Water in the Arab world: From droughts to flood, building resilience against extremes

March 21, 2014


  • Water scarcity is also reaching alarming levels in MENA, with droughts the third most prevalent natural hazards after earthquakes, despite the growing intensity of rains.
  • Djibouti has carried out the world’s first Post Disaster Needs Assessment of its kind on its 2008-11 drought.
  • Disaster risk assessments, early warning systems, risk management laboratories, and knowledge centers have been established.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is the most water scarce region in the world, and its water stress is likely to worsen. In 1950, per capita renewable water resources were four times greater than they are today. By 2050, there are indications indicate that natural water resources in MENA will drop even further, to 11 times less than the global average.

Droughts hit the region with punishing regularity, bringing significant water shortages, economic losses, and adverse social consequences. Between 2008 and 2011, drought in Djibouti caused a yearly economic contraction of approximately 3.9 percent of GDP.

Droughts are the third most prevalent hazard in MENA after earthquakes, but despite the alarming levels of water scarcity,  the opposite, floods,  also pose significant danger  in MENA too.

The 2008 floods in Yemen caused damages totaling US$1.6 billion, or six percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). The 2009 floods in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, brought losses of US$1.4 billion. The 2004 floods in Djibouti led to 230 deaths, US$ 11.1 million in losses, and affected 100,000 people.  

Nine years later in 2013, slightly less flooding in Djibouti resulted in fewer victims, though 13 people still died, and there was a far shorter disruption of citizens’ livelihoods.

What was the difference?

The difference was the emphasis the country placed in learning how to manage the risks caused by water scarcity and floods, and investing in protective infrastructure. Intense, unusual rains do not have to mean disastrous flooding. Neither does a drought have to become a source of malnourishment.

The percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) exposed to floods, the most recurrent natural hazard in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, has tripled from 1970–79 to 2000–2009. The 2011 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction finds that although global flood mortality risk has been on the decrease since 2000, in MENA and some other regions, it is still increasing.

Coping with droughts and floods

Though MENA countries face serious water challenges, there have been regional improvements in managing these and other risks.

Djibouti’s resilience to floods is one of the success stories. Since 2006, Djibouti has rehabilitated the dike protecting people from its most flood-prone wadi  (dry river bed), updated its preparedness and emergency plans, and installed new hydro-meteorological stations in the different climatic areas of the country. It has also performed seismic and floods risk/vulnerability assessments, established a flood early warning system.

Slow, creeping natural disasters like droughts are especially hard to cope with. Djibouti has carried out the world’s first Post Disaster Needs Assessment of its kind on its 2008-11 drought. There are also initiatives across the region to develop drought resistant agriculture.

A new approach to natural disasters

Countries in MENA have decided to change their approach to so-called natural disasters, understanding the benefits of being prepared for the weather or geological risks, rather than waiting for such events to strike and putting the pieces back together again.

Efforts have also been made to design and enforce new disaster risk management (DRM) policies, plans, and legislation. Algeria, Djibouti, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Yemen are a few of the countries that have designed policies and established DRM units within the government to strengthen coordination. Disaster risk assessments, early warning systems, risk management laboratories, and knowledge centers have been established.

Despite this encouraging progress, more needs to be done at regional, national, and local levels. The World Bank has been financing post-disaster reconstruction and risk reduction initiatives in the region for the past three decades. It is partnering with governments and other international institutions to lay the foundations for DRM in MENA. The report Natural Disasters in MNA: A Regional Overview analyzes the risks the region faces, and the measures and tools countries have adopted to enhance their preparedness.

Developed by the World Bank, in collaboration with MNA governments, the United Nations and regional institutions, this report also looks at the DRM experience from around the world, while also focusing on the specific risks the region faces. The report proposes a path to improve the resilience of MENA countries to the challenges around water, both in terms of its scarcity and sudden overabundance, as well as a range of other natural hazards.