Climate Change in the Arab World: An Existential Threat in an Unstable Region

In the mid-2010s, several years into Syria’s brutal civil war, a theory emerged that perhaps the conflict was even more complicated than originally conceived. Was it possible that a long-term drought in the Mediterranean region in the 2000s, prompted by climate change, had encouraged a migration from rural to urban areas that increased unemployment, poverty, and ultimately, the social tensions that contributed to war? The prominent global advocate for climate change policy, former Vice President Al Gore posited that this was one of the primary reasons for the Syrian civil war; other political figures like President Barack Obama and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) echoed this sentiment. While further research refuted the claim, by then the seed had been planted. Climate change was not just a scientific debate over temperatures but was clearly a factor to consider in the entirety of social, political, and economic dynamics.

There are many areas where climate-related issues are already posing problems for countries around the world. Due to preexisting high temperatures, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is particularly sensitive to climate change-related outcomes. If these issues cause friction between nations, geopolitical instability and increased conflict would not be surprising. For example, there is speculation that climate change-related food shortages may have encouraged rural farmers in Iraq to support the Islamic State (IS) organization; this dynamic has been seen in other areas like Sudan, as desperate civilians faced with a loss in livelihood look for help. Across the region, climate change and poor environmental practices are threatening unstable systems. To complicate matters, Arab countries have a large proportion of the world’s crude oil reserves, complicating efforts to put restraints on the sectors that are sustaining several economies but accelerating global warming. How will the impending ramifications of climate change play out in the already fragile Arab region? Importantly, are the states in the region taking the incoming challenges seriously?

Uncomfortable and Dangerous Heat

Many of the risks of climate change are side effects of overall increasing temperatures. Yet the temperatures themselves pose substantial threats, especially in the Arab region, which may see average temperatures increase by 4 degrees C (or 7.2 degrees F) by the end of the 21st century. In July 2020, Baghdad recorded its highest temperature on record, reaching 125 degrees F and breaking the previous record set in just 2015. Just four years earlier, the hottest temperatures ever recorded in the Eastern Hemisphere, and maybe the entire world, were in Basra, Iraq, and Mitribah, Kuwait, which both reached 129 degrees F. Global warming is thought to change weather patterns around the world and lead to more extreme weather events of all types, from wildfires to floods to snowstorms. Yet the desert climate of much of the MENA region means that one of the primary outcomes of climate change there will be increasingly high temperatures, both in the region’s dry desert air and the more dangerous humid climates that disrupt a human’s ability to stay hydrated.

Wealth disparities persist across the region between those who can pay for electricity and those who cannot.

High temperatures are not just uncomfortable; they are disruptive to life in many respects. For example, heat waves are known to cause power outages, in part due to excess demand on electricity as people rely on air conditioners. Such outages have been reported across the Arab region, causing protests in countries like Libya and Iraq. In summers in Lebanon, there have even been planned power outages to account for excess demand on electricity. At the same time, the rich Gulf Arab states can afford to pump cold air onto sidewalks and in markets to allow for some comfort outdoors. Wealth disparities persist across the region between those who can pay for electricity (for some, upwards of $2,000 in summer months) and those who cannot. This heat poses significant risks to activities that, by necessity, must be outside, like working as street vendors. However, other activities are threatened as well. Scientists warn that within decades, performing Hajj in the summer months may be dangerous. Further, the migrant workers on whom the Gulf region depends for infrastructure building have long suffered from heat stress, dehydration, and other effects of working outdoors that sometimes result in death. The spread of vector-borne diseases like malaria, yellow fever, and dengue fever is exacerbated by warmer climates, threatening the health of all in the region and especially the poorest.

Fertile Ground for Food and Water Insecurity

The environmental conditions in the Middle East and North Africa, and especially the Gulf states, make the region among the most dependent on food imports in the world. Rapid population growth at nearly double the world average coupled with shifts toward urbanization (especially in the Gulf states and the Levant) will only increase this dependence. As changes in climate patterns lead to droughts and hotter temperatures, the region’s ability to grow the needed food will be further limited. In 2019, more than 50 million people in the region were chronically undernourished; they were concentrated in the conflict-affected states and among the region’s significant refugee populations. COVID-19 will only intensify these trends. High reliance on imports also means that these countries are especially sensitive to increasing global food prices, which is likely as many crop-producing countries become susceptible to temperature and precipitation changes in their own environments.

Despite the heavy dependence on imports, there are of course many crops that grow in the climate of the Middle East, home to the Fertile Crescent. Such crops include dates, beans, rice, and cotton. However, the Middle East is the most water-stressed region in the world: in fact, 70 percent of the world’s most water-stressed countries are in MENA. Aside from the threats to human life, the loss of local agriculture and of jobs in the agricultural sector pose significant risks of political, economic, and social instability. The hot and often drought-affected conditions mean that the region’s agricultural output comes at a significant cost: approximately 80 percent of water use in the region goes to agriculture. This is primarily due to the emphasis on harvesting cereals, despite the better economic and environmental outcomes of growing more fruits and vegetables. Only 5 percent of the land in the region is arable, and the dry conditions mean that 40 percent of this land requires irrigation. With the region currently 20 years into the worst drought in nearly a millennium, any further shifts in water availability would be highly disruptive to the region’s ability to sustain its growing population. As is, 60 percent of the population in the MENA region has little to no easy access to drinkable water. It is estimated that the value of agricultural output in the Arab states will decrease by 20 percent by 2080 due to worsening drought conditions; water scarcity and its impact on agriculture and health are estimated to lead to a GDP decline of up to 6 percent by 2050.

Deterioration of Land and Extreme Weather Events

Land degradation is one of the most significant long-term effects of climate change, brought on by extreme weather events and poor land management. Desertification, a form of land degradation, occurs when previously fertile lands become desert, thus limiting food production, increasing water stress, and forcing population migration. Despite a reputation as a region of primarily desert environments, the MENA region is actually home to diverse forest areas, especially in North Africa and the Levant, that are important for local economies. Foods like nuts, olives, and fruits along with non-food items such as aromatic plants, gums, and cork are among the many plants that grow well in these regions. These forests also play an important role in enhancing land quality and stabilization, controlling desertification, limiting water stress, and improving air quality. However, these biodiverse areas are under significant stress, with most classified as either critical or endangered due to land degradation. As humid areas become even more humid and dry areas become drier, drought and heat waves will also play a role in forest deterioration, as will an increase in forest fires. This trend will greatly reduce biodiversity in plant life as well as reduce the habitat for native insects and animals.

Drought and forest fires are just a few of the extreme weather events that are triggered by the shifting weather dynamics exacerbated by climate change.

Drought and forest fires are just a few of the extreme weather events that are triggered by the shifting weather dynamics exacerbated by climate change. In a study of weather hazards in six Arab states, forest fires were the most prevalent event, followed by drought, storms (including electric storms, sandstorms, and windstorms), and flash floods. While floods were not the most common weather event, they are by far the most destructive in terms of human life and economic loss, causing more than $3 trillion in damages. Since the early 1980s, such weather events have claimed thousands of lives and damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of homes along with more than a million hectares of cropland. In recent years, Saudi Arabia especially has seen a significant increase in the quantity and severity of flash floods, including in the highly populated capital of Riyadh. Disaster management throughout the region, including in the wealthier countries, is poor, and states have not invested in appropriate data and mapping technologies to be able to monitor geographic trends and patterns.

Climate Change and the Political Dynamics of the Region

The MENA region is composed of a mix of fragile and authoritarian states that make any changes in political, economic, or social dynamics potentially volatile. The broad scope of consequences associated with climate change almost guarantees that shifts in these sectors are coming, either by proactive choice or through reacting to crises. For example, much of the wealth of the region, and especially in the Gulf, comes from oil. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Libya hold more than half of OPEC’s crude oil reserves, with over 600 billion barrels in 2018. While reduced oil revenue has forced some of the countries to look to diversifying their economic portfolios, and Bahrain and Oman are expected to deplete their reserves in the coming decades, the region is still highly dependent on oil and gas for revenues. Although many of their customers are shifting toward more renewable energy sources, current economic incentives make it difficult for the Arab states to relinquish their dependency on oil revenues. However, a United Nations report found that to keep temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees C, as indicated in the 2015 Paris Agreement, countries would have to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, with net zero emissions by 2050. Notably, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait joined Russia and the United States to object to wording related to the report, and Saudi Arabia has been involved in obstructing climate-related policy and deliberation for decades, including recently objecting to a report on the climate-related impacts of aviation by the International Civil Aviation Organization. The region is heavily invested in its oil production, so a meaningful push for reduction of hydrocarbon dependence has become a difficult sell, even if related to an issue as consequential to the region as climate change.

While climate change may or may not have contributed to war in Syria, one conflict where climate change will certainly play a role is in Israel and Palestine.

While climate change may or may not have contributed to war in Syria, one conflict where climate change will certainly play a role is in Israel and Palestine. The United Nations found that the Israeli occupation itself was as much a “risk” for Palestinian climate vulnerability as environmental factors like the rise in sea level. The Palestinian Authority has little control over its natural resources, land, or economy; it is tasked with preparing for a future reality with no clarity as to the status of Palestine. This powerlessness is coupled with a significant imbalance in resource allocation. For example, Israel controls more than 80 percent of the water from the West Bank’s aquifers; in Gaza, 20 percent of arable land in the highly dense and urban environment is off-limits for agriculture due to its location in an Israeli “buffer zone” near the Israeli border. Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem pose a significant environmental threat to Palestinians, in the air, soil, and water, and are poorly regulated. Food insecurity, already a problem for a third of Palestinians, is also likely to increase as 85 percent of Palestinian agriculture is watered by rain, and precipitation is estimated to decrease by 30 percent in the eastern Mediterranean. As the stagnation in political negotiations continues, the realities of climate change will catch up quickly.

Refugees are typically associated with conflict, and the Middle East already hosts a disproportionate number of refugees and internally displaced people. Yet the UN has identified climate change and related factors, like environmental degradation and natural disasters, as some of the primary contributors to mass migration in the coming decades. In 2017, disasters led to 18.8 million internal displacements, most throughout MENA and southeast Asia. This outpaced the displacement due to conflict, which was 11.8 million. Further, although these populations are often deemed “climate refugees,” this term is not recognized by international law and thus they are not afforded the same protections as refugees fleeing conflict or persecution. There is little global agreement on what to do with these migration flows, especially as many of the migrants do not actually cross borders; in addition, these populations are often treated differently if they are fleeing a specific disaster as opposed to whether they simply choose to leave due to increasing temperatures or rising sea levels. Migration flows have already had significant impacts on the Arab states, and refugee and migrant communities are often marginalized and overlooked. Indeed, while intractable conflicts continue to unfold across the region, any factor set to increase such flows—as climate change has already done—must be addressed seriously.

Immediate, Collaborative Action Is Needed

Climate change has already had measurable deleterious effects on life in the Arab region. As with many of the most vexing challenges facing humanity today, the outcomes of climate change will not respect national boundaries; soon, the migration of people from places that are excessively hot, water- or food-insecure, or literally under water will make these national boundaries even more porous. Global, regional, and local cooperation is required. All of the Gulf Arab states have ratified the Paris Climate Agreement, and all other Arab states have signed on. Even Syria belatedly joined the Agreement in 2017. However, by the end of 2019, only a few had committed to national climate action plans, least of all the conflict-affected states. Further, there is not yet a cohesive strategy for the region nor, more specifically, among the wealthy and regionally powerful Gulf nations that are the most disturbed by a shift to a “post-oil” economy.

There is not yet a cohesive strategy for the region nor, more specifically, among the wealthy and regionally powerful Gulf nations that are the most disturbed by a shift to a “post-oil” economy.

Due to regional dynamics, countries have varying levels of commitment to climate change policy. Saudi Arabia, which for years had performed poorly on the Climate Change Performance Index, now claims it “will be doing more than most European countries by 2030 (to combat climate change),” according to Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman. However, as the current president of the G20, Saudi Arabia has championed the idea of a “circular carbon economy,” meant less to limit carbon emissions and more to capture discarded carbon dioxide and turn it into a value-added product. While this mechanism is one part of most countries’ plans to achieve climate goals as they shift to renewable energy, some analysts fear that a reliance on this process will allow states to delay efforts to deprioritize fossil fuels.

With Saudi Arabia currently at one extreme of the climate policy spectrum, there are some positive standouts in the region. The 2016 Conference of Parties, an annual meeting where states review the UN Framework on Climate Change, was held in Marrakech and, despite some overreliance on coal plants, Morocco has emerged as one of the leaders in the region on climate policy. It is the only Arab state assessed by the Climate Action Tracker to be on target to meet the 1.5 degrees C warming target as compatible with the Paris Agreement (the other two Arab states ranked, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, were rated as “highly insufficient” and “critically insufficient,” respectively). Morocco aims for 52 percent of its electricity to come from renewable energy by 2030, has lifted all subsidies on diesel, gasoline, and fuel oil, and is making efforts to focus on sustainable aquifer and ocean practices.

Despite a complex package of climate-related issues threatening the region, the most immediate issue for policy-makers is water whose crisis has already been worsening for decades. States need to prioritize water security, including ensuring that water distribution channels are protected, maximizing use of existing water, and safeguarding population centers from water-related weather events like floods and drought. Countries need to make adaptations to systems today to prepare for the coming shortfalls in water, whether or not they are willing to attribute them to climate change. For example, grey water (the water that drains from washing machines, air conditioners, and showers) is underutilized in MENA countries and is usually allowed to drain directly into sewage systems. Repurposing this water for cooling towers, irrigation, flushing toilets, and other tasks aside from drinking would significantly reduce the dependence on clean municipal water stores and contribute to less water stress.

There are also many inefficient farming practices used across MENA that should be updated. Farmers in some areas, such as in Yemen, may be able to adapt to and even potentially benefit from warmer temperatures and longer growing seasons, but in some parts of the region, increased droughts will make agriculture unsustainable. Governments need to prepare to help rural populations dependent on small farms to either migrate or shift occupations. They must also prepare for the migrant flows from areas that will soon be too hot or too degraded for sustainable functioning and a comfortable quality of life.

Changes in state-level policies are important, but collaborative efforts will make the most significant impact and, in some cases, are necessitated by preexisting cross-border arrangements, such as with water. Iraq, for example, depends on Turkey and Iran for much of its water supply. Thus, Iraq’s poor governance does not only disturb the water availability for its own population, but unnecessarily increases the water stress on its neighbors. Many Syrians rely on water flowing through the Euphrates for much of their own water use, though Turkey had restricted its flow during the Syrian war and by constructing a series of dams. Palestinians purchase much of their water from Israel, cementing their dependence on an occupying power. Transborder electricity grids also make cooperation necessary on shifts in energy use and consumption, with three major grid systems connecting to each other (one in the Levant, one in the Maghreb, and one for the Gulf states). These agreements are often fragile, and fluctuations in the availability of water or power will undoubtedly lead to regional discord. States must learn to prioritize the well-being of people, even outside of their own borders, over political disagreements as demand for resources meets the realities of climate change.

Unfortunately, many of the Arab states are living in conditions of fragility and are consumed by the need to meet short-term goals. This limits their ability to participate in meaningful efforts to combat climate change or adapt to more sustainable infrastructure. Unlike many of the other vectors of turmoil in the region, which are largely political, the dangerous effects of climate change are foreseeable and non-discriminatory. Only stable, transparent governments that value the lives of all populations can prioritize repositioning their societies to minimize the avoidable outcomes of climate change and protect against those that are inevitable.

Yara M. Asi, PhD, is Non-resident fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Yara and read her publications. click here