Water of the Middle East and North Africa

MENA in Focus: Key Takeaways from the UN 2023 Water Conference

UN 2023 Water Conference
Photo 1: A view of a Water Action sign at UN Headquarters during the UN 2023 Water Conference. Source: UN Photo/Mark Garten

The global community is not making sufficient progress on ensuring clean water and sanitation for all, also known as Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6. According to water.org, 25% of the worlds population lacked access to a clean toilet and around 10% lacked access to safe water in 2021. To help address this gap, the Netherlands and Tajikistan co-hosted the UN 2023 Water Conference -the first in nearly 50 years- on 22-24th March.

While the Netherlands is a world leader in the water sector, the inclusion of the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan might come as a surprise to some. However, the country is home to 1,300 lakes, 900 natural rivers and streams and accounts for about 60% of Central Asias water resources.

Thousands of representatives from the public and private sector and civil society convened in New York to accelerate progress both inside the UN Headquarters and outside through a programme of side events. The main outcome of the conference was the adoption of the Water Action Agenda, a list of voluntary commitments, pledges and actions to meet global water targets and goals, including SDG 6.

The acceleration of water and sanitation development has great relevance for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). According to the Stimson Center, water availability in the region is 1,200 cubic metres (m3) per person, far below the global average of 7,000 m3. Water scarcity is expected to increase in the coming decades due to climate change and desertification. Some 66 million people in the region lack basic sanitation. Improving water and sanitation services in the MENA region was discussed in several sessions. We present the highlights below.

From UN Water Conference to COP28: Accelerating Water and Climate Action

The MENA region is hosting the worlds biggest climate conference two years in a row. In 2022, Egypt held the presidency of COP27, and in 2023 it is the turn of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE COP28 presidency organized this session in the UN Headquarters to facilitate a conversation on the link between water and climate.

The session was moderated by Jaime de Bourbon de Parme, the climate envoy of the Netherlands, and the panel included Mariam al-Muhairi, the Emirati minister of climate change and environment, Hani Sewilam, the Egyptian minister for water resources and irrigation, and ministers from the Netherlands and Tajikistan.

In her opening statement, Al-Muhairi noted that discussions about water are becoming increasingly prominent. Previously, water was the most underexposed element in the water-energy-food (WEF) nexus, she said, but this is changing. She gave as an example the water-themed day that Egypt initiated at COP27. The COP28 presidency will expand on this through the first global stocktake of water, which will conclude at COP28. The minister ended by calling for water to be used as an underlier for cooperation to create a snowball effect of opportunities within the wider WEF nexus.

Hani Sewilam stated that Egypt has worked on international water cooperation for years, starting with the Cairo Water Week in 2019 and leading up to the initiative for a water day at COP27. That conference was also the first time water was mentioned in the closing statement. He said he is excited to see more initiatives in the build-up to COP28.

The speeches by the panel members were followed by remarks from representatives of different water and climate organizations. An overarching theme was the importance of nature-based solutions and the representation of marginalized groups, such as youth and Indigenous peoples.

From UN Water Conference to COP28
Photo 2: The main panel at the session ‘From UN Water Conference to COP28’, which aimed to accelerate water and climate action. Source: Jakob Ollivier de Leth

The Future of Water Security in the Middle East and North Africa

This session was convened on World Water Day on 22 March at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. It brought together two of the institutes senior fellows, Mohammed Mahmoud and Mimette Mabrouk, and a John Hopkins University lecturer, Lama El Hatow, to discuss the state of water resources in the region and the necessary developments to alleviate the situation.

A range of challenges were presented: the region is water scarce, and the two main river systems, the Nile and the Tigris/Euphrates, are drying up which will lead to transboundary supply issues. Simultaneously, there are many demand issues resulting from increased water use for agricultural, industrial and domestic purposes. The third issue is water conveyance, or the state of the infrastructure. This is already dire and will need additional maintenance due to climate change. The last challenge is water quality, which is also expected to worsen due to climate change and may lead to regionwide outbreaks of illnesses.

The issue of intersectoral competition was also addressed. The biggest water user in the region is the agricultural sector, and land and water grabs by companies and governments are becoming increasingly common. The situation in the industrial sector is also complex because many (foreign) companies have been able to operate for a long time largely free of regulations and checks. As governments support economic development, water in the MENA region is often subsidized, a benefit that discourages water conservation and is no longer viable.

The speakers mentioned that a complete overhaul of the existing systems seems neither realistic nor desirable. Water is traditionally in the public domain in the region, and therefore governments should look for private partners, who are more capable of developing the water sector and implementing innovations. Either way, the panelists agreed that the window to address the challenges in the MENA region is rapidly closing.

A recording of the session is available here.

SDG 6 - UN 2023 Water Conference
Photo 3: Ministers from Arab states and high-level officials from national and multinational organizations during a session on the importance of SDG 6 within the Palestinian context. Source: Jakob Ollivier de Leth

The Importance of SDG 6 within the Palestinian Context

During this event, the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) presented the state of water resources in Palestine and the bilateral initiatives with other Arab states. Moderator Ziad Khayat was joined by ministers from Arab states and high-level officials from national and multinational organizations.

Mazen Ghunaim, the head of the PWA and Palestinian minister of water resources, opened the session. He remarked that Israels occupation of the Palestinian Territories is not only evident above ground but below ground too, as Israel controls 85% of Palestinian aquifers and groundwater resources. Israel does this, he said, to sell water back to the Palestinians at a much higher price and use it as a political tool for extortion.

To prevent catastrophe, especially in Gaza, Ghunaim concluded immediate action is needed. New water treatments and desalination plants should be constructed immediately, and widespread reform is needed. However, the Israeli occupation will make this impossible, he said. He gave as an example how the Israeli government blocked the import of wind turbines needed to run Palestinian water facilities in Tubas and Jenin. He named it “the Palestinian water reality”. He finalized by calling for Israel to respect international law and agreements and to continue the much-appreciated cooperation with other Arab states and the Arab league.

Nizar Baraka, the Moroccan minister for equipment and water, steered clear of the topic of Israel and the occupation, focusing instead on his governments efforts to help the Palestinians achieve SDG 6. Morocco and Palestine have been working together since 2015, when the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding containing shared initiatives for rainwater harvesting, capacity development and technical support.

A recording of the session (from 44 minutes onwards) is available here.

Water at the Intersection of Science and Diplomacy

The keynote speech at this event hosted at the Turkish consulate was given by Yusuf Baran, president of the Izmir Institute of Technology. Baran called for more emphasis on scientific diplomacy and its potential to tackle the worlds greatest challenges due to its frequent location outside the more complex and sensitive political and diplomatic arenas.

His speech was followed by a panel discussion consisting of Turkish and international scholars and the Turkish official of the transboundary water cooperation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Simla Yasemin Özkaya. She said that Turkey will always take note of its riparian neighbours, both downstream and upstream. She added that Turkey shares reliable data and called for the other riparians to do the same.

Global Facility for Transboundary Waters Cooperation

Gidon Bromberg, the director of EcoPeace Middle East, joined several river basin initiative directors on a panel organized by the World Bank on transboundary cooperation. When asked about the opportunities he had seen emerge from conflict situations, Bromberg mentioned his organizations mediation in the construction of a water treatment plant in the Gaza Strip. After EcoPeace emphasized the mutual benefits of the plant, Israel eventually forwent its security concerns. The construction of this and subsequent treatment plants has led to cleaner beaches along the coasts of both Gaza and Israel and serves as an inspiration for his own work and others, Bromberg said.

The presentation can be viewed here.

Outside the political arena

The MENA region featured in several ways during the conference, both inside and outside of the political context. An example of the latter was the #EverydayNile photo project, which was displayed at the UN Headquarters and in a newspaper form. The project documents everyday water stories from the Nile River Basin and aims to promote cooperation and understanding of the water issues around the basin.

Throughout the conference, young professionals and water leaders from the region let their voices be heard. The Jordanian architect Samah Iqtash was part of the winning team for Wetskills, a two-week, multinational contest focused on finding solutions for specific case studies.

#EverydayNile project
Photo 4: One of the photos of the #EverydayNile project. Source: Jakob Ollivier de Leth

The judges commended her groups idea for a nature-based systems approach to water supply as being innovative and highly adaptable. Iqtash also joined Ayman Kassem of Yarmouk Water Company and the Palestinian Water Authoritys Loay Alatrash on a young professionals panel during the Water, Heritage and Youth Dialogue at Columbia University.

In addition, the World’s Youth for Climate Justice movement played a key role in garnering sufficient support from UN Member States to call for an advisory opinion on climate change from the UNs highest judicial body, the International Court of Justice. Such an opinion would clarify how existing international laws can be applied to strengthen action on climate change and protect people and the environment. The call was initiated by the Pacific Island state of Vanuatu, which is on the frontlines of the climate crisis, with the help of Morocco and others.

Furthermore, the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) and the consulting service MetaMeta presented their research on water productivity developments in the Middle East. Among other things, they mapped the distinct factors contributing to insufficient water management and concluded that the added value of water in the selected IsDB member countries is almost half of that in the rest of the world ($19 per m3 vs. $10.1 per m3).

Ensuring talk becomes action

As the first UN Water Conference in almost 50 years, much needed to be said, done and agreed upon. The conference yielded close to 700 commitments in the form of the Water Action Agenda, which translates into $300 billion in pledges and the creation of a new scientific panel on water. MENA region countries are partners or targets in several of these commitments. However, monitoring is weak and none of the commitments are binding.

With COP28 and the 2024 World Water Forum in Bali, Indonesia already on the horizon, continuous pressure is needed to hold those in charge accountable and ensure talk really does become action.

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written by
Mohammed Abdullatif
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