Water challenges in the Middle East and North Africa are real. To combat them, Eleanor Dickson and Basil Mahayni share four actions to help support systems thinking — and boost resilience —during the project life cycle.

The State of Water in the Middle East and North Africa

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region contains some of the most water-stressed communities in the world. A combination of high population growth and rapid economic development have intensified the stress on water over the last 50 years. According to the United Nations Development Program’s Regional Bureau for Arab States, the amount of renewable water resources available per person each year declined nearly 75 percent between 1962 and 2011 to 43.5 cubic meters (about 196,400 gallons), which is well below the world average of 7,240 cubic meters per year. With some of the lowest precipitation rates and renewable water resources in the world, the MENA region’s extreme water scarcity is compounded by the fact that 82 percent of the region’s wastewater is not treated and recycled. Additionally, the region suffers from high rates of water loss within supply distribution networks.

Since 2011, protracted political and economic crises have hindered the ability of water and wastewater sectors in these countries to sustain infrastructure and effective operations and maintenance systems, which are essential for mitigating the impacts of extreme water scarcity on local economies and public health systems. In fact, approximately 57 million people throughout the region need humanitarian water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) assistance. More intense droughts and extreme weather patterns due to climate change further strain long-term water availability and infrastructure.

Collectively, these challenges emphasize the need for greater resilience within water and wastewater systems to improve their ability to withstand and recover from various shocks and stresses, such as rapid surges in population, intense droughts, and other unanticipated variables that can affect water and wastewater services. Resilience can be incorporated into the project life cycle by using a systems approach and embracing resilience as a mindset that should frame the planning process.

A Systems Approach to Resilience within the Project Life Cycle

A systems approach within the project life cycle can help foster resilient services and infrastructure by forcing us to think about how to mitigate potential disasters or shocks comprehensively. Here are four actions we can take to help support systems thinking with respect to resilience in the project life cycle:

1. Assess risks and vulnerabilities at local, regional, and national scales to understand the spatial dimensions of water management and infrastructure. As a vital resource, water and the systems we use to gather, treat, and distribute water may be localized or part of a large-scale, intricate network of infrastructure and services.

2. Listen to stakeholder voices and seek ways to collaborate. Water scarcity is an issue because people rely on water for many reasons, including health, economic development, and spiritual activities. We should strive to hear the concerns of all relevant stakeholders and solicit their solutions and participation in the planning process because local stakeholders are often the first to suffer from shocks to water systems.

3. Use innovative practices and technologies where and when possible to improve data collection and planning processes. By engaging in the use of smart technology, planners and engineers can ensure that systems are safe and able to withstand shocks, while also offering pathways for continuous improvement.

4. Build capacity over the long term to help ensure that service providers can continue functioning during stressful periods. Operating and maintaining water services and infrastructure are difficult enough without having to worry about potential shocks. By ensuring that staff are effectively equipped with the necessary skills in project planning, business operations and financial management, operations and maintenance, and asset management, water systems can be better positioned to withstand a potential shock and recover quickly.

These four actions are not intended to be prescriptive steps for achieving resilient water and wastewater systems. Rather, they offer a comprehensive framework for evaluating water and wastewater systems to deliver relevant and cost-effective solutions for the short, medium, and long-term.

A Way Forward

By thoughtfully approaching the factors highlighted above, we can see their interconnectedness, elucidate complex challenges, and clarify potential solutions within the project life cycle. For example, adopting low-cost innovative technologies requires careful understanding of risk, stakeholder priorities, and local capacity to manage and sustain these investments. Examples include the use of geospatial data, information technology, and renewable energy. Solar power energy is a low-cost and low-emission solution that can help power the conveyance of water from source to tap. Similarly, using cellular or satellite-enabled sensors can help facilitate remote monitoring of the water system, such as pumps and meters, which can help deliver better data for planning purposes, inform risk analysis, and identify breakdowns within the water and wastewater system.

In assessing such options, utility operators need to consider the vulnerabilities and risks to the water and wastewater system at various scales. For example, remote sensors may vastly improve monitoring of groundwater production, but these investments might not improve the water system’s overall financial and environmental sustainability without similar investments to monitor water distribution networks, which can be a critical source of water losses. Similarly, while solar energy is increasingly a low-cost solution, water and wastewater policy leaders need to consider the skill set and capacity required of local staff to operate, maintain, and repair these assets. Both examples also require a careful understanding of the important stakeholders who may hold influence over policy decisions and implementation. Making these investments, for example, will require access to funding and consequently sector leaders will need to consider potential options from donors, communities, and debt-based financing.

Using a systems approach within the project life cycle to strengthen resilience in water and wastewater systems will also deliver secondary benefits for public health, economic development, and overall sustainability. This is broadly reflected by a high-level panel report published by the United Nations and World Bank titled Making Every Drop Count: An Agenda for Water Action, “Increased resilience against climate change stimulates economic activity, ensures fiscal stability, and provides the foundation for sustainable societies and livelihoods.” Water scarcity and water management challenges will likely always exist in the MENA region. With a systems approach, sector leaders can improve the project life cycle to deliver more resilient water and wastewater systems.

Posts on the Chemonics blog represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Chemonics.