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"Water security has shaped MENA region in the past and will shape the future as a vital resource"

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Dr Hassan Aboelnga works in academia as a researcher at TH Köln but has also many other roles as a multidisciplinary professional working to advance knowledge and policy on water security and sustainable development, focusing on the MENA region.

Having studied civil engineering and integrated water resources management in universities in both water secure and scarce cities – from Mansoura and Cairo in Egypt, to Amman in Jordan, and Cologne and Kassel in Germany – Dr Hassan Aboelnga recognized that water is an integral part of national security, sustainable growth, and business continuity. Solving water security challenges requires a broad vision, and none better than this multidisciplinary water professional to tell us about the many dimensions of water security in the MENA region, including water and conflict, access to energy, and digital transformation.

You are actively engaged in international fora, focusing on different dimensions of urban water security. Can you tell us briefly about your career path and what it means for you to work on water issues?

I am born and raised in the delta of Egypt in a city called Mansoura. I have first-hand experiences of development challenges related to water and climate change since I was raised in the delta and Arab region, which is widely identified as a climate hotspot where concentrated human and economic development meets the realities of climate change impacts and water-related issues.

  • Clearly, if the Arab region is to achieve sustainable development, it is paramount to rethink water security with a new paradigm

I am committed to achieving a water-secure world, especially in the MENA region, the most water-scarce region in the world. Over the years, I am focusing my career on all four aspects of water and sustainable development-based knowledge: generation, synthesis, application and dissemination. I have been advising many policy-makers and institutions and I am working in academia as a researcher on water security and sustainable development at TH Köln to advance knowledge. I am also vice-chair of the Middle East Water Forum to influence policies, share and co-create pragmatic and innovative solutions. I sit on the Management Committee of specialist groups at the International Water Association and I am Chair of the Urban Water Security working group and member of the Water Security Task Force at the International Water Resources Association, in addition to being an active member of many networks related to water, climate, and sustainable development.

There has been progress towards SDG 6, but not nearly enough and some challenges remain which the MENA region must face

To reach different audiences, I have written many publications, from books and research articles to blog articles, and I have been involved in different events at all levels to advance knowledge and actions toward water security and sustainable development for all.

What aspects of water security are the most problematic in the Arab region?

Water security in the Arab world confronts the triple threats of climate change, rising food and energy costs, and the economic crisis. All three are under fragile contexts of conflict and political instability in many Arab countries, exacerbating poverty, inequality and underdevelopment. Clearly, if the Arab region is to achieve sustainable development, it is paramount to rethink water security with a new paradigm. Water security is not only about access, we need holistic and integrated solutions to achieve water security that goes across key policy tracks. These must also benefit from existing but untapped synergies and co-benefits, while minimizing adverse cross-impacts through better, more explicit management of trade-offs (drinking water and human beings, ecosystems, socio-economics, disaster risk reduction, refugee policies, and climate change).

What is your assessment of the progress made so far to address those issues? Could you highlight some lessons learned?

According to UN-Water reports, we are off track to achieving almost all water-related sustainable development goals. There has been indeed progress towards sustainable development goal number 6 on ensuring water for all, but not nearly enough, and some challenges remain which the MENA region in particular – the most water-scarce region in the world – has to face in the near future. Water security has shaped the region in the past and will shape the future as a vital resource.

An intermittent supply creates inequities in water availability for people who live furthest from the source and has public health risks

Over 60% of MENA’s population lives under high or very high-water stress, much higher than the global average of some 35% for the rest of the world. Access is especially low for countries affected by conflict (Yemen, Gaza, Syria, Iraq, Libya). The poor suffer the most from lack of access as they need to rely on expensive water of questionable quality from private vendors. Drinking water is still supplied on an intermittent basis in most Arab countries such as Jordan, Yemen, Lebanon and Palestine. An intermittent water supply creates inequities in clean water availability for people who live furthest from the water source and carries public health risks associated with the ingress of contaminants from the surrounding ground through flaws in the aged piping systems.

Climate-related water scarcity could cause a decrease in regional GDP (6-14%) by 2050. Climate change will also imply greater variability in terms of where and when rains occur. Population growth rates continue to be high (2% compared to the world average of 1.1%). Agricultural productivity has not increased in meaningful proportions. Food loss and waste have reached alarming quantities with huge implications on water, land, energy, and GHG emissions. The region is a global hotspot of groundwater over-exploitation. Demand management opportunities are well articulated but underutilized. Interlinkages across sectors (water, food, energy, environment) and the natural resources base (water, land, soils) are understood but not adequately reflected in policies and practice.

Water is a growing source of global conflict. Being Egyptian and an international water expert, how do you see the current conflict between Ethiopia and Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and water security in both countries?

Water security is a key driver for sustainable development and for uniting people and societies.

Actually, I am very concerned about the future of water in Egypt and the whole region. It is the first time in history that Egyptians feel threatened regarding their source of life, the Nile River. Therefore, it is imperative to find win-win solutions that can secure the future of all countries, without further conflicts or tensions. The negotiations of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam have fully entered the core of the crisis; it can be said that they have put the cart before the horse, with Ethiopia continuing to fill the dam unilaterally and without a legal agreement binding on all parties. What could have been strictly technical negotiations have turned into a political deadlock. The GERD has become a new reality challenging the traditional dynamics in the Nile River Basin.

Published in SWM Bimonthly 12 - April 2022
SWM Bimonthly 12

Both countries are facing similar challenges of population growth, wasteful use, growing pollution, and climate extremes. Further complicating the picture is the reality that Ethiopia faces economic water scarcity despite high water availability, meaning the resource is available in a sufficient quantity, but finance, management and access are limited, whereas the downstream countries – Egypt and Sudan – face physical water scarcity; that is, the demand exceeds availability.

It is crucial for all countries to consider the costs of inaction, failure and lack of peace for achieving long-standing cooperation over the GERD and water security for all. This lack of cooperation could lead to unforeseen consequences. It could fuel tensions to a point where the environment, economy and people’s livelihoods suffer considerably in the three countries. As water knows no boundaries, the spread of tensions does not always take national borders into consideration, in other words, conflicts do not follow geographical maps.

Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia must break the political cycle of conflict within a framework of water security for all. This will allow countries at some point to confront the complex issues, including the definition of entitlements to shared freshwater resources and the dynamic operation of the dam in the long run. Thus, it is crucial for the three countries to go back to the negotiation with trusted international institutions and apply the Principles of Effective Joint Bodies (EJB) for long lasting cooperation which include the following: (1) the establishment, structure and functions of joint bodies; (2) their operation; (3) financial and human resources; and (4) developmental plans.

Do you think the sustainability of the water supply in some countries could be affected by access to energy sources?

Providing safe drinking water is a highly energy‐intensive activity. Energy can account for up to 30% of the total operating costs of water and wastewater utilities and, in some developing countries, this can be as high as 40% of the total operating cost. Meanwhile, 15% of the world’s total water withdrawals, on average, are used for energy production.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has become a new reality challenging the traditional dynamics in the Nile River Basin

The sustainability of water supply in many countries is not only affected by water governance and scarcity but also by energy policies and the limited access to energy sources. In most countries, the water and energy systems have been developed, managed, and regulated independently, which causes a significant impact on both water-scarce and abundant countries. For instance, despite the high-water availability in a country like Ethiopia, the water supply systems do not have access to the required energy to pump and distribute water to people. On the other hand, water scarcity in Jordan is coupled with energy shortages where rising electricity tariffs are putting great pressure on the sustainability of water resources. While electricity tariffs have been rising steadily over recent years, water tariffs stayed the same. The disparity between the revenues from water tariffs and the operating costs (involving energy) threatens not only the financial sustainability of the water utility but also national water security.

It is crucial to consider the costs of inaction, failure and lack of peace for achieving cooperation over the GERD and water security

A salient feature of the nexus is that saving water saves energy, which in turn reduces greenhouse gas emissions (involved in climate change). Energy efficiency programs offer opportunities for achieving significant water savings to mitigate water scarcity, and similarly, water efficiency programs (e.g., involving a reduction in the high levels of non-revenue water) offer opportunities for providing significant energy savings, especially in energy scarce countries. Furthermore, saving water and energy also contributes to climate change mitigation.

Could you tell us about recent advancements in the digitalisation of the water sector and how it plays a great role to achieve water security?

Digital technologies have the potential to deliver significant impact on and improvements to the water sector. We now have the ability to sense and collect information about everything and the amount of information available is unprecedented (consider this, 90% of the information in the world has been created in the last two years alone). The water sector has already started to benefit from the digital transformation and examples of the operational efficiencies include reduced response times by 20%, increases in work reutilisation by 25%, 15% reductions in energy use across the network and other benefits related to better informed strategic decision making (e.g., asset management and long-term resource planning). 

The sustainability of water supply in many countries is not only affected by water governance and scarcity but also by energy policies

Integrating data and digital transformation in the water sector can help conserve water resources, connect the dots between water users and water-related policies, lead to behavioural change, drive innovation and build community resilience, especially in a fragile context like the COVID-19 Pandemic. However, this integration requires political will, robust infrastructure, good governance, sustainable financing and long-term investments with commitment from all stakeholders.

Can you tell us about the projects you are currently working on?

I am currently working on all four aspects of water and sustainable development-based knowledge: generation, synthesis, application and dissemination. I am currently working on advancing knowledge in academia toward integrated water resources management and supporting Egypt with a new interdisciplinary master program on water. In practice, I am advancing the implementation of the digital transformation of the water sectors in the Arab region and reinforcing the science-policy interface in the region, in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals.