By Boubaker Ben Belhassen, UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Rome, Italy

The article presents the situation in Kasserine, but in fact the water problem and challenges are common in most of the countries in the Near East and North Africa (NENA) region. Water scarcity is one of the most urgent issues and binding constraints for food security and agricultural development in these countries. Let us look at some striking numbers published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO):

– The Near East and North Africa fresh water resources are among the lowest in the world: they have decreased by two-thirds during last 40 years and are expected to fall by over 50% by 2050;

– 90% of the total land in the region lies within arid, semi/arid and dry sub/humid areas, while 45% of the total agricultural area is exposed to salinity, soil nutrient depletion and wind water erosion;

– Agriculture in the region uses approximately 85% of the total available freshwater;

– Over 60% of water resources in the region flow from outside national and regional boundaries.

These figures heighten the concerns over the degradation of water quality and the impact of climate change. Demographic trends are adding urgency to the issue. Chronic undernourishment in the region is estimated at 7.7% or close to 33 million people, according to FAO’s latest hunger estimates, while the population continues to grow at around 2% annually – almost twice the global rate.

Farming and other agricultural activities consume more than 85% of available rainfed, irrigated and groundwater resources in the NENA region, and the demand for food and agricultural products is expected to expand amid rapid population growth, increased pace of urbanization and a larger middle-income class.

While the region has made significant efforts in developing its water usage and storage capacities, there is still much work to be done to improve water efficiency in agriculture, protect water quality, and address challenges related to climate change. All the challenges facing the water situation in the region need to be addressed in a very profound and way. Countries need to tackle the root causes of the problem; otherwise the region would continue to be rushing from one crisis to the other.

One of the major challenges is to have a more productive and more efficient agricultural sector – in other words to“produce more per drop”. The more direct solution is to increase productivity – i.e. yield per hectare. Increasing production by bringing more land into cultivation is not a sustainable solution as this would only put additional pressure on the already low level of water resources in the region. This should be accompanied by appropriate trade policies to ensure adequate food supplies in the countries.

In a major effort to help the NENA countries address those complex issues, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) embarked on a “Regional Initiative on Water Scarcity” in the region aimed at streamlining policies, governance and practices related to the management of water.

The pilot phase of the initiative, which was launched in June 2013, in six countries – Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, Tunisia and Yemen – began by reviewing the current status of water availability and use and the potential for further agricultural production, identifying and ranking options for future food supply in terms of both their economic and water-requirement costs, and looking at the performance of agriculture water management and relevant policies, governance and institutional issues.

Work done under the initiative will encourage countries to learn from success stories in other countries to improve the management and use of rainfed, irrigated and groundwater systems through an innovative approach that includes:

• The creation of a broad consensus on the water reform agenda among all involved stakeholders.

• The acknowledgement of farmers’ role in prompting a shift in the way water resources are used and managed.

• The involvement of the private sector as the actual manager of the food value chain and the supplier of the latest available technologies.

• The establishment of partnerships which are action-oriented and results-based.

• The development of tools to concretely measure results and collect evidence to support policy-making and decision-making processes.

Furthermore, the Water Scarcity Initiative will mobilize the institutions and organizations that are already working in the region in order to establish some critical mass of knowledge and capacity to support countries in dealing with the multi-faceted problem of water scarcity and related future developments. The initiative places farmers, and especially family farmers and smallholders, at the centre of action.

For more information, please see

Water Scarcity A partnership for the water reform agenda of the Region.