Ecosystem-based adaptation: an unseized opportunity to combat water insecurity in the Middle East

Hannah Marcus

An aerial view of some of the lush mangrove forests of the Red Sea (Farasan Islands, Saudi Arabia)

The climate crisis is exerting rising pressure on global water resources. According to the 2018 United Nations (UN) World Water Development Report, by 2050, 4.8–5.7 billion people will be living in water-insecure regions. With its naturally arid climate, the Middle East, alongside parts of North Africa, will be dealt the biggest blow. Fourteen of the projected 33 most water stressed countries in 2040 are in the Middle East, including nine that are considered extremely highly stressed with a score of 5/5: Bahrain, Kuwait, Palestine, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Lebanon.

A deeper look at the current situation concerning water resources in the Middle East reveals an even more ominous picture. Home to about 6 percent of the world’s population, the Middle East has just 1 percent of the world’s freshwater resources. Nearly two-thirds of the region’s population live in areas that lack sufficient renewable water resources, and over 60 percent live in areas with high surface water stress compared to the global average of about 35 percent. Meanwhile, nearly 70 percent of the Middle East’s economic activities are conducted in areas of high or very high water stress, more than three times the global average of 22 percent. Already the least water-secure in the world, the region will face exceptional water-related challenges in the years to come. With climate change further disrupting hydrological cycles, decreasing rainfall by an estimated 20 percent while sharply increasing surface water evaporation rates, devastating impacts will be felt in the cross-cutting domains of health, livelihood generation, and regional peace and security.

Indeed, this current crisis, and its projected intensification under climate change, is well acknowledged by governments, stakeholders, and civil society representatives engaged in the region. Still, the responses adopted to date have failed to adequately address the problem, or mitigate the risks of it critically worsening under projected climate scenarios. As the Middle East relies almost exclusively on groundwater supplies and desalination plants to meet country water demand, past strategies to combat water scarcity in the region have largely involved advancing desalination techniques and capabilities, more stringently regulating and monitoring groundwater extraction and aquifer recharge rates, increasing net imports of “virtual water”, and encouraging more cooperative transboundary water resource management in a geopolitically fraught environment. Climate-smart irrigation techniques have also featured heavily in national water resource management plans, given that agriculture consumes approximately 85% of the region’s water.

While each approach has its own merits (and costs, in the case of desalination which is known for its heavy environmental toll), none of these take advantage of what I argue to be an indispensable element of climate resiliency building in the 21st century — that is, ecosystem-based adaptation, or EbA. EbA is a strategy that harnesses nature-based solutions, biodiversity, and ecosystem services to increase resilience and reduce the vulnerability of human communities and natural systems to climate change. Divided into the four categories of provisioning, regulating, supporting, and cultural services, ecosystem services include all direct and indirect contributions of ecosystems to human well-being. By focusing on nature-based solutions, EbA co-delivers on human health, livelihood development, and environmental conservation goals, all whilst promoting greater adaptive capacity to future climate threats.

EbA has grown in profile and importance since it was officially defined by the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2009. The concept has been embraced by intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations across the globe, and EbA projects have proliferated, with over 150 initiatives identified globally in a 2015 mapping exercise. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) alone currently supports over 45 EbA projects globally which collectively aim to restore around 113,000 hectares of ecosystems while benefiting 2.5 million people. Accounting for local environmental degradation dynamics, these projects take many forms including reforestation, rangeland restoration, wetland conservation, and mangrove rehabilitation, among others. Yet of the over 150 initiatives identified globally in the 2015 mapping exercise, only 7 took place in the Middle East (2 in Jordan, 3 in Egypt, and 2 in the broader Middle East and North Africa region). Given the critical vulnerability of the Middle East to climate change, and specifically to climate-driven water insecurity, this finding suggests there is still much scope for expansion of EbA approaches in the region.

This then begs the question: which EbA approaches are most viable in the Middle East, and how can they most effectively respond to current challenges while leveraging locally available water resource assets? I argue that there is no one single answer to this question, but rather a myriad of strategies that hold promise.

Consider river basins. The Middle East is home to 3 of the world’s largest, namely the Tigris-Euphrates, Jordan, and Nile river basins. Once rich in fresh water supplies, their fertile banks were home to some of the world’s earliest civilizations. Unfortunately, overtime, their flows have been disrupted by damming projects and their water levels depleted through overexploitation, land use change, and excessive agricultural irrigation. While ongoing tensions continue to impede the development of a more coordinated transboundary river basin management framework for the region (a complex issue beyond the scope of this article), it is arguable that better protection and restoration of riparian zones (i.e. the strips of land directly parallel to streams representing the interface of surface and groundwater flow) would go a long way. Measures like maintaining a vegetative cover over the soil and the adoption of conservation farming practices by riverside communities could help drastically increase ground water retention while reducing surface water evaporation in the expansive regions paralleling these major rivers.

Another water resource asset that deserves more attention in the Middle East is wetlands. While notably more scarce than in other regions of the world, the Middle East, including North Africa, is still home to 223 wetland ecosystems. In addition to serving a breadth of other functions such as sediment regulation, pollutant filtration, and nutrient cycling, wetlands are natural buffers against droughts, as they store, purify, and replenish water, providing year round access for domestic and agricultural use. Wetland restoration is already a widely used EbA strategy in other parts of the world, and with its drought mitigation benefits, Middle Eastern countries with wetland resources would fare well by considering more widespread adoption of this practice.

Finally, considering the amount of coastline bordering many Middle Eastern countries, including approximately 1,200 miles along the Red Sea alone, restoration of coastal ecosystems warrants consideration as a measure to combat salinization of groundwater supplies- another threat to safe drinking water access in the region’s coastal cities. Mangroves, for example, provide a natural buffer against saltwater intrusion and shoreline erosion and also happen to cover endless shorelines around the Middle East. On the edge of Abu Dhabi, the Mangrove National Park makes up around 75 percent of the UAE’s total forestland. Rich mangrove forests are also found along the shorelines of Bahrain, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. Nurturing existing and replanting lost mangrove forests in this region can serve as another innovative EbA tool, while providing added carbon sequestration benefits.

Above all, leveraging EbA to combat water insecurity in the Middle East presents an opportunity that no other climate-resiliency measure does: an opportunity to shift natural resource management into the hands of the very communities whose control over such has long been deprived by a legacy of regional hegemons, corrupt politics, and global power competition over the oil and other resources lying beneath them. Indeed, this control, and accompanying livelihood opportunities, can be granted by simply tasking local communities residing in wetland, coastal, and riparian ecosystems with the responsibility of planting and maintaining bio-diverse vegetation in these regions. A cadre of workers can be deployed to plant and regularly attend to new seedlings. Another cadre can assume responsibility for monitoring plant growth and groundwater levels. Finally, communities can meet regularly to convene on progress achieved, innovating and troubleshooting where necessary, while drawing upon additional knowledge from externally provided training workshops.

Non-governmental organizations in the region, with support from national governments where possible, should begin piloting EbA projects, engaging local communities in their implementation, and finding long-term financing mechanisms (e.g. selling seedlings in local markets, producing new product lines from native plants) to transform ecosystem restoration practices into sustainable livelihood activities. This approach would embody everything that EbA has to offer: health promotion, livelihood development, and environmental conservation in one package. Indeed, this would convert a currently catastrophic cycle into a virtuous one, where a renewed ecosystem, enriched with more abundant water resources, translates into a healthier, more resilient population no longer forced to rely on environmentally exploitative land use practices, and in turn, able to continue nurturing the very environment that nurtures them in return. When there exists a channel to synergistically combat so many cross-cutting human development goals all the whilst addressing one of the most pressing crises faced by the region, it would be utterly illogical not to pursue it.