Water scarcity can lead to population migration in the Middle East

    21 Dec 2021

    The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region gets special attention when discussing the global water scarcity situation or migration crisis worldwide. However, there is a very sporadic attempt at analyzing the link between these two phenomena in the context of the MENA region.

    MENA region is undoubtedly the most water-scarce globally, and the region hosts the world’s 11 out of 17 most water-stressed countries. Concrete steps need to be taken to build sustainable water security for the region, Gulf News claims.

    The correlation between water deficit and what makes the people in the region move can’t be kept aside for long. A recent World Bank report finds that lack of water has contributed to 10% of the rise in global migration.

    The MENA region is undoubtedly the most water-scarce globally, and the region hosts the world’s 11 out of 17 most water-stressed countries. Nearly two-thirds of the population in this part of the world already lack needed freshwater resources to sustain current economic activities. As the population grows, the per capita water availability is predicted to go down by 50% by 2050.

    MENA has become one of the world’s climate change hotspots as climate models predict warming of the region 20% more than the global average. Climate change has already brought more frequent and severe droughts and floods, leading to increased water insecurity in the region. Countries like Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, and Syria have become more susceptible to climate change-induced water scarcity.

    Moreover, many countries also suffer from political instability, weak governance, and increasing socioeconomic and ethnic divides. Except for the Gulf countries and Israel, others don’t even have enough economic and technological resources to adequately face climate risks, particularly the vast uncertainty with water availability.

    The population of the MENA region is growing fast, and it is estimated to be doubled by 2050. Urbanization is also taking place much quicker pace in the region. The fast-changing demography of the region also demands agricultural expansion for increased food production.

    However, the hot climate and expanding desertification lead to more unsustainable use of scarce freshwater in the region’s agriculture. While the global average water use for agriculture is 70%, it is almost 85% in the MENA region. Some countries like Iran, Iraq and Jordan are pumping vast amounts of water from aquifers to increase their food production.


    Global international migration stock

    The MENA region hosts almost 14% of the global international migration stock. Desalination plants are a major water supplier, particularly for the Gulf countries in the region. With the help of having nearly 70% of the world’s desalination plants, the wealthy Gulf countries get sufficient water for municipal use for their growing population.

    The desalinated water, however, has health and environmental consequences. Most other countries in the MENA region don’t have strategic planning to meet the water crisis. The adoption of a quick-fix approach has made water scarcity much worse.

    The conflicts and wars in the MENA region also add another dimension to the relationship between water scarcity and migration. Though the region has not witnessed any water war yet, there are many ongoing water disputes between the countries over the sharing of rivers.

    If they have been signed, the agreements on water sharing have failed to lead to any active cooperation. On the other hand, wars lead to large population displacement and regularly destroy many water storage and supply infrastructures.

    Even if one excludes the displaced Palestinian population, the MENA region has become a significant producer of conflict-driven refugees in recent years. There are now an estimated 7.6 million refugees of MENA origin. The region itself hosts 2.7 million out of them, and in a country like Lebanon, one person out of four is a refugee.

    Besides refugees, who flee from their homelands, 12.4 million internally displaced people are also due to conflicts. The massive forced population displacement continues to complicate the region’s water insecurity further.

    The decision of someone to migrate from one region or one country to another is often a complex one. It will be too simplistic to conclude that people will start moving out if the water becomes scarcer in a region. People generally struggle to survive in a water scarcity situation for long periods before deciding to migrate.


    Water scarcity-induced migration

    It is not the poor who usually move as it is commonly believed because they lack resources to take the risk and often get trapped for long. The World Bank says people of poor countries are four times less likely to move than middle-income countries. This makes the MENA region rather more vulnerable to water scarcity-induced migration.

    Water insecurity is undoubtedly one of the key drivers of migration in the MENA region, but it isn’t easy to establish a direct causal link. Anders Jägerskog and I had argued in 2016 in a Report produced by the Stockholm International Water Institute that in the water-stressed regions, water scarcity can be a significant contributing factor leading to migration, but not the sole reason.

    Of course, the social, religious, ethnic, political, economic, and demographic drivers play their parts. Still, it is somewhat futile to unpack all these complex causal linkages fully.

    Undoubtedly, the increasing water scarcity in the MENA region significantly contributes to its growing population migration. Concrete steps need to be taken to build sustainable water security for the region.

    Not only short-term measures to address the immediate water scarcity situation but also there is a need for planned long-term policies for addressing structural water management issues. The smart management of scarce water resources is the key to stopping the rising population displacements in the region.

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