Crucial Middle East Water – how is its security ensured?

Rather than discuss physical strategic security to ensure water supplies, let’s look at why it is so important, especially in the Middle East. Generally, most countries desire to be agriculturally self-sufficient and economically independent because this allows them to become a truly sovereign state. This is a short list of countries around the globe. Having sustainable water sources will help achieve this goal and to overcome water-security challenges for almost any country.  Let’s look at Libya as a type of mirroring of other Middle East countries.

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Libya is a country with vast areas of desert and dry climate conditions; a nation that suffers from water scarcity. Throughout the last three decades, Libya has given great recognition to water resources to meet the crucial demands of its growing population, as well as agricultural and industrial challenges. Scarcity of fresh-water resources is apparent, especially along the coastal strip where there are several highly populated areas that are exerting major pressure on social, economic, and environmental issues. The primary conventional sources of fresh water in Libya come from scarce, erratic rainfall and fossil groundwater that resides in four sandstone aquifers: the Kufra, Sirt, Morzuk, Hamada and the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer. Libya’s fresh water is estimated to be about 3,820 million cubic meters annually. However, the amount of depletion of nonrenewable groundwater is estimated to total about 3,000 million cubic meters per year resulting in a 21-percent deficit.

The rate of water consumption by agriculture is about 85 percent, which is the highest rate while domestic and industrial consumption of water is 11.5 and 3.5 percent respectively. The agricultural sector does not have a significant share in the economy of Libya, especially during the last ten years, which yields a poor ROI of water and energy use. The Libyan government planned to use groundwater within deep aquifers by implementing “The Great Manmade River Project” (GMMRP), which remains in progress, but currently is stalled due to civil unrest. The construction of this project depends on funds from government collected taxes on gasoline, tobacco, and travel with no external support. There are also some non-conventional water resources such as desalination of sea water and treatment of wastewater in some parts of Libya. However, water scarcity is increasing due to continued population growth and resultant demand on water resources required for agricultural and industrial use.

There is a vital need for a water management policy that ensures and sustains a satisfactory living standard for the Libyan people and secures sustainable water resources for future generations. The policy should consider: (1) developing new water sources; (2) increasing water efficiency; and (3) implementing conservation measures. There is also a need to establish institutions with highly qualified people capable of enacting suitable implementation, management, and legislation decisions to efficiently allocate water resources. The policy of water management would be divided into three main areas: (1) water supply; (2) demand and allocation management with concentration on allocation management; and (3) the steps needed for achieving established goals. Integrated water-resource management should be directly considered with specific attention to non-conventional water resources such as desalinated sea water and treated wastewater to more adequately meet current and future demand.

Installations of more desalination plants in urban areas along the coast will provide a new water resource especially when their capacities are sufficient enough to assist in domestic water demands. Since waste water has to be treated for environmental sustainability, additional wastewater treatment plants would assist in increasing water supply sources especially for the agricultural sector. Water is currently a free resource in Libya, but it is important to consider water metering and pricing to regulate water demand and pay for required infrastructure maintenance and enhanced conveyance systems. Cost estimation of desalination plants is illustrated herein and includes the pricing for each desalination unit. The suggested costs per water unit also are estimated.

By increasing non-conventional water resources, integrated water-resource management, potential institutional reform, and water pricing, as well as the creation of a national water council capable of setting overall water policy, Libya can adequately control its water resources to provide for increasing water demand. This approach would have a number of benefits including: (1) Increasing desalination plants will increase water supply to meet increasing demand; (2) Creating a new water pricing system will be capable of regulating water consumption, reducing waste water and needed maintenance; (3) Developing a one-water institution strategy will focus ideas, assist in better decision making, create clear and united objectives, and ensure a more rapid implementation of good water management; and (4) Training and education programs will improve competencies in water management.

Water is at the route of most conflicts in the Middle East, whether you believe it or not. For example, the 1967 Israeli war was about water, as is tensions between Israel and the West Bank/Palestine. We have a viable solution for this problem, but stewardship buy-in is another matter. It is crucial to balance supply and need for all, but difficult given current political climate, tensions, etc. However, Libya could become a model of how this can be accomplished. Time will tell.