Much like money spent from an overdrawn bank account, water in the region is being withdrawn faster than it can be replenished, meaning MENA countries are essentially “living beyond their means.”
Confronting ‘absolute water scarcity’
Countries suffer from absolute water scarcity when their annual water supply from natural sources drops below 500 cubic meters per person to satisfy household, agricultural and industrial needs.
As a result, some countries are consuming much more water than they can sustain.
Unsustainable water use occurs in areas where water is taken from rivers and underground layers of rock saturated with water, known as aquifers, at a rate faster than it is replenished by rain, according to the World Bank report.
“When you draw down more water than is replenished, then you begin to degrade the aquifer itself,” Claudia Sadoff, director general of the International Water Management Institute, tells CNN.
“You harm the ecosystems that are dependent, and you disrupt economic production and household welfare.”
However, degradation is not irreversible, explains Sadoff, one of the lead authors of the World Bank report.
“It’s possible that after a year of very strong rains, those aquifers could be restored,” she says.
According to the World Bank, unsustainable use of groundwater occurs across the Arabian Peninsula, the Maghreb and in Iran. But some countries in the Middle East and North Africa have become incredibly resourceful in producing their own water.
Removing salt from the sea
Desalination is practiced in 150 countries worldwide and the International Desalination Association (IDA) estimates that more than 300 million people around the world depend on desalinated water for some or all of their daily needs.
Secretary General of the IDA, Shannon McCarthy, says she is optimistic that renewable energy will make the process both cheaper and cleaner.
Buying their way out of the water crisis
The greatest amount of desalinated water is produced in the Gulf region, where some countries are 90% reliant on desalinated water for domestic use, explains McCarthy.
“These countries have a high dependence on desalination because there is not really an alternative,” she adds.
However, these kinds of nonconventional water supplies can be expensive to implement, making them less common in poorer countries.
According to Sadoff, there are cheaper alternatives for producing water.
“Other technologies short of desalination, like wastewater treatment, groundwater recharge, the capture of rainwater and storm water to recharge aquifers, aren’t necessarily particularly expensive,” she says.
However, poorer territories like Yemen, Libya, the West Bank and Gaza still largely rely on groundwater resources, in lieu of producing their own water. It is these places that pay the highest price for inadequate water supply and sanitation.
The World Bank report found that inadequate supply of water and sanitation costs the MENA region approximately $21 billion per year in economic losses.
That includes healthcare costs, lost productive time due to being sick, and premature mortality.
If things continue “business as usual,” 60% of the MENA region will face high to extremely high water stress by 2040, according to World Bank estimates. By 2050, the World Bank says climate-related water scarcity will cost the region 6 to 14% of its GDP.
For Sadoff, there are three clear strategies to enhance limited water supplies.
“You can become more efficient with the water that you use, you can use water for different things than you’re using it for now, and the third way is to make more water, to create these nonconventional water resources,” she says.
As water grows ever more scarce, all three strategies may be key to securing water for future generations.
Graphics created by Gabrielle Smith, animated by Natalie Leung, CNN.