Helen Clark: UNDP QNFSP-UNDP Joint Side-Event on “Understanding the Water and Food Security Challenges in the Arab Region”

Dec 6, 2012

Remarks by Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator
QNFSP-UNDP Joint Side-Event on
“Understanding the Water and Food Security Challenges in the Arab Region”

13:15-14:45, Thursday 6th December, 2012
Doha, Qatar

It is a pleasure to join you here in Doha to discuss the important topic of “understanding the water and food security challenges in the Arab region”. I thank the Qatar National Food Security Programme, and Chairman Fahad Al-Attiya, for co-organizing this event with UNDP.

There is nothing more essential for human survival than access to water and food. Both are fundamental to life and health.

In many countries, however, there are serious challenges to both water and food security. Climate change will exacerbate these already existing vulnerabilities.

The World Food Programme estimates that by 2050 climate change will put twenty per cent more people at risk of hunger. Other projections suggest that changes in water run-off patterns and glacial melt will put an additional 1.8 billion people in water scarce environments by 2080.

The frequency and impact of severe drought and flooding around the world suggests that climate change is already impacting on water and food security.  Recent food crises in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel are stark reminders of the impact of repeated severe drought on vulnerable populations.

Water scarcity is clearly a highly salient issue in the Arab States region. The annual share of water per capita in Arab states is just one-twelfth the global average; fifteen Arab states are beneath the international water poverty line of 1,000 cubic meters per person per year; and in eight of these countries the population has access to fewer than 200 cubic meters of water per capita per year.

Food security in the region also suffers from water scarcity. With agriculture output squeezed, the region imports more food than any other region in the world. This makes the peoples of the region very vulnerable to food price rises. Between 2006 and 2008, food prices increased by 44 per cent in Iraq, 25 per cent in Syria, and nineteen per cent in Lebanon[1]. Such price spikes have an especially detrimental impact on the poorest and most vulnerable populations.

Overall, the impact of the linked challenges of water access and food security is greatest in the poorest countries. In the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) of the Arab States region, almost half the rural population lacks access to improved sources of drinking water, and under 25 per cent has access to improved sanitation facilities. Malnutrition among children in these countries increased to 36 per cent in the late 2000s – today, nearly one in four people are undernourished[2].

The region’s middle- and high-income countries also face water and food security challenges. Indeed, the high-income countries have the lowest stocks of renewable fresh water and the highest proportions of imported food.

Faced with these major challenges, countries in the Arab States region have been proactive in devising solutions to strengthen water and food security.

The State of Qatar and the Qatar National Food Security Programme are working for enhanced food security, at the national and international levels. Qatar initiated the establishment of the Global Dry Lands Alliance – a treaty-based alliance to assist dry land countries to address food insecurity which is being exacerbated by desertification, land degradation, and drought.

Strengthening water and food security is a prominent part of UNDP’s work in the Arabs States region. We work with countries to develop integrated water resource management systems; employ more people in water-efficient agricultural production; strengthen social protection so that people can get the food they need in times of hardship; and mitigate and adapt to climate change.

For example:

  • In support of Jordan’s National Water Strategy, UNDP  assisted the Ministry of Water and Irrigation in its efforts to reduce agricultural water abstraction in the highlands;
  • In Morocco, UNDP is supporting local partners and building on traditional know-how in the Tafilalet Oasis area to strengthen laws, infrastructure, and capacity for the sustainable use of the region’s scarce water resources;
  • In Djibouti, we assisted in the introduction of agro-pastoral farming systems in rural communities aimed at improving access to the limited water resource, thereby benefiting farming and pastoral activities and improving livelihoods; and,
  • In Sudan, we are working with the Ministry of Agriculture and NGOs to help farmers learn new water harvesting techniques, reduce their dependence on unpredictable water patterns, and enable year-round cultivation of semi-arid land.

It is important to emphasise that the active participation of women is vital for the success of these programmes.

Through policy analysis and advocacy, UNDP has also ensured that water and food issues feature prominently in our overall partnership with the Arab States region. Our Arab Human Development Reports have highlighted the interconnections between these challenges, and have shed light on how demographic trends and climate change will intensify the challenges in the years ahead.

Recently, UNDP’s Arab Climate Resilience Initiative (ACRI) has been conducting extensive consultations, supported by research, on the main constraints hindering mitigation of and adaptation to climate change in the region. Among the challenges identified are weak institutional capacity and limited co-operation across the region.

Early next year, UNDP will launch a new report titled Towards Water Security in the Arab Region. Written by water and development experts from the region, it will provide in-depth analysis of water challenges facing the region and recommendations on how to address them.

The report will emphasise the importance of improving water governance. It argues that while the natural supply of water is ecologically determined, water scarcity is also a social construct. Scarcity varies over time, not only as a result of natural processes, but also as a function of policy, planning, and management approaches. Thus, even if water scarcity is expected to intensify, many of its accelerators can be predicted, avoided, or mitigated.

In this respect the report’s conclusions are in line with UNDP’s view that the key to sustainable development is developing the capacities of national and regional institutions and actors to design and implement policies and programs.

I hope today’s discussion on the water and food security challenges facing the Arab States region will focus on the solutions which will help the region strengthen its resilience and help advance broad-based, equitable, and sustainable human development for all.


[1] UNDP 2009. Development challenges for the Arab region: Food Security and Agriculture.
[2] ESCWA 2009. Charting the progress of the MDG in the Arab region: A statistical Portrait

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