Middle East’s Water Scarcity Seen as Food Security Issue

Water scarcity is one of the most urgent food-security issues for countries in the Near East and North Africa, with fresh-water availability expected to fall 50 percent by 2050, the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization said.

Per-capita availability of fresh water has dropped by two-thirds in 40 years, the Rome-based United Nations agency wrote in an online report today. Farming and other agricultural activity consumes 85 percent of available rain-fed, irrigated and groundwater resources in the region, the FAO said.

The countries of North Africa are all net grain importers, with Egypt the biggest buyer of wheat, data from the International Grains Council show. Rising food prices in the past three years have contributed to riots and uprisings that led to regime change in three countries in the region.

“There is still much work to be done to improve water efficiency in agriculture, protect water quality and address challenges related to climate change,” Abdessalam Ould Ahmed, an assistant director-general at the FAO, was cited as saying.

More than 60 percent of water used by countries in the region comes from outside national and regional boundaries, according to the report. The FAO said it will hold a conference Feb. 24-28 to discuss a regional water scarcity plan.

Demographics are adding to the issue, with 11.2 percent of people in the region chronically undernourished in the 2010-13 period and the population growing at 2 percent, almost double the global pace, the FAO wrote.

Nile Dispute

Violence has been linked to food prices for decades in Egypt. Attempts in 1977 to end subsidies on flour and other basic foodstuffs prompted riots across the country that left more than 80 dead before the government of then-President Anwar Sadat scrapped the policies.

Egypt’s population of 84 million may expand by another 15 million in the next decade, U.S. Census Bureau estimates show. Based on the country’s average wheat consumption, that would imply Egypt needs an extra 2.7 million tons of the grain a year by 2022. The country increased its domestic crop fivefold since 1977.

Ethiopia in January rejected a proposal that would guarantee Egypt the right to most of the Nile River’s water. Egypt argues its 1959 agreement with Sudan that gave Egypt the rights to 55.5 billion cubic meters out of a total of 84 billion cubic meters is the governing document on the Nile’s water. The rest of the river’s flow was for Sudan or lost to evaporation. Ethiopia and other upstream nations reject the accord as they weren’t signatories.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rudy Ruitenberg in Paris at rruitenberg@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Claudia Carpenter at ccarpenter2@bloomberg.net

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