Palestinian-Iraqi Writer and Middle East Analyst
Assistant Professor in International Relations
Associate Professor of Environmental Geography
London School of Economics and Political Science
Assistant Executive Director & Senior Fellow
Arab Center Washington DC
On July 8, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) hosted a webinar titled “Climate Change, Conflict, and Water Politics in the Arab World.” The speakers were Michael Mason,Associate Professor of Environmental Geography and Director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics and Political Science; Zena Agha, former US Policy Fellow at Al-Shabaka – The Palestinian Policy Network; and Marwa Daoudy, Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University. Tamara Kharroub, ACW Assistant Executive Director and Senior Research Fellow, moderated the discussion.
Michael Mason noted that because the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is heterogeneous, the impacts of climate change are varied and localized. As the world heads toward an increase of 2⸰ centigrade in global temperature—the threshold for climate change—this will mean more rainfall reductions, desertification, and other extreme events that will have serious impact on a region such as MENA, which relies on rainfed agriculture. At the same time, Mason cautioned about only blaming climate change for the current problems of food and water scarcity there without taking into account issues such as unsustainable resource governance and massive demographic changes. Climate change is significant, he asserted, but so is understanding the major determinants of water scarcity in region. He said that most countries have signed voluntary commitments to renewable energy generation, including MENA states, as a result of the Paris Agreement on climate change. However, there is an absence of quantitative targets to reduce greenhouse emissions. Further, and despite the Gulf states’ commitments, this investment in renewable energy is motivated by a fiscal drive to increase the share of oil going to exports rather than by a goal of transitioning to a clean, green economy. The impacts of such an approach include a projected sea level rise that will have an extensive effect on coastal infrastructure.
Mason said that the problems of groundwater extraction are actually not due to climate change but to the fact that the rate of extraction of the water far exceeds the rate of its replenishment by rainwater. He cited the case of Lake Urmia in Iran, which has lost 80 percent of its volume as a result of extensive dam building upstream and over-extraction of water for intensive agricultural development. He also noted that Iraq has lost a third of its surface area of water in the last 30-35 years mainly because of large-scale upstream dam construction in Turkey and Iran. Mason discussed demographic growth as causing major demands on resources, especially its association with increased urbanization. In conclusion, he stated that water scarcity becomes less of a problem the more a country develops economically; however, many countries in region are trapped not only in the lack of development, but in de-development—that is, the structural conditions that prevent any meaningful development. He said that historically, the more authoritarian a regime system, the less likely it is open to responding to environmental pressures and to grievances by its population and civil society groups.
Zena Agha explored the impact of climate change on Palestine/Israel with a focus on the Israeli occupation as an obstacle to development and environmental sustainability, noting that Palestinians living under occupation suffer effects of climate change much more severely than Israelis. She said that the occupation prevents Palestinians from using resources and developing ways to adapt to climate change. Agha cited Palestine’s fragmented political landscape as the biggest challenge to coping with the effects of climate change, with three contradictory entities in control: the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and Hamas. In particular, the UN Development Programme characterizes the effects of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian society as an environmental risk in its own right because of such factors as the restrictions on the movement of people and goods, land grabs, settlement expansion, the apartheid wall, and settler violence in addition to poor leadership by the PA. Agha emphasized that the occupied Palestinian territories are subject to international laws, saying that Israel, as the occupier, has a legal responsibility to act as a guardian of natural resources, agriculture, drinking water, and irrigation works. She added that the PA has a paradoxical role in that it has no sovereignty over natural resources in Areas A and B and can wield no political will over how to manage climate risks, and this renders the PA’s efforts insignificant and possibly counterproductive. Moreover, the PA faces major governance issues and has limited capability and power yet is has been tasked as a body to deal with climate change. Agha characterized this role as a “performance of statehood and statecraft.” She stated that what has happened is a discourse shift internationally from viewing the occupation as an injustice and a breach of international law, to seeing the occupation basically as a hazard, something to manage and work around.
Agha said that one of the greatest casualties of climate change is water availability and quality. The increased competition for water coupled with reduced rainfall will make it hard to extract water and replenish aquifers. Illegal Israeli settlements and industry require vast amounts of water and rely heavily on aquifers in the West Bank. The conditions in Gaza are much worse, she continued: Israel restricts the importation of building materials to construct water infrastructure, such as reservoirs, and about 90-95 percent of water in Gaza is contaminated. There, climate change is a “threat multiplier,” she asserted, because of the preexisting factors of poor governance, increasing sea level and water salinity, and destructive Israeli policies. In fact, the occupied Palestinian territories have one of the lowest water availability per capita rate in the world. Agha remarked that “through sheer political will and political ideology, we see a fragmented and stratified reaction to climate change in Palestine/Israel.”
Marwa Daoudy also agreed that when looking at climate change and its impact on MENA, it is important to contextualize the discussion by relating it to history, politics, power dynamics, the mismanagement of sustainable practices, and the preexisting conditions of human insecurity, especially in accessing water resources. This is a generalizable feature in the region, she said. The agricultural sector in MENA, which is 70 percent rainfed, contributes significantly to the national economies; therefore, water scarcity is even more of a threat and is a factor for policies on the interstate and intrastate levels. She explained that because of the mismanagement of resources, Iraq is on the verge of environmental collapse, with climate change posing an additional pressure. To be sure, Iraq’s rivers have decreased by less than a third of their normal capacity and the water quality in the country has declined, with increased salinization. Other problems include mismanagement, unsustainable farming practices detrimental to arable lands, and over-pumping of water. She statesd that the drought in Syria during 2006-2010 was impacted by climate change and unsustainable practices and was also worsened by mismanagement of water by the Syrian government. This led to major migration trends with whole communities uprooted, constructing a narrative that understood the conflict as climate induced. Daoudy reiterated that the historical, political, and social context in Syria is a big part of understanding the conditions there.
In Syria and Iraq, she continued, the weaponization of water resources has played a major role in shifting power between warring parties. They have destroyed water infrastructure, exploited upstream positions by threatening to increase holding water, flooded entire cities, bombed water treatment plants and pumping stations, and denied services to civilians. The targeting of water infrastructure as an offensive tool in Syria by state and non-state actors occurred in Aleppo, Deir Ezzor, Homs, Aleppo, Idlib, and Raqqa. In Iraq, the Islamic State captured large dams to pressure local populations and governments and flooded villages or stopped the flow of water to them; examples Daoudy cited are in Karbala, Najaf, Qadisiyya, and Mosul. In addition, after its invasion of Syria in early 2020, Turkey shut off water to 460,000 people in Hasakeh and also cut off water in March 2020 to three refugee camps, in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis. Daoudy also asserted that the narrative about refugees being the cause of water scarcity is a dangerous one as the world must address sustainable water security and the roots of conflict instead of stigmatizing already vulnerable populations.