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Water in the Middle East

News from 2020-03-20 / KfW Development Bank

Interview with Stefan Zeeb and Dr Stefan Gramel on SDG 6

Bewässerte Flächen
Irrigation with treated water in the Jordan Valley.

For decades, KfW Development Bank has been active in the water sector around the world on behalf of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). The Middle East is especially representative of the complex interrelationships between the water sector and various challenges: water poverty, climate change, urbanisation, population growth and migration. All these factors lead to supply bottlenecks in many municipalities and push them to the limits of what they can achieve. An interview with Dr Stefan Gramel, engineer and technical expert in the Middle East water sector, and Stefan Zeeb, head of the Middle East department at KfW Development Bank.

The Middle East is THE region that is synonymous with “water crisis”. What are the key challenges?

Stefan Zeeb: In the Middle East, the first problem is water availability. This varies considerably from country to country, but we are talking about a fraction of the water that is available in Germany. The next question is how water is distributed among the various users – agriculture, supply of drinking water, water for industrial use and also tourism, which is an important source of foreign currency in many countries. Who has access to water and how is its distribution regulated? Water distribution has to be examined not only at national level, but also at intergovernmental level – who is allowed to use groundwater, water from rivers or the sea – which of course do not respect borders? How much water still reaches users in the country next door after it is withdrawn from a river?

Dr Stefan Gramel: I would like to mention a few figures that support what Stefan Zeeb said: in Jordan, fewer than 100 cubic metres of renewable water resources are available per inhabitant per year, whereas in the USA, for example, there are more than 9,000 and in Germany around 1,600. In Jordan, groundwater overuse has caused the water table to fall by one to ten metres per year. The result is that water containing salt is increasingly finding its way into the important groundwater reservoirs – a process that is not reversible. This clearly shows the region’s high level of vulnerability to climate change, as evidenced by water scarcity and drought.

To make these issues more tangible, can you describe a project in which the various challenges are being addressed?

Gramel: Water recycling comes to mind as a typical example of dealing with water scarcity; it is practised in Jordan, but also in the Palestinian Territories. In northern Jordan, water is treated in wastewater treatment plants and then reused in agriculture for irrigation. The fresh water is kept for use as drinking water. We are talking about 10 to 15 million cubic metres, which is the amount needed by about 400,000 people a year.

German FC has been involved in the water supply and wastewater sector in the region for many years. How did its involvement start and in what direction has it developed?

Zeeb: Development cooperation in the water sector began in the 1960s by tapping into drinking water resources – and this does not mean drilling village wells where women pumped by hand, but larger wells for residential areas and, in connection with this, drinking water treatment and distribution via networks. The next step is wastewater collection and treatment, in other words the construction of wastewater treatment plants with different technologies that have been developed over the years. The issue of desalination has become more important in recent years. Groundwater aquifers are increasingly salinated; this so-called brackish water – not as salty as seawater – can be treated and then used as drinking water. But there are also more and more seawater desalination plants in the Middle East and North Africa, which are important additional sources of drinking water. This is associated with higher costs, in part because desalination plants consume a lot of energy. The issues of energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy in water supply and wastewater disposal are also gaining in importance.

Gramel: I would like to add that the issues of climate change mitigation and adaptation have become increasingly important in recent years. Take Jordan, for example: 15 per cent of the electricity consumed goes to the water industry. In Germany it is less than one per cent. Adaptation to climate change is an important aspect when we design projects.

Once again for non-experts: what concrete measures are being implemented in the area of climate change mitigation and energy efficiency?

Gramel: Energy efficiency means, for example, using energy-efficient pumps. In a first project in Jordan, we are using 20 to 30 per cent less electricity. But this also means using renewable energy sources.

In Israel more than half of the national water requirements are met by desalination of seawater. Is this also an option for the FC partner countries in the region?

Zeeb: Similar projects are being planned in the Middle East, especially in Jordan, where the demand for water has risen sharply, not least because of the large number of refugees. KfW has financed its first projects in Tunisia and Morocco because water availability there is also very limited. Here, too, desalination is an expensive option – because it is very energy-intensive – but sometimes there is simply no alternative. A large plant is currently being planned for the Gaza Strip – not by German development cooperation – where efforts are underway to meet the demand for electricity from renewable sources. In the Gaza Strip this will not be possible without subsidies, while elsewhere – for example in tourist centres in Tunisia – the costs are covered.

Zisterne im Jemen
Nablus West wastewater treatment plant.
The influx of refugees from Syria and Iraq, for example, is exacerbating the water shortage. How does KfW Development Bank’s commitment look in Jordan or Lebanon, for example?

Gramel: I'll start with Jordan. Refugee crisis in Jordan – this means around 1.3 million refugees. The first wave of refugees to Jordan came mainly to the border region in the north, where the water supply in the host communities almost collapsed at various times. This is because most of the refugees do not live in refugee camps, but in local communities. Projects to rehabilitate wells and improve the water transport system were quickly implemented, thus securing the supply for about 500,000 people. According to our Jordanian partners, this was the most important project to stabilise the water supply in the communities in the north of Jordan. This was followed by the construction of the Aqip pipeline for water transport, but house connections were also installed for Syrian refugees. This is one aspect of our commitment; the second is – together with UNICEF – the Zaatari refugee camp, one of the largest refugee camps in the world. KfW and UNICEF have set up the water supply and wastewater disposal system there.

Zeeb: Lebanon is even more affected by the refugee crisis, with its population of 4.5 million and the 1.5 million Syrian refugees it has taken in. It's a situation that is practically unthinkable for us. For the circumstances to be comparable in Germany, we would have to take in 20 million people. A system that was not really efficient beforehand has come under extreme stress in Jordan. That is where our support – partly in cooperation with UN organisations – took the form of smaller measures to stabilise the drinking water supply. As a next step, particularly in the Beirut metropolitan area, we are working together with Lebanese partners – very much like in Jordan – and identifying bottlenecks, examining where we can improve water supply and wastewater disposal in host communities with comparatively modest funds. As one can imagine, this is difficult given the current political and economic crisis in Lebanon.

You yourself are active even in civil war-torn Yemen. What are you doing there? And how can you ensure that the funds are used for the planned measures?

Gramel: Since 2016, cholera – a water-induced illness – has been a recurring theme in the press in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world. More than 1.5 million people have contracted cholera and it is estimated that well over 3,000 people have died of the illness. In the current coronavirus pandemic, we are seeing how even a country like Germany with an efficient healthcare system is being pushed to the limits of its capacity. This is something we must not forget.

So what are we doing in Yemen? We are working together with partner organisations there, one of which is the Social Fund for Development (SFD), a non-profit organisation that has been active in Yemen for many years, even in very remote regions. The SFD – which employs only Yemeni staff – often works closely with village communities, and these are often very small-scale measures. We are also working with UNICEF in the water sector, but mainly in cities where there are also many IDPs in need of a supply.

The construction of a basin to collect rainwater in Yemen.

Large-scale infrastructure measures, which we have described in Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories, are currently neither possible nor practical in Yemen. In Yemen, for example, very simple domestic water filters are made, enabling the production of sufficiently high-quality drinking water that will not cause cholera. Another approach is collecting rainwater in cisterns and basins. The construction of latrines is important, also to contain the spread of cholera. There are also ongoing hygiene campaigns to reduce infection rates. Another measure is the use of photovoltaics for wells, because electricity supply is a major problem in a country experiencing this kind of crisis.

But the funds for projects and salaries can still be transferred?

Zeeb: Yes, we have been working with the SFD for a long time and have been able to establish a system by which the funds are disbursed in small tranches. This minimises the risk that funds do not end up where they are supposed to be used. And we have – although no Frankfurt KfW employee has been in the country for almost seven years due to the security situation – an office with local colleagues on site who, depending on the security situation, can travel around the country to look at projects and monitor how funds are used. The results are – and it is difficult to imagine – quite impressive. We get very striking images – the population is very creative and people find impressive solutions to help themselves. Not comparable with a large wastewater treatment plant, but exactly the right thing for this situation. We are talking about tens of millions of euros, which we can implement in many small projects

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