Water scarcity is contributing to political tensions and volatile food prices in the Middle East and Africa, experts said at an event Monday.
Professors and experts from various universities and companies gathered at the “Water in the Middle East and Africa: A Nexus of Cooperation and Conflict” event at the UCLA Faculty Center to discuss how climate change and water shortages are contributing to food insecurity.
Cullen Hendrix, associate professor of international studies at the University of Denver, said both Africa and the Middle East are currently experiencing water stress. The Middle East and North Africa have less than 2 percent of the world’s renewable water supply, but 6 percent of the world’s population, according to the World Bank.
For example, Eilon Adar, the former director of the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, said water consumption in areas such as Israel is far beyond the rate of replenishment, making water a valuable, rather than universally available, commodity.
“In (Israel), water is a very important part of homeland security,” Adar said.
Adar added Israel is seeking to close the gap between water availability and demand through new innovations and technology in irrigation, new plant species, groundwater drilling and alternative water sources. For example, drip irrigation focused on the roots of crops and irrigation responsive to solar moisture, temperature and solar radiation has resulted in between 88 and 92 percent irrigation efficiency in open fields, Adar said.
Hendrix said climate change will only exacerbate water scarcity issues in the region, and Nathan Mueller, assistant professor of Earth system science at UC Irvine, said it also poses threats to agriculture.
Mueller added Africa and the Middle East are experiencing climate change and increasing demand for food at the same time, which makes their populations’ access to food less secure.
Hendrix said volatility in food prices in the 2000s led to damaging political fallout, with food-related protests occurring in more than 40 countries in 2007 and 2008. He said he thinks countries should use American research and technology to support improvements in grain reserves and transition away from food subsidies.
Water mismanagement, depletion of water resources and a drought also contributed to protests and eventual civil war in Syria, said Hussein Amery, assistant professor of international studies at the Colorado School of Mines.
Amery added the drought led to mass migrations and a popular uprising against the regime. Resettling Syrian refugees displaced by the drought and civil war could decrease water flows across borders, he said.
Ryan Rizeq, a fourth-year civil and environmental engineering student, said he was drawn to the event after learning the panelists would be discussing a water access and sanitation project he participated in as part of GlobeMed, an organization working to address health disparities.
“A lot of the panelists are talking about things that we’ve dealt with in our organization and I’m really passionate about (it),” he said.
Keynote speaker Rita Colwell, distinguished professor of cell biology and molecular genetics at the University of Maryland College Park and Johns Hopkins University and former National Science Foundation director, also spoke about how climate change can be related to human infectious diseases. For example, Colwell was able to predict patterns of cholera infections, a water-borne disease, by analyzing climate and rainfall trends.
Colwell said simple measures in developing countries can prevent the spread of cholera.
“With a used sari cloth (to filter water), we can reduce cholera by 50 percent,” she said.
Colwell added researchers who study water will be crucial in improving living standards for individuals around the world.
“It’s really important to consider, of the research that we do, we have to deal with people who need food and we need to deal with people who need clean water,” she said.