Water Stories from the Maghreb and the Middle East

As soon as we begin investigating the issue of water in the Middle East and the Maghreb, we find that everyone agrees about its “rarity,” from the experts with international organisations to the media pundits. A group of journalists affiliated with the network Independent Media on the Arab World decided to investigate the ways in which hydraulic issues are perceived in the region. They are proposing a series of articles examining the political choices in the management of water and revealing their impact on the local populations. Today we begin the publication of these articles, which will be posted over the next few weeks on Orient XXI and its network partners, in French, Arabic and English.

This notion of rarity is founded on the actual scarcity of water and on the steady population growth in Arab countries. Among the principal instruments used to measure hydric scarcity are the water stress indices. The threshold defining hydric poverty has been set at 1,000 m3 per annum and per capita. These indicators are meant to be universally applicable and do not take into account the fluctuations in water consumption per inhabitant from country to country, from region to region, or from urban areas to rural.

In the United States, the average daily consumption of water per capita is 225 litres. For a low-income household in Jordan, it is 34 litres.

These calculations do take into account the consumption of water for farming and industry. But in countries where industry is less developed, like Tunisia or Egypt, the needs are not the same. Water consumption varies in keeping with the economic orientations of each nation and the industries which it develops, and these policies are not necessarily equivalent from one country to the next. Before raising the issue of the scarcity of a resource, we must study its use.

Over 70% of hydraulic resources in the Middle East are used for farming (over 80% in Egypt and Syria, 55% in Palestine, 70% in Lebanon). Here, as elsewhere, farming has been transformed in order to fit into a world market where prices and needs are defined by the developed countries in the North. International institutions and Arab governments have urged farmers to specialise in industrial crops for export which correspond to the demands of Western consumers. Consequently, an increasing number of farming projects have appeared which are aimed at developing the cultivation of fresh produce (strawberries or tomatoes) in the desert during the winter months.

Farming in desert areas is a touchy affair because it requires great quantities of water which are not directly available and evaporation loss can amount to as much as 40%. This “liberal” model, meant to produce quick financial gains, has replaced traditional agriculture designed to feed local populations. Today Arab countries are so heavily dependent on the international markets that they are dangerously vulnerable to the rapid variations in agricultural commodity prices. And their food sovereignty is rapidly disappearing.

Before Tunisia was colonised by France, the country produced hard wheat and was self-sufficient. In order to meet French tastes, the settlers replaced this production with soft wheat which requires more water and is ill-suited to Tunisian soil. Nor is it suited to the production of semolina (couscous), a basic food for the local populations. Thus, Tunisia exports a variety of wheat that takes up 50% of the water resources of its Northern region and imports 50% of its semolina. In Egypt, 80% of the agricultural produce of its Northern regions is exported to the West. Which raises the notion of “virtual water” i.e., the amount of water contained in imported or exported produce. Thus, the water resources of these countries are actually misappropriated through agricultural policies in which the citizens have no say.

A right which is not observed

Yet water is what makes life on earth possible. A human being cannot survive more than five days without drinking. It is essential for our personal hygiene (socialising, staying healthy) and our collective hygiene (keeping public spaces clean). Access to water is a sacred right, but one which is not respected.

The rhetoric about the rarity of water tends to obfuscate the question of the unequal access to water. Habib Ayeb’s research1 prompts us to question the official statistics by examining the many different realities which people actually experience. In Egypt, the official figures claim that 96% of the population has access to water, yet in fact running water is present in only 65% of people’s homes and the rate of access to water in rural territories is only some 40%. Furthermore, official statistics do not take account of the actual accessibility of a water point, nor the quality of the water there, nor the amount of time during which it is available (such as fifteen minutes!).

Is it reasonable to consider that a pregnant woman has access to water when the nearest water point is a 15-minute walk away? Another question: the available water is often not fit to drink, in fact, it is often polluted, which is an important public health issue. Families must find other solutions for drinking (buying bottled water, boiling it...) when the service already costs money. This is a real problem for families of restricted means, because if they cannot pay their water bill, it will be cut off. Hence water becomes a merchandise and not a right.

➞ Mohamed Rami Abdelmoula’s article (Assafir Al-Arabi) discusses the idea that Tunisia is faced with a water shortage. He begins with an inventory of the resources, infrastructures and actors involved. He questions the notion of “rarity” which rests on no tangible reality but merely contributes to turning water into a commodity. Protest movements demand a better access to water for domestic use, but what is at stake is not so much the availability as the management and allocation of the resource. The author points to the problems inherent in the farming model advocated by the authorities, which amounts to exporting water, he points to industry and the tourist trade, both of which pollute and waste the resource, or to outdated infrastructures which cause waste as well... He criticises the oversimplified conception of the international organisations and funding agencies that advocate privatisation of water in the belief that “price adjustment” (price increases) will reduce waste.

➞ The article by Helen Lackner (Orient XXI) deals with the water crisis in Yemen, which existed before the ongoing war. The shortage is due to population growth, global warming and an over-exploitation of water resources due to the use of electric pumps for farming. It is also caused by economic policies which are the combined result of pressure from international institutions promoting the logic of globalisation and the interests of local elites eager to get rich quickly by exporting farming produce with a high added value. The author argues in favour of a more sustainable and equitable management of water resources, giving priority to domestic consumption over agriculture and thus keeping water from becoming a new source of political tensions in the future.

➞ Manel Derbali (Nawaat) gives an account of the ongoing debate in Tunisia on the parliamentary ratification of the new Water Code. The debate was launched in 2009 under pressure from the World Bank which was advocating the privatisation of the resource. Several draft projects, in 2014 and 2017, generated the hostility of the civil society because they let economic logic take precedence over the logic of human rights and social justice. Public debate in Tunisia has focused on the water issue with regular street protests over the problems of accessibility to drinking water or of waste. The misgivings voiced by specialists and union officials interviewed by Nawaat deal with the emphasis placed on the financial value of water. The pricing of water and privatisation of its management imply that investments in its infrastructures will depend on its profitability (leaving rural areas under-equipped) and that access to water will depend on a household’s earnings.

➞ Nada Arafat and Omaïma Ismaïl (Mada Masr) have contributed a report from Al-Qara, a village in southern Egypt, where the main economic activity is farming. In that region, where access to water is problematic, farmers use electric pumps to irrigate their fields. A few years ago, the Egyptian authorities (encouraged by the IMF) decided gradually to reduce the Diesel consumption subsidies so that the price of energy went up and many farmers had to abandon their activity, unable as they were to afford the costs involved in drawing water. After changing activity and sometimes after leaving the village, some finally took up farming again by using solar panels to generate the electricity needed to pump the water for their fields. This investment was sometimes borne by several families together, depending on the size of their fields. This solution, implemented without governmental help, enabled the villagers to regain their financial autonomy. The article explains how broader economic orientations have had an impact on water access for farmers.

➞ Another article, by Dana Givreel (7iber), deals with the Jordanian pipeline exploiting the Disi water table in the South, inaugurated in 2013. What did it contribute to local populations in this Southern region and how should it have been used as an opportunity for the development of this neglected part of the country? His work is based on data indicating that this project, which involves pumping water from the impoverished Southern governorates directly to the capital Amman, has in no way benefited the local inhabitants of the Disi basin, some of whom have attacked the project in court, hoping to recover the water for farming and livestock irrigation.

1Habib Aye has written several books, including L’eau au Proche-Orient, La Guerre n’aura pas lieu, Karthala-Cedej, 1998 and with Ray Bush, Food Security and Revolution in the Middle East and North Africa: Agrarian Questions in Egypt and Tunisia, Anthem Press, 2019.