In a region where political tensions are already sky high, the warning is hugely significant.

Former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali once predicted the following war in the Middle East would be “over the waters of the Nile, not politics”.
 
"Fresh water availability is falling to crisis levels in MENA countries," said Jean-Louis Sarbib, senior vice president of the World Bank, on Sunday.

He was speaking at a conference on the sidelines of the annual World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings in Dubai.

Annual per capita fresh water availability in MENA countries was only about 1200 cubic metres - compared with a world average of about 7000 to 7500 cubic metres, AFP quoted Sarbib as saying.

Potential for conflict

The scarcity of water in the region holds the potential for conflict, as Butros Ghali noted. The Jordan river valley has already been a flashpoint between Israel and its neighbours.

Tensions rose between Lebanon and Israel in 2002 over the contruction of Lebanese pipeline on the Wazzani stream. Its waters first fed the Hasbani river and then ran into the Jordan River in Israel.

A Lebanese swims in the Wazzani
stream holding his country's flag

Israel said its water supply was threatened, while Lebanon argued its sovereignty over its own water resources. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned the pipeline could be a cause for war.

Despite United States efforts to dissuade the Lebanese, the latter went ahead with the project, with the Lebanese Hizb Allah militia warning Israel not to attack the pipeline.

The threat of military action was not unprecedented. In 1964, Israel shelled Syria after it moved to divert water from the Banias River, which in turn feeds the Jordan river – Israel’s main source of drinking water.

Lack of vision

In the mean time, desertification, rising populations and demand coupled with poor management leave MENA region facing immediate difficulties.

Low rainfall and desertification
contribute to region's shortages

Sarbib said the available fresh water figure for Yemen was about 500 cubic metres – less than half the water poverty line of 1000 cubic metres.

And nearly 70% of municipal water in cities like Amman went unaccounted for, while Egypt recovered only two percent of its irrigation costs, he said.
 
Adding his voice of caution, Jordan's Minister of Water and Irrigation Hazim al-Nasir said the problem lay in the fact that many countries in the region had "no long-term vision" regarding the water issue.

Scarce

The World Bank has made the politically-charged issue of scarce water resources one of its so-called millennium development goals.

Although the MENA region accounts for five percent of the world population, it has only one percent of accessible fresh water worldwide, according to the World Bank.

Fresh water is a scarce resource, constituting just 2.5% of the planet's total moisture (with two-thirds of that supply trapped in glaciers).

A mere 0.008% of the earth's water forms part of the rain cycle. Of that tiny percentage, two thirds evaporates or is used by plants. The rest is left to fill rivers, streams and aquifers.