Middle East…Hunger or Thirst
IslamOnline.net & Newspapers
Struggling with the unfolding global food crisis, and strained between ever-growing populations and the already scant supply of water, many countries in the Middle East region are facing the tough choice between food or water.
“The countries of the region are caught between the hammer of rising food prices and the anvil of steadily declining water availability per capita,” Alan R. Richards, a professor of economics and environmental studies at the University of California, told The New York Times on Monday, July 21.
“There is no simple solution.”
The global food shortage has left the Middle East and North Africa nations in the dilemma of choosing between growing more crops and preserving limited water supplies.
For decades, the region’s nations have developed projects to make the large swaths of deserts bloom.
In Egypt, a country of nearly 80 million where rising food prices in recent months have caused protests and unrest, the most ambitious project to convert huge desert into farmland was Toshka in the Sahara Desert oasis.
The project, however, struggled for years with the high cost to bring the water of the Nile, the main source of irrigation, to the desert and the use of so much water.
“It’s sand,” Richard Tutwiler, director of the Desert Development Center at the American University in Cairo, said, referring to the reclaimed desert land.
“It’s not the world’s most fertile soil.”
In Saudi Arabia, officials have recently phased out a program that tapped aquifers to help the kingdom become self-sufficient in wheat production because it used too much water.
Today, some Middle East countries import 90 percent of their staples.
The population of the region has more than quadrupled since 1950, to 364 million, and is expected to reach nearly 600 million by 2050.
By that time, the amount of water available for each person will be cut in half
“You can bring in money and water,” Elie Elhadj, a Syrian development expert, said.
“You can make the desert green until either the water runs out or the money.”
The need to maintain the food supplies without jeopardizing their water resources has forced many countries to seek brand new alternatives.
Several oil-rich nations, including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, have started searching for fertile farmland in countries like Pakistan and Sudan, with the goal of growing crops to be shipped home.
“These countries have the land and the water,” Hassan S. Sharaf Al Hussaini, an official in Bahrain’s agriculture ministry, told the Times.
“We have the money.”
Others have turned to brand new expensive schemes to produce crops.
In Egypt, new desert farms now grow water-sipping plants with drip irrigation.
Djibouti, for example, is now growing rice in solar-powered greenhouses, fed by groundwater and cooled with seawater.
The project produces “probably the most expensive rice on earth,” according to World Bank economist Ruslan Yemtsov.
Economists say that rather than seeking to become self-sufficient with food, Middle East countries should grow crops for which they have a competitive advantage, like produce or flowers, which do not require much water.
Yet, some believe the tradeoff between water of food will remain inevitable for a while, even with new techniques.
“We don’t have the luxury of choosing this or that,” said Saad Nassar, a top adviser in Egypt’s ministry of agriculture and land reclamation.
With little choice at hand, Egypt, where population growth has remained stubbornly high at around 2 percent for the last decade, is trying to make the desert bloom, even in unlikely places like Toshka.
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