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Parched And Hungry In The Middle East

Middle Eastern countries are being forced to choose between food and water, The New York Times reports:

For decades nations in [the Middle East and North Africa] have drained aquifers, sucked the salt from seawater and diverted the mighty Nile to make the deserts bloom. But those projects were so costly and used so much water that it remained far more practical to import food than to produce it. Today, some countries import 90 percent or more of their staples. Now, the worldwide food crisis is making many countries in this politically volatile region rethink that math.

It's yet another perfect storm in global resource scarcity. But what stands out about this crisis is how it was borne out of these countries' desire for self-sufficiency. Their plans seem to be the stuff of quasi-utopian fantasies: turning arid desert into lush farmland, growing enough food for a desert nation to feed itself. On the surface, such plans sound a lot like the recent calls for countries to become more resource-independent: America needs to assert its energy independence! Africa should learn to grow its own food!

But the call for national self-sufficiency only makes sense in the cases where a country has the resources and capacity to meet its demands sustainably; for everything else, a healthy regional trade network may be the best solution. According to this logic, the Mideast food/water crisis seems like the textbook example for the law of comparative advantage: Produce what you do best and look to your neighbors for the rest.

Some countries are already taking note. The Times story points out oil-rich Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are now looking for farmland in Pakistan and Sudan, despite the political volatility in those regions. "These countries have the land and the water...We have the money," one official from Bahrain is quoted as saying.

If these kinds of linkages and investments are made, it might not only help alleviate the Middle East's food/water crisis; it also could provide an opportunity for countries like Sudan and Pakistan to become more politically stable. Of course, a warmer investment climate is hardly the harbinger of positive political developments (Zimbabwe, anyone?). But if the Middle East's food supply become strongly linked to these places, they'd have a vested interest in ensuring that these countries aren't about to blow up in their faces--and they'd have greater leverage to do something about it. 

 --Suzy Khimm