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Monthly Archives: December 2021

Ethiopia and the Broader MENA Water Crisis


Underdevelopment dominates the Middle East and North African region. In 2020, the gravest issues faced by the MENA region were conflicts over water and poor water infrastructure.

Lake Urmia is a government-protected wetland in Iran. At its peak, the lake was 1,930 square miles, and it was a primary tourism destination. In 2015, the lake shrank to only 5% of that. While the lake is back to half of its historical volume, the area around it that once pulsed with life is now barren. Water is the stimulant for all life.

Of the 15 most water-stressed countries, 12 are in the MENA region. Pollution and climate change have increased the water stress in the region. Water stress raises tensions between countries, even to the point of conflict. Many MENA countries get their water from shared resources, like rivers. Water tension has caused several conflicts.

The War Over Water saw several altercations between Israel and Arab countries over access to the Jordan River. In July 1953, Israel started building an intake for its National Water Carrier in a demilitarized zone north of the Sea of Galilee. Arab countries fought the construction, Syria going so far as to open fire on the construction site.

An Arab League summit in 1964 concluded that “Since the existence of Israel is a danger that threatens the Arab nation, the diversion of the Jordan waters by it multiplies the dangers to Arab existence.” Arab states proceeded to fight the Israeli project in every way they could. The War Over Water is one of the main factors that caused the Six-Day War.

Although this was 70 years ago, the same fears are occurring in countries today. Egypt is facing a similar dilemma. Ethiopia began construction of the $4.7 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or the GERD, in 2011. Recently, Ethiopia finished filling the dam reservoir and announced that the plant might start generating power soon.

The dam has been the source of controversy between Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia for a decade. Sudan and Egypt both depend on the Nile as a water source and have raised concerns with Ethiopia about water scarcity during droughts due to GERD.

In 2014, the three countries formed the Tripartite National Committee to research the effects of the dam. The Committee never conducted studies that concluded. In 2015, the countries signed the declaration of principles, agreeing to follow international law and work together to reach a solution. The group did not find any conclusions, and talks between the three countries resumed.

In 2020, tensions thickened when Ethiopia refused to sign an agreement already accepted by Egypt, claiming that the US and the World Bank unfairly sided with Egypt and overstepped their roles. In July, Ethiopia began filling the reservoir without reaching an agreement.

Although Egypt has stated it would be willing to go to war over the GERD, no physical violence has erupted yet. Issues arise after the conflict of water, harming people. Although the solutions to water stress are not simple, they are clear.

Bettering water infrastructure is the most immediate way to lighten water stress worries. This year in Utah, farmers facing droughts prepared for the lack of water by using soil moisture sensors, removing weeds from crop rows, and following a strict watering schedule.

MENA governments need to incentivize farmers to use less water. Days are hot in the MENA region, and daytime watering increases the amount of water lost to evaporation. The governments could provide a soil moisture sensor to every large farm.

Even harsher policies could be considered, like limiting the amount of water provided to each farm. As evidenced earlier, water is a point of contention. Governments do not want to anger their constituents, and limiting water use too intensely is an easy way to do that. Allotted water would need to be lowered slightly every year over a series of years to give farms a chance to adapt to the smaller amount of water.

Governments can reduce water consumption by planting native and drought-tolerant plants in all green areas. Although the lush green cities are gorgeous, they are not practical in the desert. The safety and health of citizens are far more important than the appearance of cities.

Policies regulating agriculture will have the most profound impact on water waste reduction, but governments can do more by educating citizens. Governments can launch campaigns throughout the MENA world to teach people how to use less water. MENA governments can encourage residents to apply these solutions in their homes, not just in the agricultural sector.

After actively working to reduce water waste, countries need to prepare for droughts to get worse. Governments can hire experts to research ways to prepare for droughts. The reality of water in the MENA region is a grim one, but the situation is not hopeless. Governments have the power to greatly improve water infrastructure, implement good policies, and encourage good habits. If governments quickly jump to the task, water stress will be mitigated.