Our ancestors have created astounding water management systems and applications that helped them combat the harsh climate and scarce natural resources in many parts of this universe. Read on to know how ancient civilizations used indigenous knowledge in water management, and how innovation and entrepreneurship can ward off the water crisis facing the entire MENA region.
The Golden Past
Within MENA and since the 4th century BCE, the strongest civilizations made it through arid and semis arid conditions mainly due to their robust water technologies and hydraulic engineering. In the 14th century, the deliberations of the great Tunis-born social scientist and scholar Ibn Khaldun indicated that resilient dynasties were supported by the establishment of cities. He also highlighted the provision of freshwater as one of the few critical requirements for anchoring cities and sustaining civilizations.
Petra, a 2,000-year-old capital of the Nabatean Kingdom (South of Jordan nowadays), contains invaluable evidence of such indigenous innovations. Using sophisticated water technology, the Nabataeans were able to ensure a continuous water supply throughout the year and simultaneously mitigate the dangerous effects of flashfloods. They focused on the deep understanding of all sources of water available and on adopting techniques to best monitor, harness, maintain, and utilize those resources. They balanced their reservoir water storage capacity with their pipeline system and utilized particle-settling basins to purify water for drinking purposes.
The Nabataeans’ extensive understanding of their constraints and strengths allowed them to create a system that maximized water flow rates while minimizing leakage and supported a prosperous life for many years later.
Innovation is not about engineering and science only; water markets and decentralized management of water resources are important aspects in times when regulatory bodies and water user associations struggle to master. Oman enjoys one of the most ancient community-based water management schemes that was based on water rights, institutions, and markets.
Water prices were adjusted to respond to changes in demand and supply. Well established water rights, transparent management and allowing for water trading were major contributors to improved management of irrigation water back then.
The Future is Here
While the potential to innovate in the water sector is limitless, it is still under exploited in the MENA region. Information technology, data management, telecommunication, artificial intelligence, and many other tools create opportunities to innovate and contribute to robust water management solutions and to socioeconomic development.
In the MENA region, innovation and entrepreneurship have never been as central to development plans as they are today. Creating an enabling environment for tech startups that would attract investment, create jobs, and boost socioeconomic development is a common goal across the region. As far as water is concerned, and despite the strategic significance of the sector, water innovations that could enter the market and find their way within and beyond the region are very few.
Most recently, the trending concepts of green growth and climate-smart solutions are reigniting the spark for more locally anchored water innovations to help alleviate both the economic and social stresses associated with water scarcity and poor management systems. In parallel, impact investing is becoming more popular, and today’s investors are searching for companies with a strong environment, social and governance (ESG) framework to invest in.
If one is to find a positive side for the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be the refocus it brought to local production and self-dependence. Whether in food, energy, or water; availability and affordability cannot be jeopardized. Since 2019, programs targeting innovations and startups in the food security and agri-tech domain have been expanding. Special innovation hubs, accelerators, incubators, and competitions were launched to support the water, energy, and food nexus with a strong link to climate change and social inclusion.
One example is the WE4F MENA Regional Innovation Hub which supports innovators with proven solutions tackling water and/or energy issues in urban or rural food production to scale up through multiple financial and non-financial tools. As such efforts gain more momentum, local needs started to emerge including up-skilling and knowledge management. Young graduates carry a relatively enough theoretical information about a single topic/specialty, yet most of those engineering, science and business graduates lack the practical skills and understanding of the nexus and the interconnectivity between water, food, energy, society, and environment. This led to the design of several upskilling and training programs to bridge the knowledge gap and introduce the young generation to the future.
A promising example of such upskilling modules is the one implemented through a partnership between The Sahara Forest Project and Al Hussein Technical University (HTU) in Jordan. This Upskilling Program for Female Engineers in Agritech and Food Security is being piloted on 30 young females from various Jordanian governorates that got selected based on an open application and preset criteria. The participating trainees are exposed to field training at The Sahara Forest Project in Aqaba, technical lectures and seminars by practitioners, mentorship by female leaders, and inspirational talks by market experts.
The objective of such programs should not be to only help the unemployed youth find jobs but rather to widen their perspective to be able to create opportunities for themselves and for their peers and local communities. Re-anchoring the value of agriculture, water, energy, and nature is by itself a trigger for transformation in the future of work in the MENA region.