Managing drought in the MENA region: how prepared are we?

drought

Source: Huffington Post

On Monday the 20th of October, the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs hosted a panel discussion titled “Drought Policy, Governance, and Management Systems in the MENA Region.” The panel consisted of three speakers:

  • Fidele Byiringiro, Economics Affairs Officer, Sustainable Development and Productivity Division – ESCWA
  • Manfred Lange, Director, the Energy, Environment, and Water Research Center – Cyprus Institute
  • Nadim Farajalla, Program Research Director, IFI’s Climate Change and Environment in the Arab World Program and Associate Professor, Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences – American University of Beirut

Mr. Fidel Byiringiro opened the panel with a presentation on the institutional aspects of drought policy demonstrating that the majority of the countries in the MENA region severely lack the institutional arrangement to manage drought. According to Mr. Byiringiro, the essentials for drought preparedness are the following:

  • An institutional unit that solely deals with drought
  • A standard management approach
  • Monitoring and early warning systems
  • Data collection on a national level
  • A database for drought data
  • Drought projections
  • A mitigation plan

The only countries in the MENA region that have initiated some of these measures mentioned are Morocco and Tunisia. Mr. Byiringiro explained that these two countries have adopted a proactive approach while the rest of the region’s drought policy is reactive.

The second speaker, Dr. Manfred Lange, presented Cyprus’s drought policy which the country needed to adopt in order to join the EU. Cyprus is considered better equipped to manage drought than most of the MENA countries. The country has a central water governing body and has implemented a national drought management plan. In addition, Cyprus has invested heavily in major infrastructure that help the country combat droughts, such as dams, wastewater treatment plants and desalination plants. Climate and other related information is continuously collected to calculate indices that help formulate policy. These indices are mainly based on the standardized precipitation index (SPI):

  • Wet Period Runoff Index
  • Hydrologic Years Runoff Index
  • Dams Storage Capacity Index

The final speaker, Dr. Nadim Farajalla, discussed Lebanon and its drought policy. According to Dr. Farajalla, the only real achievement in the country has been the development of a national water sector strategy. The major problems in Lebanon’s drought and water policy are:

  • Political bickering
  • Major focus on post drought actions
  • Lack of awareness at all levels of government
  • Lack of coordination amongst ministers
  • Lack of a drought management plan
  • Lack of water data

The general consensus in the panel was that the MENA region needs to do much more to combat drought and improve preparedness. In Lebanon, the water shortage is being felt and is only expected to worsen in the future. Arab citizens will face very high costs to overcome water scarcity. By 2020, 76 million people in the Arab region will have limited access to safe drinking water according to a UNDP report  published in 2013. The population will need to rely on other sources such as private vendors and water harvesting to offset the shortage. The estimated cost of water purchase from vendors, including bottled water, for 2010-2020 in a sample of 12 Arab countries is about $29 billion for the entire period. The figure for the entire MENA region will probably be much higher.

Another issue that has not received as much attention as water quantity during the recent drought episode in Lebanon is water quality. Since the early 1990s the government and international organizations have executed several water quality programs without any tangible improvements. Seawater has infiltrated groundwater resources while old sewage networks that have not been upgraded for decades are leading to underground pollution. The lack of programs to monitor groundwater resources is exacerbating the situation as many private water vendors and farmers obtain their water from these resources. This problem is not faced by Lebanon but by the entire region. The UNDP report cited above estimates the cost of diarrheal illness in the MENA region at about $ 9 billion. The most alarming figure of this report is the estimated almost 1 million deaths caused by lack of water and sanitation during the period 2010 to 2020.

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