Unblocking the cycle of water stress, crises and innovation in drylands

Urbanising regions in drylands often face environmental problems – particularly water stress. When people in these areas are also responding to other crises, such as conflict or refugee flows, it becomes difficult for them to implement long-term solutions. IIED is looking at ways to strengthen resilience in crisis-hit dryland regions, focusing initially on environmental challenges in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and the arid lands of Kenya.


Stormclouds gather over the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, where aid agencies provide emergency help, but long-term planning is needed to deal with wider environmental stresses (Photo: Hadi Jaafar, Diane Archer, Akram Hajj Hassan and Caroline King-Okumu/IIED)

Water stress and climate stresses in urbanising dryland regions can result in reduced human well-being. Short and long-term environmental challenges of concern to people in the drylands include water shortages, water quality concerns and depletion of groundwater tables (PDF). This leads to increased energy demand and costs for water pumping, treatment and regulation.

There are many ways in which human populations can innovate to overcome these problems. But crises make these innovations more difficult to apply. This is because planning strategically and bringing people together to overcome shared environmental challenges can be more complicated when crisis situations are occurring.

Crisis responses, such as poorly planned increases in numbers of wells, accelerated extraction rates and temporary settlements with makeshift sanitation arrangements, can also further add to the pressures on the environment. These problems can concentrate in and around urban areas.

All too often, vulnerable people are wrongly blamed for creating environmental degradation, when underlying institutional and governance failures may be a big part of the problem.

For example, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, the accommodation of displaced people from Syria and elsewhere has been blamed for making existing environmental challenges worse. But lack of strategic planning to alleviate their situation has left them reliant on inadequate sanitation systems and water supply infrastructure that was intended for other users and uses.

International humanitarian organisations play an important role in relieving immediate suffering. But they often have neither the remit nor capacity to engage with longer-term environmental stresses, nor do they encourage or enable long-term strategic planning by the local and national institutions. 

Several thousand miles to the south, in the arid lands of Kenya, drought emergencies and international crisis responses have been a recurrent part of life for decades. The result has been a deepening cycle of destitution, dependence, and compounded disasters.

To break this cycle, international partners have supported the Kenyan National Drought Management Authority in an initiative to end drought emergencies by devolving strategic planning and finance to the county, sub-county and ward levels

Changes and innovation can appear during crises. Large-scale humanitarian intervention in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley is creating new opportunities as well as challenges. Additional experienced staff are being seconded into local government offices. Survey work focusing on access to water and other services is generating new data.

Similar changes can be observed in some parts of Northern Kenya. All of this could enable the improved natural resource monitoring and long-term strategic planning that are necessary to achieve sustainable development.

In both contexts, balancing water stress under a difficult and variable dryland climate requires:

  • A dedicated strategic focus on water and environmental challenges, coupled with an understanding of the inherent climatic variability, resource value and wealth of energies and human capacities that characterise the drylands
  • A recognition that the absolute demands on water availability by low-income groups are often small, while health, well-being, social and economic benefits of providing adequate water to marginalised groups (including refugees, internally displaced people, and low-income urban residents) can be substantial, and
  • An effective and sustained collaborative approach among all those involved to enable progressive improvement of public databases and participatory scientific capacities to build confidence in their credibility and use in decision-making, despite the crisis-driven nature of international and national agendas.

Local solutions to building resilience

IIED is willing to work with interested local, national and international partners to develop collaborative, inclusive scientific explorations of climate variability and water withdrawal intensity to balance water stress in the drylands.

We are also interested in understanding the intersection between the water needs of local domestic and agricultural users, and available options to reintegrate these needs. These needs are mediated through local government institutions and civil society institutions. Understanding of the challenges, and increased support for the local institutions, is needed to provide a basis for strategic planning and investment in shared environmental solutions to shared problems.

IIED is looking at ways to strengthen resilience in crisis-hit dryland regions, focusing initially on environmental challenges in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and the arid lands of Kenya (Image: IIED)

Crises make environment and development planning, field level observation, implementation, learning and collaboration harder. But if we wait for the crises to end before we start preparing for a better future, it will never happen.

What IIED is doing

IIED is exploring how to transform water and climate stresses in urbanising dryland regions, particularly those affected by humanitarian emergencies.

In the context of the Bekaa Valley, our analysis suggests there are several entry points for developing a long-term strategic approach to water and environmental stresses. These include:

  • A pilot climate mitigation and adaptation planning process to strengthen local institutions, and build financial and planning capacity across local, regional and national scales, as well as improved coordination of international actors
  • Pilot investments in municipalities designed to simultaneously adapt to and mitigate climate change, achieve the water and energy-related Sustainable Development Goals and build economic activity, and
  • Enhanced information management and analysis on the present and anticipated future balance between water extraction and availability, including regular reports on water stress and strategic plans to overcome it. 


Balancing water stress, human crises and innovation under a changing dryland climate, Hadi Jaafar, Diane Archer, Ihab Jomaa, Diane Machayekhi, Elie Mansour, Hassan Machlab, Caroline King-​Okumu (2016), IIED Briefing Paper

Balancing water stress and human crises under a changing climate: integrating international policy agendas in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, Caroline King-​Okumu, Hadi Jaafar, Diane Archer (2016), IIED Report

Water resources within the Upper Orontes and Litani Basins: a balance, demand and supply analysis amid the Syrian refugees crisis, Hadi Jaafar, Caroline King-​Okumu, Mohammad Haj-​Hassan, Chafik Abdallah, Nour El-​Korek, Farah Ahmad (2016), IIED Report

Balancing water stress and human crises in the Bekaa Valley, Caroline King-​Okumu, Hadi Jaafar and Diane Archer (2016), IIED Reflect and Act

Dryland resilience-building under a difficult and changing climate - the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon (2016), IIED Workshop Report | Arabic 


Caroline King-Okumu (Caroline.King-Okumu@iied.org), senior researcher (dryland ecosystems and economic assessment), IIED's Climate Change research group