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Climate Change & Water Resources in the MENA Region Looking at Adaptive Governance

25 Sep 2017

Climate Change & Water Resources in the MENA Region Looking at Adaptive Governance

25 Sep 2017

A Global Problem in a Regional Context

Global climate change phenomena itself is less threatening than the sum of the spin-off consequences. It is the interactions between issues and events that amplifies threats. Issues such as extreme and costly weather events, droughts, heat waves, rising sea levels and ocean acidification all pose challenges to food and water security, energy, economies, transportation and critical infrastructure. Threats to security stem from the difficulty governments around the world have coping with disruption and responding. A key global climate change challenge is managing its effect on fresh water resources in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The 2010 Arab Human Development Report concluded that the MENA region is particularly vulnerable to climate stresses. The MENA region will experience reduced rainfall, more heat drying water sources, ground water depletion, considerably longer dry seasons, irregular and high intensity rainfall leading to high run-off and less ground infiltration. These impacts will be acute partly due to low incomes and poor institutional capacity, which limits the ability of states and societies to cope. Further, these states rely heavily on water-based industries for employment, such as agriculture.  Global climate change models coupled with hydrological data on worsening water quality and quantity in MENA states are the reasons why they are highly vulnerable to climate-induced impacts on water resources.

The MENA region is the world’s second poorest region and it is now experiencing the added pressure of rapid population growth and urbanization. Unemployment is rising among young people and informal sector employment is growing, which means more people are working in unregulated environments. Aside from the economic and water resource benefits of having a coastal strip, the MENA region is arid, its groundwater aquifers are over-extracted and contaminated.  Agricultural land is increasingly saline and urban water shortages are frequent. The MENA region hosts 14 of the globe’s  most water scarce states and compared to the global average, MENA states have less than 2 percent of the world’s renewable water supply. The World Bank projects that per capita water availability will be halved by 2050, suggesting most MENA states will not meet their future water demands. Agricultural water demand and supply patterns in a region that is expected to see interruption as a result of climate change. Already food security is declining, more people are undernourished and there is more reliance on food imports. All of these challenges undermine political stability. In general, climate change acts as a “threat multiplier” for vulnerable countries and populations.

Water scarcity undermines human health, economic development, but it has its most dangerous effect on food security for MENA states. The predominantly arid region relies on irrigation in its agricultural sectors and thus security in water and food are strongly connected. In most MENA states, the agricultural sector accounts for roughly 80% of water budgets, but reaches 90% and above for six countries in the region. In the MENA states, domestic use typically accounts for less than ten percent of a country’s water consumption so there is enough water despite growing populations if it can be diverted away from food production according to the World Bank, but this requires economic development allowing for increased food imports. The largely agricultural basis of employment in these states is a key change needed in the long-term and will require large investments in tertiary education, training schemes and skills diversification activities. Indeed, it is increasingly clear that climate change will interact with social, economic and political vulnerabilities in the MENA region and exacerbate them, fueling insecurity.

These diverse challenges require equally diverse solutions as the MENA region is complex. To address water and climate-related challenges, most MENA governments allocate resources to largescale supply side projects such as desalination, dam construction, inter-basin water transfers, tapping fossil groundwater aquifers and importing virtual water through food.[1] However, regional water experts as well as international institutions are suggesting governance responses must also manage water demand by improving water use efficiency and promoting conservation through political, economic and institutional tools. There have been sporadic attempts at integrated water resource management (IWRM) to promote cross-sectoral planning and ministerial coordination, public-private partnerships, user associations and even experiments with the privatization of water services.[2] Yet, in practice, MENA governments have not fundamentally shifted their focus away from resources on large-scale supply side projects, which is why vitally important groundwater aquifers are still being progressively depleted and new desalination plants constructed. Water and climate resilience is also undermined by an unwillingness to leverage social capital and engage with societal actors, cornerstones of adaptive water and climate governance approaches.[3] In the MENA region, adaptive governance strategies remain a low priority for the political leaderships. Thus, a key capacity to combat water scarcity and the climate-related impacts on the region’s water resources remains underdeveloped.

Adaptive Governance and Social Capital

Adaptive water governance means developing institutional and political capabilities to ensure adequate water supply and water quality against growing climate-related impacts and risks.[4]  One key element of adaptive governance is diversification of water management strategies.  Another key is drawing upon social capital, which ensures resilience through equitable access for vulnerable populations, including recognition of the gender differentiated impacts of risk. Adaptive strategies that stress social capital promote political mobilization around resource access and this leads to more equitable water access within societies. It also leads to women’s empowerment, integrated action on the linkages between water scarcity and other sectoral issues as well as greater sustainability. But, MENA governments and regional water experts are reluctant to genuinely engage in the adaptive governance strategy and cooperate with societal actors to help manage water risks and there are several reasons for this reticence.

Legacies of centralized systems of planning, taxation and revenue distribution have rendered multi-level governance mechanisms weak. These weaknesses impact communication networks, budgeting, organizational capacities and integration with other constituencies such as cities, provinces and other subnational levels of government.[5] These stakeholders are not powerful actors when it comes to identifying vulnerable populations or planning for increased hydrological risk. For instance, in the MENA region as a whole, population growth and agricultural practices are understood as water scarcity drivers although the state’s responses have been largely to allocate ever greater resources to gain more supply through water diversions, desalination and groundwater extraction. This has the effect of giving privileged users (in cities or large agricultural operations) more water, often used inefficiently while poor, marginalized communities often pay for water from private providers at rates far higher than those of publicly supplied consumers.[6] Engagement with these communities, and focus on water demand rather than supply, would allow for practices that will be equitable and sustainable.

Social capital is difficult to mobilize in the MENA region.  The effect of the region’s political landscape is that key capacities for adaptive governance to water scarcity are not encouraged and states remain largely reliant upon technical and supply-side solutions.  In an effort toward understanding how to move toward adaptive governance approaches in order to minimize the effects of water resource stresses, it will be helpful for people, institutions and organizations supporting MENA governments to adopt a more interdisciplinary approach to promoting water security and climate resilience in the region. Adopting an integrated approach offers the prospect of deepening understanding of barriers that are inhibiting the establishment of new practice and this has policy relevance. Informative views can be gained by looking through different lenses such as history, political science, psychology, religion and sociology. Doing this does not subtract from any existing social, political, economic or cultural realities, but offers a means to deal with interconnected, sensitive issues that are difficult to overcome.

The Nexus Regional Dialogues, an example of an ongoing effort to promote improved management of water resources in the MENA region, shows how a ‘one size fits all’ approach fails to prioritize the importance of the ‘local context’ where ideas are to be translated into concrete policy. The Dialogue initiative, which includes five policy-level inter-governmental dialogues is funded by the European Union (EU) and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (GIZ). The MENA states were selected as a Dialogue area to help MENA governments learn how to use the Nexus approach to foster water security in the region. The NEXUS approach is the current international consensus on how to address water security and climate change issues by looking at the complex interplay between food-water-energy sectors and taking a developmental approach to integrating them. The reason the MENA region was selected as a targeted place for action is a result of it being water scarce, food deficient, energy intensive and highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The League of Arab States (LAS) is the political partner of the EU and GIZ for the Dialogue Program and the task for the LAS is to engage members of the Arab Ministerial Water Council (AMWC), Arab Ministerial Council on Electricity (AMCE) and Council of Arab Ministers Responsible for the Environment (CAMRE) on the regional level and conduct Nexus activities. These are designed to demonstrate how to integrate efforts and the LAS is tasked with leading the ministries and Ministers. Aside from more regional cooperation, the aim is for the LAS to get Ministers to implement more integrated activities inside their own countries across water, economic, environmental and educational ministries.

This initiative is laudable indeed, but appears to discount the complexity of the domestic institutional cultures of the MENA states that make this sort of ideal ministerial communication and departmental cooperation far more challenging in practice. Thus, by adopting a more holistic, interdisciplinary approach it is possible to determine that the MENA institutional environment, where water and climate policy action is targeted, may require more flexible, holistic approaches and a long-term view. An interdisciplinary understanding of what prevents change and what supports it in the MENA context is missing from the Nexus Dialogue initiative. Furthermore, if the task of addressing water and climate vulnerability is approached with the idea that steps are needed to prepare the region for change (before efforts to achieve it start) then work can begin on seeking to understand how some new forms of brokering between power centers and individuals can emerge to modify practice in a positive way.[7] Lastly, adopting an interdisciplinary view of the region will allow for the complex institutional challenges in the MENA states to be better understood. When a holistic view is taken on the barriers that make it difficult to implement adaptive governance strategies and Nexus policy on water and climate, areas where greater capacity can be established become visible. This then can be translated into technical assistance, fiscal incentives and political advocacy that is politically acceptable.[8]

A pillar of successfully employing adaptive governance strategies, particularly the need to create social capital and then leverage it (in the case MENA case), implies a capacity for governance broadly speaking. One further way to advance adaptive governance is to come to terms with what governance means and contribute to its indigenous creation in the MENA. Cecilia Tortajada captures the fullness of the concept of governance that MENA needs very well. She says:

“Governance is a cross-sectoral processes (frames, discourses, politics, multiple types of actors involved) and institutions. It is a complex process that considers multi-level participation beyond the state, where decision-making includes not only public institutions, but also private sector, civil society and the society in general. It embraces the relationships between governments and societies, including laws, regulations, institutions, and formal and informal interactions which affect all the ways in which governance systems function stressing the importance of involving more voices, responsibility, transparency and accountability of formal and informal organizations in the process.”[9]

Work on improving governance to facilitate progress on water and climate policy has already begun. For instance, the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) launched a Governance Program initiative in 2005 for the MENA states. Initially it focused on reforms such as increasing economic openness, diversifying the economies and developing greater private sector development. These areas where selected to promote improvements in governance by focusing on public and corporate governance, decentralization, transparency, integrity, small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and entrepreneurship, to list a few priority areas. These efforts did attract economic growth, but the 2016 OECED report called The Middle East and North Africa and the OECD: a mutually beneficial partnership highlighted the need to continue the governance reform process and address broader structural economic and social issues relevant to it. Adaptive governance will be enhanced if wide-ranging governance reforms are carried out to create more inclusive and sustainable development models including the participation of young people and women. Incorporating women and youth will help to create important social capital and make the governance process more participatory. In the same way, the MENA-OECD partnership aims to achieve more general participation of non-governmental voices and private sector representatives as well to contribute to policy design, peer learning and capacity building particularly at the country level.

To promote progress on governance in terms of water security, the OECD holds policy dialogues such as the OECD Water Governance Initiative (WGI) to identify the key governance challenges to private sector participation in the MENA state’s water supply and wastewater sectors. It encourages reforms, best practice and offers assistance addressing governance challenges.  For example, the OECD has developed Principles on Water Governance, a set of standards for more effective, efficient and inclusive design and implementation of water policies. The OECD offers to help governments putting them into action. With renewed mandate for 2016-2020, MENA-OECD cooperation will continue to identify and customize activities that are compatible with the development priorities of the region. This is a good example of an interdisciplinary, holistic approach that is leading to tangible outcomes on water in the MENA region by looking beyond water sector itself to the areas where capacity is needed to work on water. The interdisciplinary efforts focus on establishing the capacities in diverse areas, bridge gaps and provide support where needed. This will ultimately underwrite the MENA state’s sustainable progress and action on water in the future. The strategy is more developmental than just communicating policy priorities, it focuses on building inclusive, adaptive governance as a means to generate more capacity for the transformations needed to meet the water policy priorities with tangible action.


Projections for future renewable water resources in the MENA are bleak. Climate change coupled with increasing water demands is likely to amplify the water crisis in the MENA region. With such a severe outlook, it is logical to ask ‘why has change been so slow?’ There are a few reasons. One reason why MENA states delay making water reforms, like reducing subsidies that lead to inefficient water use, is because they are politically difficult. Additionally, the interdependence among issues makes tackling issues in isolation difficult. For instance, some of the most important factors affecting water outcomes lay outside the areas of traditional irrigation, water supply or environmental agencies. Influences such as trade, energy pricing, real estate, tourism and credit have a direct impact on farmers’ decisions about what to grow and how to irrigate, for instance. Investment decisions about commercial development or new hotels impact water planning. In short, if policies outside the water sector do not incentivize farmers and business leaders to use water well than it is unrealistic to think water challenges will be addresses through water sector reforms alone. Water management is not just a sectoral issue. In the MENA region, water management is a shared development challenge, one that requires attention from a range of perspectives.

The MENA states have made some major advances. For example, there is evidence of better alignment of  internal processes to achieve water use efficiency and for fostering greater resilience to water shortage by improving land management and modifying agricultural practices. However, viewed in the aggregate better management is still needed. It is important to state that a sluggish response to needed water reforms is not only found in the MENA region, it is very much a global problem. However, for MENA states inaction is not an option. This is why laying some groundwork to enable adaptive governance strategies to work is important. Adaptive governance has strong contributions to make toward decreasing urban/rural water competition, addressing the lack of regional integration and inconsistent management of shared waters, promoting the enforcement of laws and regulations, strengthening national institutional frameworks, clarifying ambiguous water rights and allocation, establishing clear lines of responsibility, incentivizing stakeholder involvement and strengthening technical capabilities and expertise (GIS, mapping, data gathering, etc.) as well as  getting more infrastructure investment. Work on the supply and demand side of water management must also be done simultaneously. Recent water sector reforms like some decentralization, efforts at IWRM and stakeholder engagement are a start, but they do not meet the scale of the challenge.

In closing, the unchangeable fact is that MENA region is one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to the adverse impacts of climate change and long‐term dwindling ground water supplies.[10]  Thus, the MENA leaders are going to have to deal with uncertain climate conditions and water scarcity, but also confront internal challenges and succeed despite them. To foster greater resilience from the effects of water scarcity and climate change, adaptive governance approaches that focus on participation, inclusion and cooperation offer opportunity to build upon past efforts and provide a direction for ongoing and future work.

[1] Sowers, Jeannie, Avner Vengosh, and Erika Weinthal. 2010. “Climate Change, Water Resources, and the Politics of Adaptation in the Middle East and North Africa”. Climatic Change 104 (3-4): 599-627.

[2] Sowers, et. al, p.600.

[3] Pelling, Mark, and Chris High. 2005. “Understanding Adaptation: What Can Social Capital Offer Assessments of Adaptive Capacity?”. Global Environmental Change 15 (4): 308-319; Adger, W. Neil. 2009. “Social Capital, Collective Action, and Adaptation to Climate Change”. Economic Geography 79 (4): 387-404.

[4] Nelson, Donald R., W. Neil Adger, and Katrina Brown. 2007. “Adaptation to Environmental Change: Contributions Of A Resilience Framework”. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 32 (1): 395-419.

[5] Sowers, et. al, p.601.

[6] Sowers, et. al, p. 601; Trottier J. 2000 Water and the challenge of Palestinian institution building. Journal of Palestinian Studies 29(2):35–50

[7] Porter, Doug, and Michael Watts. 2017. Multi-Scalar Governance and Institutions: Intentional Development and The Conditions of Possibility in the Extractive Sector. Background Paper for World Development Report 2017 Governance and The Law. World Bank.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Tortajada, C. 2007. “Water Management in Singapore”. Ethos Centre for Governance and Leadership, p.2.

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