such as from the Daimora reactor in Jordan, could have serious regional environmental impacts (Tell, 1996).

Pesticide and herbicide use needs to be monitored because pesticide disposal is leading to edible-product contamination. Pesticide imports need to be controlled and should satisfy specified standards and meet the best technology standards.

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