By Dr. Ismahane Elouafi
Water can be classified as the single most critical natural resource; it is a basic human need without which there is no life. It is an input to almost all production, in agriculture, industry, energy, transport, by healthy people in healthy ecosystems.
Today, the world is facing an ever-growing scarcity of fresh water. With the steady growth in the global population, changes in living standards and dietary preferences, coupled with the accelerating climate change (CC), experts predict that water shortages will exacerbate in the coming years and decades. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks experts’ rated Water supply crisis, as one of the world’s greatest risks in terms of both impact and likelihood for two years (in 2012 and 2013) consecutively. Indeed, water scarcity already affects every continent, as around 1.2 billion people live in areas of physical scarcity and another 1.6 billion people face economic water shortage (due to the lack of necessary infrastructure).
By 2050, the world population is expected to hit 9 billion. Most urban cities will expand and require more fresh water resources to meet their basic human and public health needs, plus their demand for water-intensive energy, will also double. Demand for food, the world’s largest water user, will grow drastically, requiring even more water. This will have dire impacts on agriculture and world food supply, public health, economic development, energy generation and the sustenance of many.
When we zoom on the Muslim world, the situation is not much different from the global lenses. That’s why at the conference of Islamic environment ministers in 2010; water shortage was highlighted as one of the most pressing environmental issue facing the region. Certainly, the challenge of balancing water demand against supply, is enormous for most of the Muslim countries, namely those in arid, semi-arid and hyper-arid zones such as countries in the MENA region.
For over 15 years now, the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) has conducted several Scientific and Policy research workshops, on water scarcity issues and on alternative solutions to ease up the pressure on scare water resources. Such solutions are geared towards exploring alternative water resources, particularly for the agriculture sector, that uses more than 80% of total water in most of the Muslim countries. These Non-conventional waters such as salty, brackish, recycled and treated water, offer opportunities to alleviate this pressure and to develop marginal environments into prosperous communities.
In 2012, ICBA, in collaboration with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), developed the OIC Water Vision “working together for a water secure future”, to foster collaboration and cooperation on water in the Islamic world. The OIC Water Vision responds to the challenge of securing reliable access to water for health, livelihoods and production, and managing risks related to water associated with population growth, depletion of resources, environmental degradation and climate change. Close collaboration with major stakeholders, mainly the ministries responsible for water and key Islamic organizations, has ensured that the vision is culturally and politically appropriate, as a framework for developing water policy and management in all 57 countries.
From a national perspective, ICBA has been a strong partner with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in development of water policies.
Through the UAE “Water Conservation Strategy”, ICBA researchers identified basic initiatives to manage water resources sustainably, in order to conserve water resources from exploitation and pollution. Based on an integrated approach that anticipates meeting future water demand from a mix of investment in new water infrastructure and efficiency improvements of existing water supplies (natural resources, desalination and reclaimed water), the Strategy identified the key questions, assumptions and areas of risk to future water development. The lack of renewable resources in the UAE, is the most challenging factor for sustainable water resources use and management. Thus, non-conventional waters are the only dependable water sources for sustainable economic development.
ICBA also joined forces with the Abu Dhabi Emirate to develop the “Abu Dhabi Water Master Plan”, the first comprehensive assessment of both natural and non-conventional water, in the Emirate. The research involved developing new data sets on aspects of water, such as, the environmental and economic costs which are crucial to support decision-makers. Understanding the environmental implications and developing the legal and regulatory framework, were key components of the study. Water policy reforms were recommended to ensure the sustainable management of water resources. Afterwards, the Abu Dhabi Water Council (ADWC) was established to monitor and coordinate activities in the entire water sector, to support strategic planning and unify the standards and practices in the Emirate.
Among the non-conventional water sources, the treated wastewater (TWW) is receiving more attention as a reliable water resource. Undeniably, urban areas are expected to grow considerably, as by 2050, 70% of the global population will be living in cities. This coupled with further improvements to sanitation services, will result in a continuous increase in TWW supplies. ICBA considers TWW, if used safely, as a valuable source in the water balance of all countries suffering from water shortage. To this end, ICBA, in collaboration with several partners, including national programs and the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) and others, have been conducting research studies, capacity building programs, expert meetings and workshops in the Arab region, over the past five years. Extensive information and data have been produced and many lessons have been highlighted in the pilot countries; Jordan, Oman, Tunisia, and UAE. In 2014, ICBA in collaboration with the UAE Ministry of Environment and Water (MOEW) and ACSAD, organized an international conference on “The Use of Treated Wastewater in the agricultural production”. The conference stressed the need for a holistic approach that brings in all stakeholders and builds trust and ownership of the TWW as a valuable alternative source of water.
In addition to policy, ICBA also carries out fundamental research to support water availability and use efficiency. For instance, ICBA research recently demonstrated that using daily weather data as a tool for irrigation management could lead to 50% water
savings. ICBA researchers have also been part of collaborative research efforts aimed at making use of satellite observations, in situ data and integrated hydrologic models to generate water data sets, providing vital information to MENA decision-makers. For a number of years, ICBA research has targeted cultivation of halophytes (salt-loving plants) that remove salts from saline soils and water. Modern avenues, such as extraction of renewable bioenergy from these halophytic species is also being tested. Many new varieties of crops, particularly those using less water, higher yields, and are drought resistant, are being developed and tested across the Middle East and Central Asia.
ICBA recently launched a four year business plan (2013-16) with anticipated investments of USD $53 million hinging on 5 research and 4 enabling innovations. With the backing of its board and the partnership of other institutions, ICBA is well on its way to become a global centre for excellence seeking to address the challenges of water scarcity in the Islamic World.
Dr. Ismahane Elouafi holds a PhD in Genetics (Cordoba University, Spain) and is the Director General of International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA). The International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) is a not-for-profit, international center of excellence for research and development in marginal environments and works to address agricultural and water scarcity solutions. For further information, please visit http://www.biosaline.org/
*The images are courtesy ICBA