By Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed


LONDON – Economic want and inequality, as much as political repression, incited the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions. It is, of course, to be hoped that new governments in these countries, and other Arab leaders, will better address ordinary people’s grievances. But a mere change of government will not make these countries’ economic problems go away. Indeed, the converging effects of population growth, climate change, and energy depletion are setting the stage for a looming triple crisis.

The region accounts for 6.3% of the world’s population but only 1.4% of its renewable fresh water. Twelve of the world’s 15 most water-scarce countries – Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Israel, and Palestine – are in the region, and in eight, available fresh water amounts annually to less than 250 cubic meters per person. Three-quarters of the region’s available fresh water is in just four countries: Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.

Water consumption in the region is linked overwhelmingly to industrial agriculture. From 1965 to 1997, Arab population growth drove demand for agricultural development, leading to a doubling of land under irrigation. Demographic expansion in these countries is set to dramatically worsen their predicament.

Although birth rates are falling, one-third of the overall population is below 15 years old, and large numbers of young women are reaching reproductive age, or soon will be. The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense has projected that by 2030 the population of the Middle East will increase by 132%, and that of sub-Saharan Africa by 81%, generating an unprecedented “youth bulge.”

The World Bank’s Water Sector Assessment Report on the Gulf countries, published in 2005, predicts that these demographic pressures will likely cause the availability of fresh water to halve, exacerbating the danger of inter-state conflict. Competition to control water has already played a key role in regional geopolitical tensions, for instance, between Turkey and Syria; Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority; Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia; and between Saudi Arabia and its neighbors, Qatar, Bahrain, and Jordan.

A halving of available water supplies could turn these tensions into open hostilities. Indeed, while economic growth, accompanied by greater urbanization and higher per capita incomes, has translated into greater demand for fresh water, the population movements that have resulted are now exacerbating local ethnic tensions.

As early as 2015, the average Arab will be forced to survive on less than 500 cubic meters of water per year, a level defined as severe scarcity. Shifts in rainfall patterns will certainly affect crops, particularly rice. A “business-as-usual” model for climate change suggests that global average temperatures could rise by 4° Celsius by mid-century. This would devastate agriculture in the Middle East and North Africa, with crop yields falling by 15-35%, depending on the strength of carbon fertilization.

The worldwide cost of infrastructure capable of responding to the intensifying water crisis could amount to trillions of dollars, and its development would itself be energy-intensive. As a result, new infrastructure would only mitigate the impact of scarcity on richer countries.

Hydrocarbon energy depletion is set to complicate matters even more. In its World Energy Outlook for 2010, the International Energy Agency argued that conventional oil production worldwide probably peaked in 2006, and is now declining. This conclusion fits the latest output data, which shows that world oil production has been undulating but gradually falling since around 2005. Yet the IEA also argued that the shortfall will be made up from greater exploitation of unconventional oil and gas reserves, albeit at far higher prices, owing to the greater environmental and extraction costs.

The bad news is that the IEA’s optimism about unconventional sources could be misplaced. The six biggest Middle Eastern oil-producing countries officially hold around 740 billion barrels (Gbs) of proven oil reserves. But the British geologist Euan Mearns of Aberdeen University notes that published data put the most likely size of these reserves at only around 350 Gbs. And the UK government’s former chief scientific adviser, David King, found in a study for Energy Policy that official world oil reserves had been overstated by up to one-third – implying that we are on the verge of a major “tipping point” in oil production.

All of this means not only that the era of cheap oil is over, but also that, within the next decade or so, major oil-producing countries will struggle against costly geological constraints. If that proves to be true, then by 2020 – and perhaps as early as 2015 – the contribution of Middle East oil to world energy consumption could become negligible. That would mean a catastrophic loss of state revenues for today’s major Arab oil-producing countries, rendering them highly vulnerable to the compounding consequences of existing water shortages, rapid demographic expansion, climate change, and declining crop yields.

This worst-case scenario is not inevitable, but there is only a short window of opportunity for policies to address the situation. Reviving conservation, management, and distribution efforts could reduce water consumption and increase efficiency, but these measures need to be combined with radical reforms to speed the transition away from oil dependence to a zero-carbon renewable-energy infrastructure.

Concerted investments in health, education, and citizens’ rights, especially for women, are the key tools for alleviating population growth in the region and diversifying its economies. It is now increasingly clear that Arab governments that fail to implement such measures urgently are unlikely to survive.

Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development in London, and the author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save it.


Project Syndicate/Europe’s World, 2011.