Business | General

Farming 'main cause of water shortage'

Water used for irrigation in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) is the leading cause of an impending water shortage, according to World Bank reports.

  • By Nadia Saleem, Staff Reporter
  • Published: 00:00 November 1, 2008
  • Gulf News

Dubai: Water used for irrigation in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) is the leading cause of an impending water shortage, according to World Bank reports.

While the region's current per capita consumption is 1,100 cubic metres of water annually, projections indicate that only 50 per cent of that will be available by 2050.

"Current estimates are based on constant rainfall patterns, yet the global projections for climate change actually indicate a drop in rainfall precipitation of 20 to 40 per cent and an increase in temperatures - meaning increased evaporation," said Julia Bucknall, lead natural resources management specialist at the bank.

"Based on these available indicators, the Mena region will be seeing a lot more people trying to manage with a lot less water," she added.

Another reason for the shortage, also related to consumption, is population growth. Gulf Research Centre (GRC) reports that population rates in the six GCC countries will double in about 20 years. From the current 30 million people, the figure is expected to increase to 60 million.

"This growing population will meet declining agriculture. Arable land is very limited and conventional water sources in the GCC - currently the feedstock of irrigated agriculture - are predicted to last for 30 years at most," the report said.

Philipp Elsaesser, project director of landscaping for Internet City with extensive experience as an agricultural engineer, spoke to Gulf News about the crops grown in the Middle East that require large amounts of water.

"The best example is the date palm. Though it uses an excessive amount of water, there are about five or six million date palm trees grown in the UAE alone," he said.

Due to the world food crisis, the focus is on the production of the types of crops in shortage, with no foresight into the impact on water supply.

The governments have taken this strategy because alternative crops would cost more and are less desirable by consumers.

Elsaesser said, "The Middle East could switch to native crops, which they had before, like barley that use less water." However, he says that the market does not require barley, and it is easier to import it rather than produce it at high costs.

While Saudi Arabia is moving away from growing crops that require large amounts of water, the rest of the Middle East is still looking for ways to solve the issue.

The World Bank proposes better agriculture planning. Doris Koehn, director for rural development, water and environment at the bank said, "Replacing low-yielding crops and overhauling wasteful irrigation systems would free up more water resources for industries and households."


Many Gulf countries have started investing in agriculture in Africa and Asia, as the region's grain imports now amount to 50 per cent.

While agriculture plays a small role in the UAE's gross domestic product (GDP), water consumption is extremely high. The country has the world's third highest per capita water consumption after the US and Canada. In Dubai, water consumption last year was 72,588 million imperial gallons compared to 64,961 million in 2006.

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