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The Arab World’s Triple Crisis

LONDON – Economic want and inequality, as much as political repression, incited the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions. It is, of course, to be hoped that new governments in these countries, and other Arab leaders, will better address ordinary people’s grievances. But a mere change of government will not make these countries’ economic problems go away. Indeed, the converging effects of population growth, climate change, and energy depletion are setting the stage for a looming triple crisis.

The region accounts for 6.3% of the world’s population but only 1.4% of its renewable fresh water. Twelve of the world’s 15 most water-scarce countries – Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Israel, and Palestine – are in the region, and in eight, available fresh water amounts annually to less than 250 cubic meters per person. Three-quarters of the region’s available fresh water is in just four countries: Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.

Water consumption in the region is linked overwhelmingly to industrial agriculture. From 1965 to 1997, Arab population growth drove demand for agricultural development, leading to a doubling of land under irrigation. Demographic expansion in these countries is set to dramatically worsen their predicament.

Although birth rates are falling, one-third of the overall population is below 15 years old, and large numbers of young women are reaching reproductive age, or soon will be. The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense has projected that by 2030 the population of the Middle East will increase by 132%, and that of sub-Saharan Africa by 81%, generating an unprecedented “youth bulge.”