Paul Rivlin Jan 31/19
editor’s note: full article at
The following are the sections on population, water and the conclusion. The full analysis shows the inter-relations between population growth, unemployment, war, refugees, oil depedence, droughts, increasing water shortages and the by-products of desalination.

What has happened to the economies of the Middle East over the last decade? The last ten years have been ones of unprecedented drama because of the Arab Spring, its collapse and descent into war, and repression in most of the countries in which it occurred. This has obscured some very worrying underlying trends which were among the reasons why the Arab Spring occurred.

The growth of the total population did not fully reflect the severity of the problem. Between 2005 and 2015, the population of the Middle East and North Africa (excluding Israel and Turkey) aged 15 to 24 years rose by 55 percent from 47 million to 73 million. This meant that the growth rate of young people at labor market entry age was more than twice as fast as that of the total population. As a result, there were 26 million more people entering the labor market in 2017 than in 2007.[1]

The first is demographic pressure (See Table 1). The population of the Middle East has increased by nearly over 100 million, or 22 percent in the ten years preceding 2017. The population of the Arab states rose by 83 million or a quarter, while the three non-Arab states increased more slowly. Israel’s population rise was close to the Middle East average. Egypt, the largest Arab state in demographic terms, experienced a rise of 20 million or nearly 26 percent.

These increases, which were among the fastest in the world, placed huge strains on the economies of the region. They required more food supplies in a region that is chronically short of water, investments in the infrastructure, and fast economic growth to generate jobs.

The Middle East is rich in oil but poor in water. It is the world’s most water-scarce region and the situation is worsening due to the effect of conflict, climate change, and slow or even negative economic growth. The water crisis threatens the region’s stability as well as its human development and growth. Water resources per capita in the Middle East account for just one-sixth of the global average and they continue to fall. Every country in the region is experiencing groundwater depletion, with very high rates of withdrawal of both surface and groundwater. As agriculture, the largest consuming sector, is struggling to compete for water with industry and other sectors. In addition, the climate, which is largely arid to hyper-arid and highly variable, is changing, with drought becoming more frequent.

While the region has five percent of the world’s population, it only has only about one percent of global total renewable freshwater resources, water that is naturally available and replenished by the hydrological cycle. Freshwater availability has fallen by 75 percent since the 1950s and is forecast to fall by a further 40 percent by 2030. Between 2007 and 2014, the amount of fresh water per capita in the Arab World fell by 20 percent, in Iran by eight percent, in Turkey by 10 percent and in Israel by 12.5 percent.[8]

Drought was a major factor behind the war in Syria. Between 2006 and 2010, Syria suffered a severe draught. This affected food security and has pushed 2-3 million people into extreme poverty; 800,000 people had their livelihoods ruined, mainly in the northeast of the country, but also in Deraʿa province with a population of 300,000. Small-scale farmers were the worst affected; many were unable to grow enough food or earn enough money to feed their families. As a result, tens of thousands left the northeast and now inhabit informal settlements or camps close to Damascus. Water sources have also been permanently affected, with farmers compelled to use wells to draw on groundwater resources due to a lack of rainfall. The situation is exacerbated by the inefficient use of water, and groundwater resources in many parts of the country have been exhausted.[9]

Massive investments have been made in desalination both in the Gulf Arab countries (and in Israel). This has increased the supply of water but at a cost. The Gulf states are heading for a salt crisis: the more they desalinate, the more concentrated wastewater or brine, is pumped back into the sea; and as the Gulf becomes saltier, desalination becomes more expensive. The process is costly and energy intensive; it pumps seawater through special filters or boils it to remove the salts. The resulting brine can be nearly twice as salty as normal Gulf waters.

The Gulf has become more like a salt-water lake than a sea. It is shallow, only 35 meters deep on average, and is almost entirely enclosed. The few rivers that feed the Gulf have been dammed or diverted and the region’s hot and dry climate results in high rates of evaporation. The daily dose of around 70 million cubic meters of super-salty wastewater from dozens of desalination plants means that the water in the Gulf is 25% saltier than normal seawater that parts are becoming too salty to use.[10]

How did these trends affect human development? The Human Development Index (HDI) is a summary measure of average achievement in key dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, being knowledgeable, and have a decent standard of living. The HDI is the geometric mean of normalized indices for each of the three dimensions.

The human development index for Arab countries deteriorated in 2007-2017. This was the result of the wars in the region. Three countries suffered most, and this was reflected in dramatic declines in human welfare. Syria’s ranking fell from 107 in 2007 to 155 in 2017; Libya fell from 55 to 108, and Yemen fell from 140 to 178.[11] If and when the wars end, then the Middle Eastern regimes—whether new or old—will face the same problems as their predecessors, but with greater pressures. There will be more people, in greater need of help because of the effects of war. There will be more unemployed because economic growth had been inadequate. There will be less water because of pollution, desertification and urbanization. The prospects of an oil-led boom have receded as US shale oil production increases. This is not a promising scenario and the current socio-political unrest brewing in Sudan, as well as in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya and Morocco, has already been labelled “a Second Arab Spring.”[12]