Foreign Policy Blogs

Questioning Water Scarcity in the MENA Region

Conceptual overview

What is water scarcity? At a conceptual level, water scarcity can be defined as “the lack of access to adequate quantities of water for human and environmental uses.” Attempts to measure or quantify scarcity have taken on a variety of forms from cubic meters per person of renewable water, to water availability compared to water infrastructure. While multiple conceptualizations of water scarcity allow for flexibility in assessing vulnerability, the absence of a universal definition encourages wide variations in interpretation. In turn, variability in measurement makes comparisons across contexts more difficult, thus impeding transparent discussions about this issue.

Is water scarcity a new phenomenon? Examples of water scarcity can be found throughout the history of humanity. As the earth’s climate has evolved, so too has its ecological composition and resource availability. Historically, in response to water stress, civilizations occupied greater geographic space, or dispersed and mobilized as smaller groups. In fact, as early as 5,000 BCE, water management practices were being used and adapted to serve local needs. While some of these methods eventually proved unsustainable, many technologies have been adapted for use in today’s water management activities.

Why has water scarcity become a top issue on the global agenda? 2005-2015 marked the UN Water for Life Decade. This initiative sought to place water on the global agenda by highlighting the integral role water plays in health, agriculture, economics, energy, and development. Framing this in the context of growing populations and consumption in developing countries, projections of water scarcity estimated the impacts would expand “beyond the capacity of already inadequate water supply…infrastructure and services.” Presently, water scarcity is estimated to impact 2.1 billion people.

Furthering the scarcity narrative post-2015, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) designated clean water and sanitation as one of 17 goals in need of global action. As with the Water for Life Decade, the SDGs point to excess water stress as the precursor for future water scarcity and, therefore, a major barrier to sustainable development. For development practitioners, governments, and private sector entities alike, orienting work around the SDGs has become commonplace.


Utility of water scarcity

What are the historical implications of framing contexts as scarce? Often, scarcity signals an assertion that there is not “enough”— there is not enough water to meet demand; there is not enough human capacity to mitigate or adapt to this challenge without an intervention; there are not enough resources to overcome a lack of water. Narratives of scarcity follow what geographer, Diana K. Davis, argues is an environmental imaginary, or “ideas that groups of humans develop about a given landscape…that commonly includes assessments about that environment as well as how it came to be in its current state.”

In the MENA region, colonization brought a different set of environmental imaginaries which were then rationalized in a completely different environmental context. French colonialism in North Africa for example, highlights how the country evolved from an explicit form of water management in colonies (hydroimperialism) to a softer approach (hydrodiplomacy) in the post-colonial age. Hydroimperialism refers to the “ways water, hydraulic knowledge, and water management practices both revealed and reproduced unequal power relations predicated upon an expansionist mentalité.” In the case of the French, hydraulic knowledge exchange moved back and forth between the colony and Europe, eventually formalizing into technical expertise. In the postcolonial era, imperialism manifested into hydrodiplomacy, or technical aid.

The example above is not unique to colonial interventions in the MENA. From the 19th to 20th centuries, European powers framed the region as a “degraded landscape facing imminent disaster.” This ‘strange and defective’ region needed help to ‘improve,’ ‘restore,’ ‘normalize,’ or ‘repair’ the environment.” The effects of such narratives can be seen across the region today. Notably, the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) initiative to “green” the emirates, primarily through aforestation. Additionally, this plan seeks to modernize the state and attract western business and tourism. While some link this goal to the Islamic ideal of paradise as a green garden, it also suggests a stronghold of European imaginaries, which historically have advocated for “normalizing” the desert environment with more vegetation and water.

How does this narrative impact interventions, particularly in the MENA region? In many ways, the MENA region remains the poster-child for water scarcity, as much in the field of international development as in environmental imaginaries. The power of such imaginaries to influence and legitimize the narrative of desertification and water scarcity as a function of mismanagement has tremendous implications for aid interventions. As numerous analyses demonstrate, the “dryness” of the region alone threatens livelihoods and productivity. While this is not to say that Middle East’s water supply does not pose any challenges for further development, or has never been mismanaged, these sweeping statements do not always do the region justice in terms of water management.

With the narrative of scarcity in mind, it is only natural that development practitioners gravitate towards the Middle East as the region where interventions will have the most impact. Much like the aspirations of the UAE, development practitioners have bought in to the idea of ‘rolling back the desert.’ In doing so, their actions parallel the colonial experience. For example, indigenous populations were often well aware of shifts in equilibrium based on rainfall and water availability, and were thus much more adaptive to uncertainty. However, in an era of a global agenda set around modernizing and developing in a very specific, predominantly western-oriented way, these water management traditions become stifled and potentially lost.


Moving forward

Often, scarcity signals that there is not “enough”— not enough water to meet demand; not enough human capacity to mitigate or adapt; and not enough resources to overcome a lack of water. It is this narrative that has fostered the aspirations of the UAE, and development practitioners alike, towards ‘rolling back the desert.’ Further perpetuating this imaginary is the global normalization of water scarcity as an undeniable fact; obscuring the climatic, cultural, and environmental histories of regions defined by scarcity. Ironically, this diverges from the values of sustainable development, inhibiting innovation and the ability to leverage context-specific knowledge so deeply desired for a sustainable solution to flourish.