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Water, energy and food security triangle in Gulf

All countries except Oman fall in category of ‘acute scarcity’ of water

Gulf News

Istanbul: Middle Eastern states that have been self sufficient in meeting their demands for water may need to look at the water situation in Gulf states as their own water resources rapidly decline. The Gulf region is arid and has little of its own freshwater resources to rely on. According to the United Nations, all the GCC countries except Oman fall in the category of “acute scarcity” of water. This means that these countries have an annual renewable water capacity of less than 500 cubic meters per capita.

In the Gulf region, water security, energy security and food security are tied to each other. Despite the worrying figures, the region’s countries are largely seen as ‘water-secure’ – for now. This security is attainted due to the uniqueness of the Gulf’s demographic situation and the abundance of energy resources, but as it is explained below, the lifeline of this model is not too long.

The water dilemma

Desalination plants: A lack of water resources this arid region forces Gulf states to rely on energy-intensive desalination that makes sea water suitable for agricultural and domestic use. This is made possible due to the Gulf’s abundance in energy resources and small populations, which allows them to export the bulk of their hydrocarbon production. This method is however not ideal. Sixty-five per cent of the GCC states’ water demand is met through desalination, and that is expected to rise in the coming years since it is expected that the supply of water will satisfy only 67 per cent of demand by 2015.

Attempting to secure food: Irrigation of grass or farms: Despite agriculture accounting for less than five per cent of the Gulf states’ collective GDP, governments have given a boost to the sector by providing artificially cheap water in an attempt to attain food security. Eighty-five per cent of the region’s water is used in this sector, most of which is treated waste water. The GCC states are only 15 per cent self sufficient in meeting their demand for cereals, 65 per cent for fruits and 70 per cent in vegetables.

Diverting energy resources: With urbanization, industrialization, and a population explosion however, Gulf states are having to look to alternative sources of energy, such as nuclear power and renewable energy. This allows them to use alternative sources of power for desalination and divert hydrocarbon resources, their largest source of revenue, towards the export market. This is seen as an essential measure for the economic stability of Gulf states and the continuation of the generous welfare programs made available to citizens.

Food insecurity: Knowing well that Gulf states cannot be totally self sufficient in meeting food demand, alternative options have been attempted. Gulf states have been importing large quantities of food for several decades, but have more recently begun to purchase of farmland abroad. Relying on food imports is risky due susceptibility to price shocks and export bans like that of 2008, and purchase of farmland abroad is controversial as such transactions are carried out with weak governments in poor states that have been criticized for disregarding the long term impact of the sales. Since 2006, approximately 15-20 million hectares of land in poor countries has been sold to foreign buyers. States like Thailand and the Ukraine have banned the sale of agricultural land.

Spotlight on Yemen: a water crisis

Yemen faces a chronic water shortage that threatens to plunge the country into an even deeper crisis than it is in at the moment. Only 3 per cent of Yemen’s land is arable, and it has one of the lowest rates of per-capita freshwater availability (125 m3 per capital per year). It is among the 10 most food-insecure countries in the world, where per capital water consumption, at 125 m3 a year, is 1.6 per cent of the global average of 7,500 m3. With a lack of regulation, groundwater is depleting. It is estimated that 99 per cent of all water extraction is unlicensed. And since the agricultural sector, a source of livelihood for two-thirds of the population, uses 90% of available water resources, the chance of instability, conflict and mass migration are likely to rise with the depletion of water resources.

The culprit for much of Yemen’s water depletion is arguably the habit that has plagued the country: the chewable narcotic called ‘qat’ that is sucking the country dry.

• Irrigated land area tripled between 1970 and 2000, largely because of irrigation to grow qat

• The qat industry accounts for a quarter of the entire economy

• >50% of agricultural water use goes to qat cultivation

• 70% of arable land is used for growing qat, while the country annually imports 2.5 million tons of wheat