Strengthening National Capacities to Manage Water Scarcity and Drought in West Asia and North Africa
Project 121C "ROA-207"

Droughts are complex events generally associated with greatly reduced precipitation, dry soil that impairs agricultural production, and reduced water levels in reservoirs and other bodies of water that can compromise drinking supplies and natural resources. Drought is a contributing factor to conflict, and conflict also makes drought situations worse, in turn causing famine and economic hardship. Many areas affected by drought are arid to semi-arid which tend to be under substantial ecological pressure and low in resources. When drought occurs in such arid regions, the living conditions of the local people become very difficult; the land yields no crops and the quantity of water is insufficient. People often compete for the availability of scarce water resources, which can lead to tension and violent conflict.

Water scarcity, drought and the efforts to maintain and build peace are intricately connected. The interaction of these three elements remains the focal point of this project. Drought does not inevitably lead to conflict; however, by causing poverty, marginalization and migration, drought creates the conditions that make violence an attractive option for disempowered communities. Drought may require families to break up, as young farmers either move to the city in search of work or join militias as promising outlets to poverty; the latter option adding to social and economic instability and the potential for violent conflict. The economic impacts of drought are a fundamental explanation for these behaviours. As farmers and their communities become desperate, they are often recruited by government or reactionary militias. Marginalized agriculturalists are often cited as one such group that is often recruited to fight proxy wars where they are able to raid cattle. This also applies to nomads. Civil stability is then compromised through the deterioration of social groups and communities. Drought can also lead to migration, which in turn can lead to conflict over settlement and further social instability and fragmentation.


Water scarcity and drought have severe adverse implications for sustainable development in countries and regions affected by transition settings. As climate change has increased the frequency and intensity of droughts, developing areas have been affected by decreases in agricultural production, grain shortages, and increases in food insecurity, famine, and loss of human life. These issues not only affect human livelihood, but also discourage investment in the agricultural sector, hinder economic development, obstruct peace-building efforts, and carry the risk of invoking repeated violent conflicts. Sustainable development challenges associated with the prevention and management of drought are also the focus of chapter 12 of Agenda 21 and Chapter IV of the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (agreed upon at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development) titled “Protecting and Managing the Natural Resource Base of Economic and Social Development”, which also details the responses to drought.

It is well documented that drought has become more frequent in most of the Arab countries in transition settings, located in arid and semi-arid areas of North Africa and West Asia where rainfall is low and its distribution is highly variable, especially over the last three decades. This region is also host to various local, national and international conflicts and violence. Poverty, water and food insecurity, and inequality in the Arab world are much higher than income levels would suggest. Major causes for these socio-economic challenges are linked to water scarcity and ongoing conflicts. The series of protests and demonstrations across the Arab world known as the "Arab Spring" underscores the importance of quickly and effectively responding to these challenges. This is especially true considering the current and predicted effects of ongoing climate change, as countries in transition settings are the most vulnerable and disproportionately suffer from water scarcity due to their lack of built infrastructure, as well as human and social capital.


The available water per capita in some Arab countries is already below the severe poverty level. The increase of frequency and intensity of droughts over the last two decades has resulted in the reduction of grain and livestock production. This has affected the price and increased the imports of agricultural products, especially cereals, in many countries such as Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, etc. Other consequences of drought are land and water resource degradation and loss of biodiversity due to overgrazing and deforestation

Current national drought management strategies in countries in transition settings in West Asia and North Africa are ex-post (reactive) and tend to emphasize the emergency relief that takes effect after or during a drought event. These reactive emergency responses often do not incorporate methods that support water conflict prevention, and are designed to meet the urgent needs of vulnerable populations. Long-term drought management plans and risk reduction strategies that implement action before drought events take place are often overlooked due to the following key factors:

1.Lack of capacity to monitor and forecast droughts.

2.Lack of technical knowledge to implement ex-ante adaptation strategies.

3.Lack of information sharing between stakeholders at different levels.

Drought not only hinders development efforts and threatens the livelihood of communities in arid and semi-arid areas of West Asia and North Africa, but also increases the risk of violent conflict over water between sectors or different groups of users in the same sector. Similarly, water conflict can involve different parties: public-public, public-private and private-private. When water becomes scarce and unavailable, social frameworks break down and populations can resort to violence in order to meet basic needs. The central government’s response to drought-affected regions can, to some extent, determine where and when conflict breaks out. Delayed aid can often create feelings of marginalization and alienation among the affected groups, and these communities may form different factions and rebel groups to address their frustration with the central government. In such contexts, conflict may erupt among the rebel groups, and between the rebels and the government in power.

Figure 1 is a problem tree diagram showing the cause-effect relationship between the problem conditions associated with water scarcity and droughts and the subsequent major threat multipliers that lead to conflict and violence in countries in transition settings in West Asia and North Africa.

Stakeholder and Capacity Assessment

The stakeholders considered are those actors who are directly or indirectly affected by drought and water scarcity, and who could affect the outcome of a decision-making process regarding that issue or are affected by it. Stakeholders’ active participation as water users is also an important factor and efficient mechanism for water conflict prevention and resolution.

For effective project implementation, it is essential to understand and consider stakeholders and ensure that they are engaged and understand long-term options for dealing with drought. It is important to recognize that multiple factors define the groups of stakeholders, and consideration of these groups is a necessary component of analysis. Proper analysis should account for each stakeholder’s interests, influential mechanisms for information sharing, motives for collaboration, potential risks, key informants for all project phases and any obstacles to involvement.

Copyright United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs