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Sun 27 May 2007 12:00 AM

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Region 'must change practices' to avoid water shortage catastrophe

The Mideast must address the problem of water shortage before it is too late, experts say.

The Middle East must address the problem of water shortage before it is too late, according to a panel of industry experts.

"We can't continue with ‘business as usual' in the water sector," said Christian Decker, regional managing director at MWH Middle East. "If we do not look at how we manage water effectively, things will spiral downwards." Home to 5% of the world's population, the Middle East only has 1% of the world's freshwater resources. A UNDP Human Development Report in 2006 identified it is as one of the most water scarce regions in the world, and a 170 billion cubic metre water shortage is predicted for 2035.

Decker added that sectoral reform, including the need to pay for services around water use, would vastly improve water efficiency. He also highlighted several water-efficient technological solutions such as drip irrigation, and the need for countries to choose the right crop for the local environment. Energy-rich countries, such as the oil-rich Gulf states, should be questioned for using desalinated water to grow bananas, Decker said.

He was joined in his concern by Helmy Abouleish, vice-chairman and managing director of Egypt's Sekem Group. With a rapidly growing population and increased water demand, Abouleish warned that the country could not continue with its current agricultural practices.

"In the long term, we have to reduce the number of people working in agriculture," he said. "Today, 50% of the Egyptian population is involved in the agricultural sector. This is much too high to be efficient."

He added that there are, however, many opportunities to save large amounts of water and use it better, including organic farming, which is conducive to better water holding capacity and creates less soil damage and carbon emissions, compared to using chemicals and fertilizers.

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