Across the Arab world, consensus is emerging that Arab people are facing a new transformation in their relation with the natural world. If the last 70 years can be considered the era of oil in the Arab world, the years to come will be shaped to a much greater extent by how we make use of an even more precious resource: water.

Yesterday the Regional Bureau for Arab States of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) launched a new report on the future of water in the Arab region. Entitled the ‘Arab Water Governance Report’, the publication argues that the future will depend on whether the Arab countries can vastly improve the way water is managed.

Oil and gas have allowed for significant modernisation over recent decades including unprecedented improvement in human development, but continuing our progress requires us to treat our water with as much reverence as we have our energy resources — or even more.

The report argues that the water challenges facing the Arab region are part-and-parcel of a much broader set of issues that are of paramount importance today.

From agricultural decline, to youth unemployment and indeed in many cases to civil unrest, most of the difficult dynamics facing the Arab region today are linked in different ways to water issues.

And while this is a truth that faces all societies in the world, it is here in the Arab region that the critical importance of water is felt most deeply. Indeed as our report shows, the Arab region may have the largest stockpiles of oil in the world, but we have the lowest levels of water.

The statistics are striking: Seven of the 10 most water-scarce countries in the world are here; the average Arab citizen has access to approximately one-16th — or around 6 per cent — the amount of renewable fresh water that the average global citizen enjoys; a full two-thirds of the water the Arab countries access comes from rivers which originate outside the region. Already the crisis has become acute. Some Arab countries have nearly run out of renewable fresh water and several others are on course to run near zero in the decades to come.

However underlying scarcity is only part of the story. Our report, authored by Arab scholars and water practitioners, shows that the larger tragedy is that too often this precious resource is used with a lack of foresight and solid planning: in many Arab countries groundwater resources are currently being used beyond their natural replenishment rates, and higher levels of water are used by the average person in the Arab countries that have the smallest supplies of the resource.

The result is that our water levels, which are naturally low given our arid climate, are being lowered still more by the decisions that we make as societies.

Demographic challenge

Demographic factors exacerbate the challenge. The population of the Arab world tripled from 128 million people in 1970 to over 360 million today. And United Nations projections show that the region’s population may nearly double again, to 634 million by the 2050. What’s more, whereas today nearly half of the region’s population lives in rural areas, by 2050 three of every four people in the Arab region will live in cities.

Climate change is also taking a toll on the water sector, reflected in increasing floods and droughts which too often overwhelm national and local water systems and need to be accounted for in policy and planning.

Addressing the water scarcity challenge in a comprehensive manner is urgent. The Arab world is rich in scientists, officials, business people and civil society representatives who are working on many of the solutions needed to mitigate the water crisis and begin to set water use on a more strategic, equitable, efficient and sustainable manner.

However what is missing in the Arab region is the combination of political will to make water a priority, and institutional capacity to ensure water’s most effective use.

Our report argues that the key to the water future of the Arab region is a transformation of water governance. This means that addressing the current water crisis requires strengthening technical capacities and national institutions and developing mechanisms to increase the transparency and accountability of public water services. It also requires additional financing — a recent report by the Islamic Development Bank showed that the Arab countries need to invest $200 billion (Dh734.6 billion) in infrastructure in the coming years in order to meet rising demand.

Progress requires integrated approaches to the water crisis that address the links between water and health, education, poverty alleviation, environmental protection, job creation, and food and energy security.

It requires increased political attention and commitment even amid the challenging political environment of the region today. And it requires increased cooperation both within the region and with neighbouring countries so that water is shared in accordance with the needs of each country for the benefit of all.

That’s why UNDP is working in 18 Arab countries to make progress towards improved water governance — sharing knowledge, developing capacity and connecting stakeholders to resources to secure a better water future as part of a broader push towards sustainable human development across the Arab world.

In many countries our programmes have already contributed to results, but much more work is needed and the UNDP Regional Bureau for Arab States stands ready to redouble our efforts in this regard. The drive to improve water governance cannot be separated from the broader governance challenges currently facing the Arab world. People around the Arab region are demanding fuller enjoyment of justice and equity, increasing accountability with respect to public resources, and a brighter future for their children, their communities, their countries and the region as a whole. There are many components to these broad dynamics across the Arab world, but they are all connected: Improving water governance is essential if the Arab region is to achieve its aspirations—both now and in the future.

The time has come for all stakeholders in the Arab region to make water governance a key priority. Relying on oil will not be enough.

Sima Bahous is Assistant Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Director of UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Arab States.