Wastewater reuse potential in the Middle East and North Africa

Shifting weather patterns and burgeoning populations are driving unprecedented water stresses around the world. Nowhere is this growing thirst more keenly felt than in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The naturally arid region has seen temperatures increase and rainfall decrease due to climate change. Together with rapid urbanization and a 50% rise in population over the past two decades, these changes have made MENA the most water-stressed region on the planet. Without urgent action, many of the region’s governments will simply not have enough water to meet the demands of their citizens by the end of the decade.

In 2022, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and partners completed an ambitious four-year project titled ReWater MENA. The aim of this project was to find solutions to this worrying trend of increasing water scarcity from an unlikely source - wastewater.

Safe water reuse

Wastewater is often seen as just another unwanted consequence of population growth and increased water demand. The amount of wastewater generated in the MENA region has doubled over the past 30 years, but the region’s capacity to treat this wastewater has often lagged. As a result, trillions of liters of untreated wastewater are released into the environment every year. This is damaging aquatic environments and contaminating freshwater supplies, exacerbating water scarcity for millions of people.

Under the ReWater MENA project, IWMI championed water reuse to turn this problem on its head by viewing the region’s increasing volume of wastewater generated as a valuable opportunity. The project showed how properly treated wastewater can be an important source of water for forestry, farming and industry, and also a source of nutrients, such as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, for agriculture and aquaculture.

Water reuse projects in the MENA region have increased from 40 in 1990 to more than 400 today. However, persistent challenges mean that only 10% of the region’s wastewater is directly treated and reused. Focusing on Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, the ReWater MENA project facilitated inclusive and participatory stakeholder engagement to address these challenges. Through this project, IWMI promoted safe reuse practices that improve food safety and health, strengthen livelihoods and help close the region’s water supply–demand gap.

Obstacles to wastewater reclamation

Obstacles to reuse include public perception that reclaimed wastewater is unclean and unhealthy, a scarcity of economic data that hinders investment in reuse efforts, a lack of political urgency, unclear regulations and ineffectual implementation of legislation or a lack of legislation in some countries.

In response to these challenges, IWMI and project partners recommended timely and effective communication materials and public engagement to build trust among farmers and other potential beneficiaries. The project team suggested the creation of bankable water reuse business models and implementation plans to bolster investor confidence. The project also addressed institutional fragmentation and inaction by creating platforms for political cooperation and negotiation to clarify national and local responsibilities.

From research to policy

IWMI presented the findings and recommendations of the ReWater MENA project in several publications. These include a MENA water reuse sourcebook, which documents lessons from existing water reuse innovations and models, as well as previous management challenges; a policy report on expanding water reuse in the region; and a scientific paper quantifying rural and urban wastewater generation and reuse potential in the MENA region. The project team also produced national water reuse strategies for Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, as well as local water reuse plans for six sites in these countries.

Project findings were also disseminated at high-level events. At Cairo Water Week in October 2022, Javier Mateo-Sagasta (Senior Researcher and Coordinator-Water Quality, IWMI, and Leader – ReWater MENA project) offered policy recommendations for improved water reuse to the High-Level Joint Water-Agriculture Technical Committee of the League of Arab States. The following month saw IWMI present the ReWater MENA sourcebook to policymakers and implementers at the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP27), sharing advice on safe water reuse and stressing the many social, environmental and economic benefits it can bring.

These events marked the culmination of the project. Over the course of four years, the ReWater MENA project conducted much-needed research into the state of wastewater and water reuse, equipped stakeholders across the region to implement sustainable water reuse models and fostered political will to help alleviate water stress in the MENA region. As the ReWater MENA project policy report states, “wastewater is only a waste if we decide to waste it.”

We gratefully acknowledge the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) for its contributions to ReWater MENA.