Climate change imperils Middle East’s future

Friday 27/11/2015
Back to the future. A June 2010 file picture shows Syrian women tilling fields in the drought-hit region of Hasakah in north-eastern Syria.

While news from the Middle East is dominated by conflict and terrorism, another long-term threat looms over the region: climate change.
If nothing is done, how bad will things get? According to a World Bank report, Turn Down the Heat: Confronting the New Climate Nor­mal, an average global warming of 2 degrees Celsius would result in a large increase in temperature extremes, substantial reduction in water availability, less arable land and even less food security, a loss of thousands of acres of urban area, spreading of diseases, all con­tributing to a greater risk of social violence.
As for climate change’s effects on the Middle East, two recent studies published in the journal Nature Climate Change predict that if conditions are not amelio­rated, the combination of high temperatures and humidity could, within less than a century, result in extreme conditions around the Arabian Gulf that are intolerable to humans.
Increased heat and humid­ity could push temperatures to more than 60 degrees Celsius in Kuwait City, Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates and Doha in Qatar. In such circumstances, affluent Middle Easterners could retreat into air-conditioned buildings but people in poorer countries such as Yemen would have to live with the heat and many would die from it, with the most vulnerable being children and the elderly.
Even religious practices would not be spared in such torrid con­ditions; outdoor activities would be severely affected by extreme temperatures, including the an­nual pilgrimage to Mecca when the haj occurs during summer months.
Water has always been a pre­cious resource in the Middle East; two Sumerian city-states, Lagash and Umma, clashed over the drain­ing of a freshwater canal in the southern portion of today’s Iraq 4,500 years ago.
Civil unrest triggered by climate change has already occurred. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sci­ences compiled statistical evidence that ongoing severe drought, wors­ened by a warming climate, drove Syrian farmers to abandon their crops and flock to cities, helping to trigger the civil war that has rav­aged the country. Water shortages across the Fertile Crescent in Syria as well as in Iraq and Turkey killed livestock, increased food prices, sickened children and forced 1.5 million rural residents to the outskirts of Syria’s already overbur­dened cities.
Those with a finely tuned sense of irony would note that the Middle East has been a major contributor to climate change, as oil provides 40-43% of all energy used by the world, which, in turn, accounts for a large percentage of global warming emissions from fossil fuels worldwide.
Oil exports have provided tril­lions of dollars in income for Mid­dle Eastern producers. It is time for the more enlightened governments there to begin to spend on initia­tives such as renewables to combat climate change, an effort that will contribute more to regional stability than increasing imports of sophisticated weaponry.
It is not a “guns v butter” argu­ment, it is a “guns v water” debate. Farther afield, the entire world needs to be planning for a drier future in the Middle East, as it will have global implications.
Islam was born in the desert; if the region and the rest of the world do not address climate change as a priority, then many of its faithful may eventually die there as well.