A young Indian boy drinks water from a public tap in Agartala, India. Image Credit: AP

A few decades from now, nations in the Middle East and North Africa could face potentially catastrophic water shortages that could pose an even greater challenge than the upheavals gripping Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the water crisis over the horizon does not receive much serious attention from policymakers, the media and the public because so many other crises plague the troubled region right now.

Contrary to popular belief, the most important liquid in the Middle East and North Africa is not the vast supply of oil that brings in billions of dollars every year. It is water and the scarcity of this vital resource could leave some nations unable to meet the needs of rapidly growing populations in less than 40 years.

The Middle East and North Africa (Mena) is the world’s most water-scarce region. The desert climate and lack of rainfall make people almost entirely dependent on groundwater and the surface waters of the Nile, Jordan, Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to meet their daily needs for drinking, growing crops and commercial and industrial projects.

Historically, the region’s population has been small enough to get by with a very limited water supply. But since 1950, a sustained population boom has pushed the number of people in the region to about 300 million — nearly as large as the water-rich US.

A quick look at population figures from a few key countries shows why the region’s water stress is certain to intensify during the next few decades.

Syria’s population stood at 3.5 million in 1950. The population has since soared to nearly 22 million and is expected to surpass 36 million by 2050.

Egypt’s 1950 population of 20 million has swelled to almost 85 million in 2013 and is projected to climb past 125 million by mid-century.

Yemen’s 1950 population of 4.5 million has now reached 25 million. Despite having one of the lowest per capita water availabilities anywhere on Earth, the nation’s population is projected to climb past 52 million by 2050. No one knows where the water to support these growing populations is going to come from. Syria, Egypt, Yemen and other countries in the region are already using most if not all of the annual renewable water resources they have, both above and below ground.

Climate change is also causing prolonged, intensified droughts in the region. These have destroyed livelihoods and seriously eroded food security, as happened in Syria from 2006 until 2009.

Water access in Mena is particularly complicated because more than two-thirds of the water flowing into the region from rivers originates elsewhere.

For example, 85 per cent of the water of the Nile flows through the Ethiopian highlands before reaching Egypt. A similar percentage of the Euphrates waters originate in the mountains of Turkey before flowing into Syria and Iraq. Populous downstream nations like Egypt and Iraq are perpetually vulnerable to the water management decisions of their upstream neighbours.

In coming years, population growth and climate change will combine to intensify competition for water resources across North Africa and the Middle East. This will likely escalate tensions within and between countries, even if the region’s current conflicts have ended.

The potential for distrust stemming from water sharing across borders is so great that former United Nations secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, predicted in the late 1980s that future Middle East fighting would be sparked by water disputes, not politics.

While the situation is alarming, it is not hopeless. Conservation measures and technologies can promote and incentivise more sustainable water usage.

For example, water consumption can be cut dramatically if communities recycle more water, improve wastewater treatment and invest in repairs and upgrades of ageing and leaking water and sewer pipelines. Governments should make these actions a high priority, particularly in the region’s cities, where large populations in relatively small areas make such improvements especially cost-effective.

In addition, turning sea water into fresh water through desalination may one day become economical, despite the huge amount of energy and high costs required today. If energy costs come down and technology improves, salt water conversion can produce sufficient amounts of fresh water to meet the industrial and household needs of densely populated coastal areas.

Water pays no attention to the political, religious and ideological differences that so bitterly divide the people of the Middle East and North Africa. While it may be too late to avoid the region’s looming water crunch outright, nations can soften the landing by more openly communicating with neighbouring countries about water management strategies, acting within their borders to carry out major water infrastructure upgrades, and educate their citizens about the pressing need for improved water conservation.

The cost of doing these things will be high — but not as high as the cost of inaction or indifference.

Russell Sticklor is research analyst at the Stimson Centre, a nonprofit and nonpartisan international security think tank.