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Public utilities

Coping with stress

by D+C | E+Z
Processing plant at Hammana, Lebanon / Kläranlage in Hammana, Libanon.

Processing plant at Hammana, Lebanon / Kläranlage in Hammana, Libanon.

Demand for water is increasing all over the world, and particularly so in the Middle East. If all nations and stakeholders in the region cooperate, they will be able to rise to daunting challenges. Water must be saved prudently. Moreover, wastewater will have to be treated and safely recycled, overcoming all kinds of concerns. [ By Ismail Al Baz, Loredana De Florio and Andreas Bethmann ]

Water is particularly scarce in the countries south and east of the Mediterranean. Today, several countries in the region – Palestine or Yemen, for example – are considered to be under water stress. They have less than 500 cubic meters per person and year. Due to increasing demand for water, the situation will become even more difficult in future. By 2020, even countries like Syria and Lebanon, which today still enjoy abundant water, will face shortages.

Jordan is among the countries suffering from water stress. It is one of the ten nations worldwide with the lowest “renewable” water resources. Water resources are considered renewable to the extent that groundwater exploitation is compensated by rainwater recharge. Due to population growth, such resources decreased by 66 % in Jordan since 1973. Amman is a typical example of a city with water-supply problems. Water is stored on roof-top tanks for domestic use. These tanks are normally filled twice a week by the public water utility, but that may only happen once a week in dry times. However, it is estimated that 40 % of the water gets lost in the aqueducts. Moreover, Jordan uses 70 % of this limited resource in agriculture, in effect exporting this valuable resource in the form of rural products.

Water-related worries have an impact on economies as well as on the region’s fragile peace process. If the West Bank and the Gaza Strip do not get enough water – and often they do not – there is no scope for economic growth and prosperity. Poverty and desperation are not conducive to peace. By 2020, it is estimated, Palestine will need more than 1 billion cubic metres of water annually. At present, Israel restricts the supply to a mere 300 million cubic metres. Israel consumes some 85 % of the West Bank’s “renewable” water resources.

For some 5000 years, people in the Middle East have been struggling with limited water resources and scant rain. Some interesting technologies were developed, and some age-old supply systems are still in use today.

The Nabatians, for example, collected rain water, diverting it to their settlements. Other civilisations in the Mediterranean basin excavated reservoirs in the rock, using only small inlets in order to reduce evaporation. “Dry walls” adsorb humidity of the air in their voids, especially at night. Underground canals, called “kanat”, were designed to supply water to households from below, again reducing evaporation.

Such historical models can still be made use of and help stakeholders to manage water supply in future. In Jordan, billions of cubic metres of rainwater come down every year in the rainy season. In total, this amount is comparable to precipitation-rich Germany. The difference, however, is that, in Jordan, more than 90 percent evaporates almost immediately. Only a small fraction penetrates the soil to feed the groundwater resources. Moreover, Jordan has to cope with soil erosion and the run-off of nutrients. On top of that, enormous rainfalls cause traffic problems on roads, as well as deadly accidents.

In view of these challenges, collecting water would be the sensible approach. Doing so would reduce water stress in dry periods, and avoid the bad consequences of downpours in the rainy season. Schemes to collect and harvest rainwater should be set up extensively. In each country of the region, strategic water-resource management needs to take account of all options available. Some progress has been made. In Jordan and Palestine, decentralised water utilities were set up with support from German development agencies (InWEnt, GTZ and KfW), and new water tariffs were defined. Moreover, Jordan has drafted a strategic master plan for water and is now implementing it. The neighbouring countries Palestine, Lebanon and Syria are following Jordan’s example.

Nonetheless, water management is still facing a host of obstacles in many cases. These include poor efficiency, inadequate funding, bad maintenance and a dearth of skilled staff. Such challenges must be risen to. The management of the bodies in charge of water supply as well as wastewater treatment must improve in the Middle East. Reforms would make sense if they were geared to
– decentralising decision making in national water sectors,
– introducing appropriate tariffs,
– building capacity and improving human resources management,
– optimising regulations and governmental oversight,
– making optimal use of wastewater resources, and
– giving scope to popular participation.

Co-financed by Germany, the EU-MEDA’s EMWater project is being implemented in Jordan, Palestine, Turkey and Lebanon. One of the project’s aims is to raise awareness of just how important it is to re-use water. An Imam, a religious scholar, appears in a PR video of EMWater, emphasising the appropriateness of wastewater treatment for that purpose. Unfortunately, many Muslims believe that used water is inherently spoiled and should only be disposed of. Such beliefs are held by many different cultures, and can only be changed by demonstrating the contrary in praxis.
The background of such beliefs is well-understood. Pathogenic micro-organisms (bacteria as well as viruses) can be transmitted if humans drink contaminated water or if untreated wastewater is used without discrimination in agriculture. Such pathogens may cause various diseases, and children in particular are vulnerable in this respect. Lack of management gives rise to drinking water contamination and unplanned re-use, especially in arid periods. In order to prevent diseases from spreading, wastewater resources must be managed diligently and treated according to sound quality guidelines. Both, however, can be done at moderate cost.