Water is at the core of every living thing and is often a blessing – yet its absence, excess availability or contamination, can be calamitous. So much so that a U.N. Human Development Report states that “Across much of the developing world unclean water is an immeasurably greater threat to human security than violent conflict". Hence the current global water crisis is mostly a (mis)management crisis.
Having an adequate water infrastructure is an important step towards water development and management. The UAE Suqia Water Aid initiative that was initiated by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE will provide needy countries with water pumps, water purification systems, and will help them dig water wells. These technologies cover water quantity and quality, and would undoubtedly provide welcome relief to Arabs and non-Arabs who don’t have access to clean water supplies.
An arid region
More than 85 percent of the Arab region is classified as arid and hyper arid where it receives an average annual rainfall of less than 250 millimeters/year (mm/y). Furthermore, precipitation across the Arab world varies greatly. The average annual precipitation in Egypt and the Gulf countries is around 18 mm/y, but in Lebanon it is 827 mm/year. About 60 percent of Arab countries fall under the “absolute scarcity” threshold of 500 cubic meters of renewable water per capita per year; this level drops 7, 19, 31, 85, 88 cubic meters per capita for Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, respectively. Desalination technologies and other technological interventions allowed the Gulf states to overcome their severe physical water scarcity.
Population growth in the Arab world is rather high especially in poorer countries such as Yemen and Sudan, and in wealthier ones such as those in the Gulf states where the massive influx of foreign workers drive most of that growth. Around 60 percent of the water in Arab countries originates beyond their border in non-Arab lands. What meager amounts of water exist in the Arab region are often mismanaged which aggravates the prevailing scarcity. Despite this, the region’s hydro-climatic challenges are not unique.
Although a lot of the world’s population has gained access to water and sanitation in recent decades, the number of people who depend on unimproved sources of drinking water has reached 748 million. Meaning, all these people get their freshwater from lakes, rivers, dams, or unprotected dug wells or springs to drink, cook, and to use for personal hygiene. Tragically, three children die every minute from preventable, water-related diseases.
An average person needs 20-50 liters of safe freshwater per day for drinking, cooking and cleaning. While a mere 2-4 liters per person are needed for drinking purposes, some 2,700 liters of water are required to produce food for one person. Given that it is recommended that each person should consume 2,700 calories a day, and that one calorie of food requires one liter of water to produce, it becomes evident that huge amounts of water are required to feed the world’s population.
The Suqia Initiative will make a contribution towards this challenge. It will provide freshwater to five million people around the world. Given the desperate need for water, this foreign aid initiative will lift people’s quality of life and is likely save lives.
The act of abstaining from worldly pleasures such as food and water during daylight hours unites all Muslims, humbles their souls, and makes them more spiritual as they bear the hardship of fasting. Unveiling the Suqia Initiative in time to coincide with the holy month of Ramada is strategic as it capitalizes on the extra generous disposition Muslims have during this fasting month. Although the initiative is only a few days old, it has been reported that a lot of people, as well as Emirati, Gulf, and multi-national corporations have donated substantial sums of money towards this water charity.
Rapid human development
A recent U.N. report states that the the population of the Arab countries has nearly tripled since 1970, climbing from 128 million to 359 million. The Arab region is expected to have 598 million inhabitants by 2050. In recent decades, population growth rate in Arab countries was so fast that the time it took for some country’s population to double in size was 22 years. In addition to this, the changing and improving quality of life of Arabs, especially in the Gulf States, converged to apply significant pressure on existing water resources.
The rising levels of human development, urbanization and education enhances people’s awareness about the importance of hygiene. Similarly, higher personal incomes result in greater consumption of protein. The average Arab consumes a lot more meat today than his grandparents did, and fast food restaurants, or burger joints in particular, have become popular attractions for many, especially for the youth. Protein is very water intensive as it takes 15,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of beef but only 1,500 liters to produce a kilogram of bread.
Like other Gulf States, the UAE has been taking measures to boost its water security, and these include outsourcing the farming of low-value crops such as wheat and barley. Recently, the firm al-Dahra Agriculture bought eight farming companies in Serbia for $400m, and has invested in an Indian rice producer. Given that its takes 1,000 tons of water to grow a ton of wheat, it is easier and cheaper for countries to import food than freshwater.
Furthermore, the farming sector has been undergoing some serious reforms. Some governments are expanding the coverage of efficient irrigation technologies such as drip irrigation, while others are retrofitting homes and business with efficient toilets, taps, and showerheads. Also, the Saudi government has effectively banned farmers from growing low-value yet water-intensive crops such as wheat and alfalfa, and the UAE government has stopped farmers from planting Rhodes grass in a bid to reduce the consumption of water.
While these initiatives are a marked step forward, charity is still heavily relied upon.
The name, Suqia, and the timing of this initiative invoke Islamic principles and frames the charitable effort in a cultural context that would resonate with anyone who has a humanitarian bent. Making this initiative a mainstream cause can help sensitize wealthier Arabs and Muslims to the needs of the less fortunate.
Al Arabiya News, the English language platform of the region’s leading news channel, is backing a UAE nationwide campaign to help prevent deaths globally via securing clean drinking water to more than five million people around the world. Here is how you can help.
Dr. Hussein A. Amery is the Associate Director of the Division of Liberal Arts and International Studies at the Colorado School of Mines. He joined the School in 1997 and has served as Associate Provost for Academic Affairs, Division Director, and as Director of its graduate program. His academic expertise is in water security in the Middle East (focus on the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council - GCC), indicators of increased risk of water wars in the Middle East, water management of transboundary water resources and the role of culture in water management - Islamic perspectives on nature, among other areas. Dr. Amery has served as consultant on desalination and other water issues to various branches of the American and Canadian governments, and to different engineering and development organizations. He has reviewed numerous funding proposals for different agencies in Canada, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the USA . including America’s National Science Foundation. He has also reviewed papers for journals that focus on water, the Middle East, and on development. In 2005, he was selected as Fellow by the International Water Association.