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Why the Middle East cannot afford to ignore climate change

There is a painful irony to the grave threat that climate change proposes to the Middle East, the world's most important producer of oil and natural gas. While the American Midwest is battered by floods and brutal storms, Texas is inundated by floods and heatwaves, and California is reeling from devastating forest fires. It is these stories that most of the world will point to as signs of an impending climate nightmare.

It is not the low rainfall, higher temperatures and increased evaporation that have led to the Dead Sea shrinking by about a meter every year. It is not the five million residents of Alexandria who can already feel the effects of sea levels rising from flooded basements and seafront buildings collapsing. Sea levels rising would also affect low-lying coastal areas elsewhere in the region from Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, the UAE and Kuwait, where millions have their homes, workplaces and livelihoods. 

It is not the sudden violent storms in the Middle East's driest regions that have led to severe flooding, deaths and emergency evacuations in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen. Unfortunately, while the rest of the world debates the next steps forward, the Middle East is already feeling the effects of climate change. 

Iraqi, Kuwaiti and UAE cities have had temperatures soar past 50°C in the last three years. Temperatures in the region are projected to increase by 4°C in three decades. By 2099, the Middle East will experience daytime highs above 50°C and exceptional heat for more than half of the year absent urgent action to curb global emissions. Should current trends persist, entire cities will become unlivable at the end of the century.

The stories are many, the statistics are alarming, and the evidence is damning. Yet, attempts at curbing global emissions or mitigating the risks of warming planet too often fade into the hum-drum cycle of wonky policy debate with little or no action. The Middle East can no longer wait because the dangers of climate change go beyond flooding, extreme temperatures and sinking coastal cities. While the wealthy can easily retreat to the relative comforts of air-conditioned buildings or flee to cooler regions, it’s the working poor who will bear the worst to come. 

Already, the region has been experiencing a continuous drought for the past 21 years that has put enormous strain on scarce water resources. It is this climate-change-induced drought that drove rural dwellers to Syria’s urban centers between 2002 and 2010, creating the concentrated mass of the poor and disaffected at the heart of the civil war. The potential for conflict and instability stemming from water shortages was also evident in Iraq, where Daesh took control of the dams that provided drinking water, irrigation and electricity to 23 million people in the Tigris/Euphrates river basin. 

The Nile Delta is already shrinking. The reduced flow caused by the Aswan High Dam as well as increased upstream extraction is decreasing the amount of silt deposited by the river. Silt replenishes the Delta and is also responsible for the area’s fertile lands. Without it, there would be less arable land to grow crops, which further compounds food insecurity issues already plaguing the region. 

The most troubling aspect of climate change is that there is a domino effect caused by some of its worst outcomes. For instance, as governments scurry to deliver emergency aid to victims of climate-related disasters, it takes away resources from the increasingly critical work of climate change risk mitigation. In cases where heatwaves, water and food shortages have led to unrest and even civil war, state capacities to address the underlying vulnerabilities will be relegated in favor of law enforcement, public security and even military actions to restore stability.

A potential solution to reducing global emissions is already underway as the developed world is increasingly migrating towards cleaner energy sources such as hydro, geothermal, wind, solar and wave power. Unfortunately, for the Middle East and parts of North Africa that depend on petroleum exports, there will be fewer oil revenues going into the public purse. This will jeopardize the social safety nets, generous subsidies and exorbitant public projects that many have come to expect. Take that away, and civil unrest will be guaranteed as already demonstrated in Jordan and Algeria. The former has the eighth largest shale oil resources in the world, while the latter is home to the third largest untapped shale gas resources. 

Unfortunately, as the world goes greener, this “potential” becomes meaningless, which demands that they and other MENA countries prioritize tapping into cleaner sources such as solar. Currently, oil prices remain relatively low, which would affect any reconstruction and stabilization efforts in conflict zones like Libya. Without reconstruction and stability, it would be impossible to completely shift from the petroleum dependence to clean energy sources despite the abundance of solar radiation in the Sahara. 

There is a further angle of complexity to addressing the risks posed by warming temperatures that Middle East governments must confront. The already shrinking Nile Delta and other river basins drying up will intensify conflicts surrounding trans-boundary resources essential for irrigation, power generation, drinking water and sanitation. Almost every country in the region shares water resources with their neighbors. Already, there is conflict between Turkey and Syria concerning water resources from the Euphrates, which has sparked a pseudo-proxy war between the two nations. 

Elsewhere, Egypt remains fiercely opposed to upstream projects such as Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam that threaten to reduce the Nile River’s downstream flow by about 25 percent. In fact, the Egyptian government has repeatedly threatened war on any initiatives by the other nine riparian states to siphon off Nile waters. Should the tributaries and rivers that feed the Nile dry up in warmer temperatures, conflict in north-eastern Africa will be inevitable.

In the end, the most logical outcome of heatwaves, severe droughts, extreme weather events, flooding, food and water shortages brought by climate change is not just widespread unrest or violent conflict. To the rest of the world, warming temperatures will lead to generations of climate refugees seeking resettlement elsewhere. The developed world is already reeling from mass migrations that have pushed anti-immigrant sentiment to the fore in Europe and North America. 

At the end of the century, 40 percent of the world’s projected 11.2 billion population will be living in the Middle East and Africa. However, decades from now, flooded coastal areas, year-long heatwaves drying up water sources and killing crops amidst chaotic battles vying for control on what little is left, will force many towards cooler regions where new challenges await. 

It is long past due for governments and the world to act to reduce global emissions and prepare, especially here in the Middle East, where scientists conclude that climate change will hit the region 50 percent harder than anywhere else on the planet.