Arab countries face climate warming reality
Beirut - While 2016 set a heat record globally, further temperature increases, reduction in rainfall, seasonal shifts and decline in agricultural activities are predicaments looming over the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region because of climate change.
The region is suffering from extreme summer temperatures, which reached 54 degrees Celsius in Kuwait, cyclones in Oman and Yemen, snow in the Saudi deserts and drought that wiped out half the wheat crop in Morocco.
The challenges are enormous but adaptation through mitigation of sources of energy, especially water, is a prerequisite for the survival of future generations in the world’s hottest and driest region, which will be the hardest hit by changing climate conditions, UN experts said.
“We can forecast a rise of 3-5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century as a worst-case scenario. It is quite remarkable how much the temperature increase will affect us even relative to a very close baseline period from 1986 to 2005,” said Carol Cherfane, a senior water specialist with the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA).
“We are also seeing increases of 30-60 days of hot weather in the region towards the end of the century. While the global norm for a hot day is 25 degrees, it is 35 degrees and even more than 40 for the region,” Cherfane said.
She stressed, however, that “you can adapt to these conditions but you have to have the resources to ensure that all (vulnerable) people have the means to adapt, too”.
Countries in the region are aware of their vulnerabilities but the effects will vary, with poorer, more agriculturally based economies suffering the most. Poorer communities have fewer resources to cope with the effects of climate change.
“In our Arab region, climate change adaptation is pre-eminent. It is a water issue above anything else. It is linked to our livelihood, our food security, our health, the tourism industry, the whole gamut,” Cherfane said.
Higher temperatures will result in a shifting of seasons, with extended periods of drought, longer summers and shorter winters. “This will affect the ability of farmers to engage in production for national food security and for their personal household income. They no longer know when the season actually starts or whether they should plant their crops in February or in April,” Cherfane added.
Higher temperatures also lead to overuse of groundwater, more demand for more desalination and consequently salt-water intrusion into coastal aquifers, degrading water for drinking and irrigation.
While demands for agriculture, population growth and rapid urbanisation are putting immense pressure on the region’s scarce water resources, declines in agriculture will increase rural unemployment and drive many people to already crowded cities, which will experience worsening heat waves, air pollution and dust from land degradation and desertification, Cherfane predicted.
Aware of the challenges, many Arab countries have begun adapting to the new climate reality and contributing towards the global goal of lowering emissions and slowing the rise in global temperatures. Adaptation techniques include water harvesting schemes, larger use of solar energy, treatment and reuse of waste water, protection of groundwater aquifers and water use efficiency in irrigation, Cherfane said.
She noted that Lebanon was trying to develop lakes on top of the mountains where water can be conserved and stored. In Egypt efforts are under way to build wave breakers to preserve coastal installations and wetlands from sea water intrusion. In Jordan, treated waste water is used in irrigation in agricultural areas, while Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest producer and consumer of desalinated water, is testing the use of solar energy in desalination.
Morocco remains the leading Arab country in climate change adaptation, having built the largest solar plant in the world for generating electricity, which Rabat has linked to a water desalination plant supplying its arid southern area.
“We should still engage in mitigation to the (highest) degree possible. Even today it will take 20-30 years for the atmosphere to change,” Cherfane said. “Unfortunately, the short-term nature of politics looks at a 1- or 4-year terms that is influencing how life would be in generations. That is why we have to become oriented towards sustainability and not immediate growth.”
Cherfane also underlined that if no significant effort is made to reduce climate change, more use of nuclear energy, which is “no carbon energy”, could be considered. “It carries different types of risks, but not having your kids able to breathe in a century and a half,” Cherfane said, “you will not have an option but to turn to such technology.”