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Focus on the Middle East

April 2012

More Precious Than Oil

PhotoJapanese experts and local Egyptian officials assess the results of a recent water project

If oil reserves have fueled the fabulous wealth of some Arab states and helps turn the world's daily economy, the very survival of the entire Middle East is dependent upon a second invaluable resource: water.

And like oil, water reserves are spread unevenly around the region, are subject to political and even military intrigue, and shape the well being–or poverty–of millions of people.

JICA projects across the region are helping to preserve or make more efficient use of the dwindling supplies of the precious liquid in bustling cities, remote villages, for agriculture or domestic use.

In Tunisia, where the recent Arab Spring began, a series of Japanese yen-loan water supply projects have already benefitted some eight million people, in Morocco 7.1 million people and in Syria 1.7 million persons.

More than virtually any other country, Egypt and its people have been shaped and sustained by one single natural resource for their very survival–the waters of the River Nile.

And JICA has been active for many years in an ongoing series of projects to harness the Nile's finite liquid bounty to meet the increasing agricultural, industrial and domestic needs of a population which has soared from 18 million in 1970 when the Aswan High Dam was completed to more than 80 million today.

The agency helped to rehabilitate five major regulators or dams on the 312 km Bahr Yusef canal complex running roughly parallel to the Nile in Middle Egypt.

In the Nile Delta dozens of Japanese experts helped upgrade major irrigation arteries feeding local farms and to establish local Water Users Associations to help regulate the system.

While that project concentrated on improving the smallest irrigation canals known as mesqas, a more recent project finishing this year concentrated on strengthening larger ‘branch’ level irrigation systems including problems as water shortages in the system, illegal water use, lack of maintenance, quality control and strengthening Water Users Organizations (WUO).

PhotoJICA has helped increase water supplies to the Jordanian capital, Amman

As the project was drawing to a close recently, Japanese experts, their Egyptian counterparts and the recipients–local communities, farmers and their families–met to assess the results.

One farmer and WUO member Ali Mohamed Abdul Gawad said crop yields of wheat, corn, peas, beetroot and tomatoes from his small plot "have increased by 20%. I am very happy."

Chief Japanese advisor Soji Shindo said , "We have achieved all our objectives" and gone even further in helping to find solutions to recent environmental problems.

But water is so precious in Egypt that even the obvious advantages of working together to obtain better results for the community is often not enough.

As the group walked through the fields they noticed illegal holes in the irrigation system siphoning off water illegally. "Every time we close a hole someone drills another one somewhere else," a local official yelped. "Close it. Open it. It's a never ending game."

Jordan does not have the equivalent of the Nile. On a per capita basis it is the world's fourth poorest country in renewable water resources. Other means must be found to supply its six million people in the constant race to meet increasing demand from dwindling resources.

A US$76.5 million project launched in the 1990s successfully rehabilitated and then doubled the capacity of a system supplying water to the capital, Amman.

Currently, JICA is helping to train cadres of water experts, build reservoirs, make more efficient use of agricultural water, and transform the way water is delivered from a direct pumping system–which is energy costly–to a cheaper gravity delivery.

One direct–and often overlooked–approach is to reduce the loss of ‘non revenue water’ a technical term which covers such things as leakages. Currently, Jordan loses a staggering 46% of its water supplies through leakage.

But however much progress is made Jordan will never be ‘water rich.’ Currently, Jordanians use around 18 litres per day, after leakage. That compares with 350 litres in neighboring Israel and 400 litres in the United States.

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