Executive Summary

  • There is currently not enough water in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

  • The shortages will get worse within our lifetimes, as the population increases and water sources diminish through over exploitation of groundwater and reduced rainfall.

  • With no water, humans die within approximately five days, so if we wait until the water has actually run out, it will be too late to do anything.

  • Therefore the time to act is now.

  • In the MENA region, Morocco are leading the way with strategic foresight and many local water management programmes, both of which could be exported to regional partners.

  • This blog will study some of the historic reasons for the water shortage, and will look ahead to both some of the regional challenges and solutions for the future.

Arid Landscape.jpg

 A country is classed as water-stressed when it cannot supply the essential water needs of its population, for which the level is set by the World Bank at 1700 cubic metres per person per year.  The MENA region, listed as providing a very optimistic average of 1274 cubic metres per person per year, is commonly regarded as the most water-stressed region on earth.  (The estimate is optimistic because 87% of the available water in the region is used for old-fashioned irrigation, which is highly wasteful, meaning that the water available for people is likely significantly less than 1274 cubic metres per year.)

MENA Population Map.jpg

And the situation is near-certain to get significantly worse quite quickly.  The MENA population is set to double from 300m to 600m by 2050, and as part of the wider climate change issue temperatures are forecast to rise by 3-5 degrees, rainfall to reduce 20% by 2100, and sea levels will rise by between 0.1 and 0.9 metres in the same period.  This inevitably means mass population movement, increased droughts and flash floods, and the inexorable northwards march of the Sahara as desertification increases.

Farm income throughout the semi-arid region is volatile due to frequent droughts, and the focus on growing thirsty crops like flowers and out-of-season fruit and vegetables for export means that nations are effectively exporting some of their precious water, known in the sector as “virtual water loss”. [1]

Looking at some of the individual countries in more depth offers little encouragement:

  • Libya’s Great Manmade River Project which taps aquifers under the Sahara (themselves filled from the Nubian Hills) has caused large-scale salt-water intrusions, and the aquifers cannot be refilled nearly as fast as they are being emptied.

  • In Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, wells which were 30m deep in the 1970s are now 1200m deep, a phenomenon known as “aquifer-chasing”, and zero day (when the city runs out of water completely), is regarded as imminent.  And if you want to know what Zero Day looks like, there is a riveting description of Capetown in 2018 at this link.

Turkey Map.jpg

  • Turkey is the only nation in the region in water surplus, but their domination of the Tigris and Euphrates sources through the Great Anatolia damming project has caused crop failures and 150km salt-water intrusions into the water table in downstream Iraq.

  • Egypt, whilst doing well in advancing local accountability for water use, live in constant concern that Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam will threaten their Nile water supply.[2]

These last two points highlight the fact that 60% of surface water in the region is cross-border, and all countries share at least one aquifer. [3]  This means that the resource (water), and the problems caused by its mis-management or scarcity (famine/drought, mass population movement, disease and conflict) are also cross-border.  Mauritania (where the the World Health Organisation already has grave concerns), Senegal and Benin currently face the gravest drought threats in the region, and as water starts to run out, it is nigh-on inevitable that all eyes will turn north, which is the direction that the UNHCR believes mass-migration is likely to take[4].

So what 1?

When the inevitable water-scarcity crisis happens in the MENA region within our lifetimes, it will touch every area of whichever society it impacts; people, industry, governance, security and well-being.

So what 2?

Therefore the measures to prevent, or reduce the impact of such a crisis must also be multi-disciplinary.  These measures are not just about managing the resource itself, fiendishly difficult though that is, they also need to include the appropriate selections from the following lists, plus any other relevant steps.


Colorado River in Mexico.png

  • Where a water source (aquifer, river etc) is shared with a neighbouring nation, engage early, and ensure that both parties take equitable responsibility for, and gain equal benefit from, the water.  Do not allow uneven allocation of water between nation states, as has happened between the USA and Mexico with the Colorado River.[5]  Understand that if your neighbouring state experiences a water crisis, its population will migrate into your borders and they will bring the crisis and the second-order effects with them.  (There are currently plans in place to further dam the Amu Darya, Mekong, Nile and Tigris-Euphrates rivers, with no treaties in place.  Therefore the dams could well become the source of political/military/social conflict, rather than cooperation).[6]


  • Avoid virtual water-loss.

  • Mandate all industries to be water-neutral (ie they must put as much clean ground-water back into the ecosystem as they take out).


  • Widespread education in water management and usage.

  • Ensure where possible that individual communities are not reliant on a single source of water.


  • Technology adoption.  Technology is advancing all the time.  Acoustic Leak Detection, Automatic Metering Infrastructure, Metal-Organic Framework desalination with renewable energy and Zero Mass Water (also know as “Water from Air”), drip-pipe irrigation and fog capture can all significantly improve water efficiency.[7]


  • Prevent and punish pollution with draconian measures, particularly with persistent pollutants such as polyfluoroalkyls, (also known as “forever chemicals”)[8].


  • Dam management.  If not carefully planned and managed, dams can have a significant impact on downstream ecosystems and livelihoods, particularly in artisanal fishing communities.  Therefore in addition to providing both power and water, the potential negative effects need to be managed out when dams are being constructed.[9]

  • Repairing the natural environment  We can start to refill our aquifers, as the Hampton Roads Sanitation District are doing in the Potomac in America.  The HRSD pumps 8 million gallons of waste-water, treated to drinkable standard, back into the aquifer every day, reversing the decades-long over-extraction.[10]

But there is some good news.  Water crisis-driven migration in the MENA region is likely to gravitate north, and fortunately it is in the Maghreb that some encouragement is to be found.

Fog Capture Screen in Morocco.png

Morocco’s 115bn Dirham ($12bn) National Water Strategy which includes 20 dams throughout the Kingdom, intended to capture 5.83bn cubic metres of water, plus their innovative fog capture programme, and the local Water User Groups which account for water locally and have replaced the traditional gravity irrigation with the more efficient drip-pipe systems, are some elements of a holistic approach to water management.  The Moroccan approach optimises improved consumption, preservation of resources, increased rural supply, and educating the population, particularly women who are the traditional guardians of water, in new technologies and completely new ways of farming.[11]

When it comes to managing a water crisis, as opposed to trying to prevent one, the key is to see it coming early, and rehearsing the potential scenarios with neighbouring countries through a series of combined exercises.  The effects of such a crisis will respect neither national borders nor international treaties, and therefore, the sharing of high-quality crisis-prevention and crisis-management practices, plus good water management, such as are currently present in Morocco, seems like a good place to start, particularly as time is now short in the MENA region.

Related Information:

This is Toby’s second blog about water shortage issues, his first can be viewed here. He has also written about whether Africa should take a continental approach to Higher Education and that can be viewed here.

Inverroy have also worked in Morocco and the Case Study from TAQA Morocco can be read here.



[2] MSN Article 21 Oct 19



[5] The Colorado River traverses 7 USA states before entering Mexico and discharging into the Sea of Cortez.  Due to successive dams in the USA, the original 1500 cubic metres of water which flowed into Mexico has now been reduced to zero – there is no river.



Water Online Article 4 Dec 19

Water Online Article 4 Dec 19 (YouTube Video)

Water Online Article 5 Nov 19   Smart AMI Investment?

WOL Article 7 Jan 20

Water Online Article 17 Oct 19

[8] WOL 22 Sep 20


[10] Potomac Aquifer Recharge Oversight Committee Mar 19



Toby - Head and Shoulders Image.jpg


Senior Consultant,

Sector Lead for Africa, Higher Education, and Academia & Heritage.

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