Designing for water sustainability in one of the world's driest regions

March 19, 2019

A 2017 view of the ruins of Mosul’s Old City from the intake for Al Zuhoor water treatment plant in East Mosul. UNDP’s Funding Facility for Stabilization is helping rehabilitate the plant, which was damaged during ISIS occupation and the battle to retake the city. © UNDP Iraq / Claire Thomas


The theme of this year’s World Water Day, is Water for All. Water is a key measure of inequality and poverty and expanding access to water is critical to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. This is particularly important in the Arab region, which has 14 of the world’s 20 driest countries. The region’s rainfall is well below the world average, with the average person getting just one-eighth the renewable water—that generated through the hydrological cycle—that the average global citizen enjoys. By 2030 the effects of climate change could possibly reduce renewable water by a further 20 percent.

This has consequences for poor and crisis-affected communities, who suffer the most from lack of water, and stand to benefit the most from new initiatives to achieve SDG 6. 

UNDP has scaled up its support in recent years to address this challenge. One example is a regional partnership to manage the Nubian Aquifer, the world's largest fossil aquifer system, which stretches for over 2.6 million square kilometres under Sudan, Libya, Egypt and Chad. Growing pressures on the aquifer poses threats to sustainability and could lead to tensions unless action is taken. UNDP is working with these countries to produce a diagnostic assessment of the Nubian Aquifer and a regional Strategic Action Programme.

UNDP is launching a new regional project for Rational and Equitable Use of the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System in concert with UNESCO, FAO, IAEA and partner countries. With US$3.9 million from the Global Environment Facility the initiative will help enhance scientific understanding of the shared resource and develop regional and national institutional skills for managing it. It will also come up with plans to align water resource management with poverty eradication, women’s empowerment, climate adaptation and other development objectives, and achieve equitable and sustainable water use of the aquifer.

UNDP is increasing cooperation in countries, including water for communities affected by war. In Yemen more than 19 million people, close to 80 percent of the population, don’t have clean drinking water and sanitation, and the country faces the largest and fastest spreading outbreak of cholera in modern history. UNDP administers the Emergency Crisis Response Project, with more than US$300 million from the World Bank. It has been able to get water for more than two million people through more than 300 water harvesting and supply projects and building 70,000 cubic metres of water reservoirs. 

In Iraq, millions of IDPs are returning to homes newly liberated from the Islamic State. UNDPs Funding Facility for Stabilization, with over US$400 million from 20 donors, is working on some 1,000 development and stabilization projects. One focus is rehabilitating water facilities in Ramadi, Ninewah Plains, and Mosul. These and other projects are helping to get water to hundreds of thousands of people. 

In neighbouring Jordan and Lebanon, the challenge of hosting Syrian refugees converges with high levels of water insecurity. UNDP supports a programme on Enhancing Resilience of Host Communities in Jordan by Promoting Sustainable Water Solutions, supported by US$300,000 from the OPEC Fund for International Development. It focused on Mafraq, Irbid, Zarqa, Jarash and Ajloun, regions of the country with the most refugees, and helps improve water supplies in host communities. UNDP helps generate rainwater harvesting and reuse of waste water, while enabling local communities to collect and conserve water. In Lebanon, in response to the rapid rise of Syrian refugees UNDP has supported a comprehensive Host Communities Support programme, which gets water to vulnerable communities. With more than US$8 million from Germany, Switzerland and the US, UNDP and partners have helped improve water networks and household connections for villages across the Akkar region of North Lebanon, along with supplying water pumps, and rehabilitating water reservoirs and wastewater networks.