American University of Beirut

Water: A Key Driver for Sustainable Growth

​​​Working Pa​​​per #52

Author: Jamal Saghir, Professor of Practice, Institute for the Study of International Development at McGill University, Affiliated Scholar, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut, Senior Fellow, the Payne Institute for Public Policy, Colorado School of Mines.​
October 2019​


Water is a key driver for sustainable growth as it is an input to almost all production, in agriculture, industry, energy, transport, and so on. But it can also be a factor for destruction, caused by natural hazards such as drought, flood, landslides, inundation, desertification, erosion, as well as men-induced disasters such as epidemic, contamination, and diseases. Water is a source of life and prosperity while simultaneously being a cause of death and devastation.

Achieving basic water security, harnessing the productive potential of water, and limiting its destructive impacts, has been a constant struggle since the beginning of time. “Throughout history, water has also been a source of dispute and even conflict between uses and between users, particularly where water crosses jurisdictional boundaries at both local and larger scales".

Similar to the past, water resources development and management remain at the heart of the modern struggle for growth and sustainable development in many developed and developing countries. This has been the case in all industrial countries, most of which invested heavily in water infrastructure, institutions, and management capacity in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It remains the case in many countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region today, where investments in water infrastructure development and management have been lacking and remain an urgent priority. As water becomes ever scarcer relatively to demand, there are continuous fears of transboundary waters, in particular in the MENA region, becoming a source of conflict and constraining growth.

As former Director of the World Bank involved in water and infrastructure related issues for over two decades across the planet, I have a first-hand experience of water-security issues, what works, what should be done at what scale, and of course several bad experiences of poor management of this vital resource, the latter being ​notorious in the MENA region. Apart from being used as a political tool, water can also be a trigger for violent conflict.

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