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Turning water and food shortages into global opportunity

Research in the Middle East can play a transformative role in addressing water scarcity

water scarcity middle east Reuters/Mohamed al-Sayaghi
With water scarcity felt by most Arab citizens, the Middle East has stepped up research on addressing the issue

Last week the United Nations hosted its first water conference since 1997, echoing the growing urgency to address water scarcity around the world.

Across West Asia and North Africa, all countries are increasingly feeling the consequences of water scarcity. 

Bar Northern Iraq and Mauritania, all countries are water-stressed or subject to water scarcity. 

“Water stress” is measured when a country’s per capita water resources fall below 1000 cubic metres (m3) per capita per year.

If this threshold falls below 500 m3 per capita annually, we conventionally speak of “water scarcity”. 

In some parts of the Middle East, such as the GCC, mother nature has not bestowed readily available water resources.

In other parts of the region rapid population growth, expanding urban areas, climate change and overuse of water for agriculture have caused this predicament.

The consequences have been a reliance on world commodities markets for strategic imports and poverty among rural populations having to cope with low water availability.

Both have recently shown their social and political risks. 

Over-reliance on world food markets can lead to food price inflation and even potential food availability risks, while rural poverty can drive migration to urban areas, increasing the risk of political unrest. 

However, low water availability does not mean there’s no water. Parts of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and even the Northern part of Jordan still receive sizable amounts of rainfall each year.

Libya, Sudan, Southern Iraq and Egypt have either access to groundwater and/or are part of river systems such as the Euphrates and Tigris or Nile.

Yet, for long term sustainability, these countries need to dramatically increase their water productivity to grow at least some of their staple food commodities within the region.

Nearly all Arab citizens now feel water scarcity. This is why the Middle East is a region with a significant focus on research on how to manage less water in the most productive way.

The GCC has embarked upon multi-billion-dollar research and development projects to develop technology to drive increased food production.

Take Dubai’s Food Tech Valley, which seeks to use vertical farming, hydroponics and smart logistics to become a world leader in food security affairs. 

While vertical farming and hydroponics place water at the forefront of their production activities, smart logistics can help to limit water waste by decreasing food waste and losses, and therefore alleviate pressure on demand for food. 

Other parts of the Arab region also play their role in addressing water scarcity.

Together with colleagues around the world, the American University of Beirut’s head of agriculture, Dr Hadi Jafaar, has developed a Google-powered mobile application for smart irrigation that calculates crop water requirements in near real-time by using satellite imagery and weather data. 

Another researcher from the Arab region is working on game-changing technology which enables crops to be grown underneath a new generation of solar photovoltaic panels, which convert sunlight into electrical energy.

Dr Majdi Abou Najm of University of California, together with his colleagues in Italy, has found a way to allow blue light to be used for clean energy production and red light to maximise photosynthesis, while at the same time using far less water for crop growth.

This could be one of the most exciting future technologies – transforming regional farmers into water-efficient food producers and net-energy exporters to cities, and potentially even foreign countries.

Take a moment to think about the economic prospects of such technologies. It goes without saying that such research from the Middle East can play a transformative role for other world regions.

By mid-century, many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa will face similar levels of water scarcity to the present day Middle East.

Any investment into futureproofed technologies could find a formidable marketplace around the world.

Martin Keulertz is adjunct assistant professor at the American University of Beirut and a lecturer in environmental management at the University of the West of England, Bristol

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