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Publication | 11 August 2022

The State of Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture in the Near East and North Africa region

Key messages

  • The NENA region is dominated by deserts and a harsh environment. The main characteristics are a high level of aridity and water stress, poor soils and limited arable land. Climate change projections predict higher temperatures and rainfall decrease, with more drought and extreme events. The region will experience an average mean temperature increase of 1.7 °C to 2.6 °Cdroughts are expected to increase in frequency by 150 percent between 2020 and 2070, and flash floods will threaten coastal and low-lying agricultural areas such as the Nile Delta.

  • NENA is the only region in the world where harvest area shrinkage is expected by 2050. Crop yields are expected to decline due to a decrease in productivity accompanied by a shortage in the length of crop cycles. Rainfed farming systems are the most vulnerable farming system to climate change, which will threaten wheat, barley and other staple crops. Smallholders will be hardest hit by climate change, as well as populations living in the least developed countries (LDCs) and countries in conflict, due to low capacities to adapt, despite more moderate increases of temperature in some cases. NENA countries will rely increasingly on imports to meet their populations’ needs.

  • Water is the number one limiting factor for agriculture in the NENA region. Understanding the sources of water withdrawals is key to understanding water stress in the region. Desalination is particularly important, given that about 50 percent of the world’s desalination capacity is in the NENA region.

  • Irrigation accounts on average for 85 percent of water use. Agriculture accounts for 13 percent of gross domestic product (GDP)Climate-smart agricultural practices need to be promoted: crop diversification, use of heat- and salt-tolerant crops, conservation agriculture with minimum tillage and crop rotation, adapted animal, fish and aquaculture varieties, and modification of sowing and planting time according to rainfall patterns.

  • Freshwater availability per capita declined in NENA by 78 percent between in the past 50 years. This is much higher than the global figure of 59 percent. Nine NENA countries had reductions in freshwater availability per capita of over 80 percent, including all Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.

  • Water stress levels are high in all NENA countries (except Mauritania). Water stress ranges in NENA vary from 47 percent in Iraq to 3 850 percent in Kuwait. Values above 100 percent indicate overuse of water and/or a reliance on desalinated water. The world average of water stress is just over 18 percent (2018).

  • Water-use efficiency is variable in the region. Almost half of NENA countries had levels of water-use efficiency greater than the world value in 2018. Good performance in water-use efficiency is generally found in the Mashreq and Gulf regions rather than the Maghreb. The NENA region has the highest percentage of cropland under irrigation in comparison with the global average, indicating a high dependency on water for agricultural production.

  • Acknowledging and responding to the value of water will help to increase water productivity, deter wastage and overexploitation of water resources and promote water reallocation.

  • Adoption of a circular economy for water that considers water reuse, better water accounting, and more effective water allocation mechanisms is urgently needed and where it exists, should be scaled out.

  • Arable land is scarce in NENA. Under 5 percent of NENA’s total land is arable, less than half of the global average. Twelve out of 19 NENA countries have less than 5 percent arable land. Arable land’s share of total land in the region ranges from 0.25 percent to 25 percent. Arable land per capita is variable, with the lowest found in GCC countries (except Saudi Arabia).

  • Forestland cover is limited in the region. Forests covered 2.47 percent of the total land area in the region in 2020 and OWL accounts for 2.36 percent. The NENA region experienced a loss of 12.5 percent in its forest cover and 16.9 of OWL between 1990 and 2020.

  • Land degradation is a significant feature of the region. Soil salinity, water erosion and pollution are major challenges. Restoration of land and soil health for sustainable agriculture is a priority.

  • Today, over one-quarter of NENA’s 19 countries are affected by conflictThe NENA region hosts more than 40 million international migrants, of whom 14 million are intraregional migrants and more than 2 million are intraregional refugees. Migrants, refugees and IDPs add pressure on the land in the areas where they settle, leading to land degradation and desertification. Two-thirds of the rural population are impoverished. Urban poverty is also notable, up to 20 percent in some cities.

  • Aquaculture has emerged as an important sector in NENA. Aquaculture doubled its production in ten years to reach 1.7 million tonnes and USD 2.3 billion worth in 2018. Aquaculture development has occurred with limited impact on land and water use, as good technologies are employed