Unrest in the Middle East – such as the ongoing Syrian conflict – is being linked to climate change with growing concerns over water scarcity and agricultural yields.
These are turbulent days in the Middle East. Recent intense fighting around Gaza, an ongoing civil war in Syria, and even Iraq is still battered by frequent terrorist attacks. For outside observers this region might seem to be embroiled in a constant political turmoil.
At the same time, looming climate change spells a grim forecast for a region already considered one of the world’s driest. A number of analysts have looked into possible links between what climate change may bring in terms of political volatility in the region.
For a region already scrambling to cope with severe water scarcity, observers see further dwindling of water resources as a central impact of climate change in the region, and one that is compounded by growing demand due to expected population growth and rising living standards.
A 2010 UNDP report devoted to the effects of climate change in the Arab region has projected decreased precipitation in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories, adding to longstanding trends of reduction in surface water availability and groundwater reserves as well as recurring droughts and floods in other countries such as Morocco.
Closely linked, food insecurity is also considered a significant threat for a region historically known as the Fertile Crescent. According to several studies, higher temperatures, reduction in rainfall, and changes in the spans of seasons are expected to take heavy toll on agricultural yields. Repeated droughts and floods leading to crop failure could in turn be contributing to malnutrition and famine.
In addition, sea level rise, an extensive report published in 2009 by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development has shown, could inundate coastal regions, increase soil salinity, and deteriorate aquifers across much of the region’s total 34,000 kilometres of coastal zones.
Climate change as a “threat multiplier”
Most exposed in the Persian Gulf are the small island state of Bahrain, the neighbouring peninsula hosting Qatar, as well as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. To the shores of the Mediterranean, Egypt is seen as most at risk from sea level rise, as the Nile Delta holds the lion share of its agricultural lands. Simulations by UNEP affiliated GRID-Ardenal show, that a 50 centimetres rise in sea level would affect 4500 square kilometres of cropland and over six million people.
Like in other parts of the world, studies focusing on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region foresee climate change impacting a host of other aspects – from human health to migration to gender issues – all eventually interacting in ways that could endanger livelihoods across the region. And when placed in an already troubled political context, these factors could make climate change what analysts call a “threat multiplier” – that is, aggravating existing conditions.
In a paper released in December 2007, Friends of the Earth Middle East, formerly named EcoPeace, takes a different perspective. Their analysis highlighted six aspects of pre-existing conditions that could determine the likelihood for anticipated climate change impacts to instigate conflict or rather facilitate cooperation. The list includes factors such as “the existence of water agreements and their degree of sustainability” and “the influence of destabilising economic and political factors, e.g. unemployment and mass migration due to agricultural decline and the large scale flooding of agricultural areas”.
Conflict in Syria
Furthermore, ongoing or future peace negotiations could become further complicated as a result of increasing competition over scarce water resources, a report published in 2009 by the International Institute for Sustainable Development had argued. Looking to 2050, five other potential security threats that the authors list include intensified food insecurity that could be “raising the stakes for the return or retention of occupied land” as well as “forced migration and increased tension on existing refugee populations”.
“Two years ago, when there was a hike of grain price because of few weather events there were riots in Lebanon which challenged the government,” says Wael Hmaidan, director of the Beirut-based Climate Action Network International. “This of course affects who is in the government, the relationships between governments and so on. This also empowers extremists because they benefit from economic difficulties, so fundamentalism will be increasing sharply.”
But these are not just distant future scenarios. At least two papers, published in February and in August, have looked into the Syrian case and described how a four year long drought had triggered a domino effect culminating in the civil war still raging through the country.
Meeting poor agricultural governance and natural resource mismanagement, the drought – considered the worst in Syrian history in over a century – had wrought both a food crisis and an exodus of over 1.5 million rural people to urban centres. For cities already hosting more than two million Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, this new influx meant further strains on an underprivileged population.
This drought might not have been the key driver sparking the unrest in Syria. Protesters have perhaps taken cue from preceding uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. However, as a paper published as early as April 2011 suggests, global climate change might have also played a role there.
In particular, the paper states, it is weather events such as sandstorms in China, record spring rainfall in Canada, drought – and then bushfires – in Russia and neighbouring countries that have slashed wheat harvests and exports, and in turn sent food prices up.
Climate change is of course not the only factor behind rising food prices, the authors are careful to add, and it was not (only) food prices that sent protesters to Tahrir Square. But when trying to unravel the complex circumstances at play, climate change is increasingly becoming hard to ignore.
“The Arab Spring would likely have come one way or another,” wrote the authors Sarah Johnstone and Jeffrey Mazo of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, “but the context in which it did is not inconsequential. Global warming may not have caused the Arab Spring, but it may have made it come earlier.”
Framing climate change as a security issue has contributed to raising public and policymakers’ awareness. However, some scholars warn, this could backfire. “Climate change is filled with uncertainty,” wrote Corinne Schoch of the International Institute for Environment and Development. “As with other highly politicised debates, uncertainty tends to breed anxiety, which could lead to fear and result in a set of policies that merely mirror sensationalist academic and media headlines.” Moreover, she contends, securitising climate change risks diverting much needed efforts away from humanitarian responsibilities and vulnerable communities that are most in need of protection.
When looking at the causes of climate change, the net contribution of countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in terms of greenhouse gas emissions is fairly small. However, the latest data from the US Department of Energy’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center show that four of the world’s top ten CO2 emitters per capita are Gulf countries. Qatar, host of the ongoing UN climate conference, has been topping the list for several years now.
A new era of cooperation?
Higher per capita emissions are usually associated with higher degree of a country’s economic development. Here, a considerable degree of Gulf countries’ wealth stems from their being key players in the global oil supply – the same fossil fuel whose combustion feeds climate change.
Similarly, this also suggests that some countries in the region are better positioned, at least potentially, to prepare for the impacts of climate change than others. For instance, in an arid region, where strain on water resources is set to become even harsher, the Gulf states are already operating some of the world’s largest desalination plants.
Cautiously, some commentators suggest that climate change as a common challenge might also play a role in stimulating cross-border cooperation, either in the form of technology transfer or management of shared resources, predominantly water, and in turn could become a vehicle for rapprochement and peace building.
Hmaidan of Climate Action Network International says he would be very pleased to see countries coming together to avert the looming crisis climate change could usher. “But this should happen now,” he adds, “because when climate change impacts hit in the future the current conflict situation will not look very beautiful”