Water scarcity can lead to population migration to the Middle East

The MENA region is arguably the most water-poor in the world, and the region is home to 11 of the 17 most water-stressed countries.
Image Credit: Gulf News

Particular attention is paid to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region when discussing the global water scarcity situation or the global migration crisis. However, there is a very sporadic attempt to analyze the link between these two phenomena in the context of the MENA region.

The correlation between water deficit and what moves people in the region cannot be ignored for long. A recent World Bank report finds that water scarcity contributed 10% of the increase in global migration.

The MENA region is arguably the most water-poor in the world, and the region is home to 11 of the 17 most water-stressed countries. Almost two-thirds of the population in this part of the world already lack the freshwater resources necessary to support current economic activities. As the population increases, per capita water availability is expected to decline by 50% by 2050.

The MENA region has become one of the hotspots of climate change in the world, as climate models predict the region to warm 20% above the global average. Climate change has already resulted in 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 water scarcity induced by climate change.

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In addition, many countries also suffer from political instability, weak governance and growing socio-economic and ethnic divisions. With the exception of the Gulf countries and Israel, others do not even have enough economic and technological resources to adequately cope with climate risks, in particular the great uncertainty over water availability.

The population of the MENA region is growing rapidly and is expected to double by 2050. Urbanization is also happening at a much faster pace in the region. The rapidly changing demographics of the region also require agricultural expansion for increased food production.

However, the hot climate and increasing desertification are leading to a more unsustainable use of scarce freshwater in agriculture in the region. While the global average consumption of water for agriculture is 70%, it reaches almost 85% in the MENA region. Some countries like Iran, Iraq and Jordan pump large amounts of water from aquifers to increase their food production.

Global international migration stock

The MENA region is home to nearly 14% of the global stock of international migration. Desalination plants are a major supplier of water, especially to the Gulf countries of the region. With the help of nearly 70% of the world’s desalination plants, the rich Gulf countries are getting enough water for municipal use for their growing population.

Desalinated water, however, has consequences for health and the environment. Most of the rest of the MENA region does not have strategic planning to deal with the water crisis. The adoption of a rapid approach has exacerbated the water scarcity.

The conflicts and wars in the MENA region also add another dimension to the relationship between water scarcity and migration. Although the region has yet to experience a water war, there are many ongoing water disputes between countries over the sharing of rivers.

If signed, the water sharing agreements have not resulted in any active cooperation. On the other hand, wars cause significant population displacements and regularly destroy numerous water storage and supply infrastructures.

Even excluding the displaced Palestinian population, the MENA region has in recent years become a major producer of conflict-driven refugees. There are now approximately 7.6 million refugees of MENA origin. The region itself hosts 2.7 million, and in a country like Lebanon, one in four people is a refugee.

In addition to refugees fleeing their countries of origin, 12.4 million internally displaced people are also due to conflict. Massive forced population displacements continue to further complicate water insecurity in the region.

A person’s decision to migrate from one region or country to another is often complex. It would be too simplistic to conclude that people will start moving if water is scarce in an area. People usually struggle to survive in a situation of water scarcity for long periods of time before deciding to migrate.

Migration induced by water scarcity

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

Water insecurity is undoubtedly one of the main drivers of migration in the MENA region, but it is not easy to establish a direct causal link. Anders Jägerskog and I argued in a 2016 report produced by the Stockholm International Water Institute that in areas under water stress, water scarcity can be a significant contributing factor to migration, but not the only reason.

Of course, social, religious, ethnic, political, economic and demographic factors play their part. Yet it is somewhat futile to fully expose all of these complex causal links.

Undoubtedly, the increasing water scarcity in the MENA region contributes significantly to the increasing migration of its population. Concrete steps must be taken to ensure sustainable water security in the region.

Not only short-term measures to cope with the immediate situation of water scarcity, but also long-term planned policies to solve the structural problems of water management. Smart management of scarce water resources is the key to stopping the growing displacement of people in the region.

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