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The Sea of Galilee in Israel has reached the lowest levels ever recorded, with fears that, if the government continues to pump it at current rates, the country's main fresh water reservoir could reach the point of no return.

And the situation is likely to deteriorate if climate change models prove to be accurate. Earlier this year, the UN released a report estimating that a 3°-4°C rise in temperatures could lead to a drop of up to 35% in agricultural output. However, more localised analysis by Australian scientists suggests that some parts of the region, such as Iraq, may see more rainfall.

Nevertheless, the forecast looks dry for the Middle East. But lack of rain is not the real problem, according to Jonathan Chenoweth of the Centre for Environmental Strategy. "I believe the looming water crisis is primarily a problem of distribution and management rather than supply," he wrote in a recent New Scientist article.

In addition to water efficiency and desalination technologies, the major pillar of his strategy would be for arid and semi-arid countries to import "virtual water" in the form of food because agriculture consumes some 90% of water supplies. These countries would shift to less water-intensive sectors, such as trade and services.

Although largely unspoken, this is the direction in which the Middle East has been heading for decades. In fact, the term virtual water was probably coined by Tony Allan of SOAS in reference to the region. Without it, the region may have suffered severe famines by now. For instance, Egypt, with some of the most productive land in the world, imports more than half of its food owing to water shortages and population growth.

Soon-to-be-published research carried out by Chenoweth suggests that "by importing virtual water, a country could offer a high quality of life with as little as 135 litres of water per person per day".

While this theory is promising at certain levels, it seems to overlook some crucial issues. While the more developed Middle Eastern countries with a smaller population, such as Israel, Lebanon and Dubai are successfully shifting their economies towards trade and service, it is difficult to see how many others will be able to reduce their economic dependence on agriculture and manufacturing.

Egypt, for instance, has a large educated population and its economy has a robust and rapidly growing service sector, including IT. Nevertheless, agriculture accounts for 14% of the country's GDP and employs a quarter of the labour force. In addition, cash crops and cotton textiles and clothes are among Egypt's main exports. Moreover, other large sectors of the economy, such as steel, manufacturing and chemicals are heavy water users.

If Egypt, a middle income, relatively developed country has such difficulty shifting its economy towards water-light sectors, what of less-developed countries? Sudan, for instance, overall has abundant water supplies, yet it is unable even to meet food shortages within its own border. The situation is even worse in Ethiopia where I personally witnessed UN food aid being distributed only miles away from the source of the Blue Nile, Lake Tana.

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