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Unless improved water management plans are implemented in the West Asian region, a series of water-related issues will interact to cause major environmental problems (see Chapter 2, page 164). The immediate issues include overdrawing of aquifers and shallow groundwater, which are causing saltwater intrusion and a breakdown of traditional water supply systems, and the indiscriminate discharge of wastewater causing contamination of shallow groundwater and health hazards. Eventually, many groundwater sources will be lost by quality degradation; this will result in a further reduction of the arable area because of salinization. Many efforts have been made to increase recharge rates and reduce withdrawals. Prospects of improving the situation are hampered by high population growth and the intensive agricultural use of water for irrigation. This situation is aggravated by a policy of food self-sufficiency and by a general weakness of the institutions dealing with water affairs.
One of two studies on West Asia prepared for GEO-2000 (UNEP 1999f) focuses on water demand and availability. The study examines three scenarios: business as usual, increasing supplies, and increasing supplies and rationalizing consumption (see diagram).
Records and studies indicate the excessive and wasteful use of water in all sectors (agricultural, domestic and industrial) throughout West Asia. Huge water losses of at least 45 per cent in agriculture arise from inefficient irrigation systems, while there is a 20 per cent leakage from water supply networks and general 10 per cent losses during industrial use. Because agricultural use accounts for the lion's share of water use in both sub-regions (85 per cent in the Arabian Peninsula and 92 per cent in the Mashriq in 1995), water conservation is dominated by what can be achieved in the agricultural sector.
The business-as-usual scenario will leave the Arabian Peninsula sub-region suffering from acute water shortages. The sub-region currently has a negative water balance, with 48 per cent of demand in 1995 not covered by available water resources (surface water, rechargeable groundwater and non-conventional resources, such as desalinated water). Water basins in which less than 70 per cent of demand can be met from available resources are considered water stressed. The deficit is being met unsustainably by overdrawing and depleting aquifers and further installation of very costly desalinization plants. Business as usual increases the annual deficit to an unrealistic 67 per cent of demand by 2015. In fact, it is clear that current water resources cannot satisfy future water demand much past 2005 without alternative policies.
The Mashriq sub-region is comparatively better off under this scenario, with no overall water deficit. But this sub-region is also clearly on an unsustainable course, with water stress becoming more and more extreme. Even this scenario requires saving 17 per cent in agricultural water demand by 2015 as compared to 1995, and it requires solving transboundary disputes over shared water resources.
This pessimistic picture for West Asia is compounded when the related issue of land resources management is factored in. If current policies continue until 2015, the continued pressures on groundwater resources, with extraction rates far beyond annual recharge limits, will increase groundwater salinity, leading to greater salinization of land resources. A recent study (CAMRE/UNEP/ACSAD 1996) has shown how the area of salinized irrigated land in both sub-regions would increase (see Chapter 2 for details). A business-as-usual scenario will result in the final abandonment of salinized land in certain areas. Furthermore, eradication of the natural plant cover of rangelands through overgrazing or cultivation of marginal rainfall areas will lead to enhanced wind erosion and severe loss of soil materials in many West Asian countries. Pollution of land resources from the disposal of urban, sewage and industrial wastes, as well as by agricultural chemicals, will increase.
The projected growing rate of land degradation in West Asia under the business-as-usual scenario will lead to job losses in the agricultural sector and increase migration to urban areas, adding to the pressures on urban infrastructure. In addition, the projected food trade balances indicate a widening divergence from food self-sufficiency.
Alternative policies targeting water problems could increase the supply of water, in particular through more research on available resources, increased desalinization capacity and wastewater recycling. By 2015, this could reduce the water deficit for the Arabian Peninsula to 56 per cent of demand while allowing the Mashriq a small positive water balance of 6.5 per cent (see table above).
Policies that in addition gradually rationalize water consumption further through more efficient irrigation, price reviews and improved waste water management could reduce the projected water deficit of the Arabian Peninsula by a further 6 per cent. For the Mashriq, such policies could produce a positive water balance of 14 per cent of demand in 2015, which is a less dramatic deterioration than under current policies which would produce a positive water balance of only 2.6 per cent of demand in 2015 (see table left).
One important component of scenario 3 is water conservation. This can be approached by:
Related alternative policies improving management of land resources would work in the same direction. Conceivably, such policies would combine two strategic lines:
Specifically in the Mashriq, such policies would be geared towards the optimization of production from the available land resources and expansion in the unused arable area. In the Arabian Peninsula, alternative policies could be geared towards the rational use of land and water resources, maximization of productivity per unit area, and adoption of innovative agricultural techniques.
Implementing these alternative policies would require well designed detailed resource planning, legal and institutional reforms, application of water tariffs, pollution charges and groundwater pricing, and cutting water losses, especially in the agricultural sector. Even so, it is clear that the Arabian Peninsula will continue to experience a deficit in its water resources if the regional targets of food security are adhered to. In fact, the GEO-2000 scenario analyses for both water and land confirm that this goal needs to be rethought. In the Mashriq, the settlement of potential conflicts over shared water resources remains a fundamental and pressing issue.
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