Experts warn against climate change fallout in Arab world

The threats include temperature increases and water scarcity, issues already affecting people in the Middle East.
Sunday 17/02/2019
An Iraqi man uses an atomiser made available for people outside a shop selling cooling and ventilation products in Baghdad, last July. (AFP)
Searing temperatures. An Iraqi man uses an atomiser made available for people outside a shop selling cooling and ventilation products in Baghdad, last July. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - Most large Arab cities will face “unprecedented threats” due to climate change in the second half of this century, the Middle East Institute’s Laurent Lambert and Cristina D’Alessandro wrote in a report.

Rising sea levels will affect safety and living standards of millions of Arab people in the nearer future, the authors said in “Climate Change, Sea Level Rise and Sustainable Urban Adaptation in Arab Coastal Cities.”

The report focused on how rising sea levels could affect coastal cities in Arab countries, using data from the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report, which was released in January. Most of the population in the Arab world lives within 100km of a sea or delta.

The threats include temperature increases and water scarcity, issues already affecting people in the Middle East, but coastal cities are also particularly susceptible to rising sea levels because they sit in low-lying areas, the report said.

As temperatures increased around the world, snow and ice have melted, causing water levels to rise, the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change said. When water gets warmer, it takes up more space than does cold water. With water temperatures likely to continue to go up, water levels are expected to increase 2 metres by the end of this century.

The authors warn:

Potential seafood offshore from cities with coastlines on the Arabian Gulf and the Red and Mediterranean seas will decrease as coral reefs die.

Extreme storms, such as cyclones, may hit cities more often, causing millions of dollars in damage and inestimable loss of human life as water temperatures increase.

Inland flooding could cause portions of cities to become uninhabitable.

“Collectively fighting the causes of climate change, better planning and innovating for a sustainable adaptation of Arab coastal cities are becoming national security challenges that the countries of the region need to properly address without any further delay,” Lambert and D’Alessandro wrote.

The findings were reiterated by UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment Thani bin Ahmed al-Zeyoudi, who led a session about climate change and public health at the recent World Government Summit in Dubai.

“The facts are very clear,” he said. “Not opinions, not politics but scientific facts. Humans — you and me — are causing climate change. Change that is making droughts more common and putting massive pressure on our food systems and people’s livelihoods and causing mass displacement and migration.”

While acknowledging solutions could cause financial upheaval in the short term, the Middle East Institute’s report said they are necessary. Solutions include restricting construction in at-risk urban areas, avoiding unplanned settlements, improving existing at-risk housing areas, building or reinforcing flood defences and planning for potential emergencies.

This, the report authors said, will be challenging because not every city has the same capability for urban development planning and because the cities are growing so quickly.

Other climate watchers see more issues.

Zafar Adeel, executive director of the Pacific Water Research Centre at Simon Fraser University in Canada, said on social media that “refugee women in the Arab region face serious water insecurity that impacts their wellbeing, health and economic opportunities. Climate change is an exacerbating factor and will impinge on options for post-conflict reconstruction.”

In January, research linked climate change with mass migration after the “Arab spring” in North Africa and the Middle East. Researchers from the International Institute for Applied Analysis in Austria said water shortages and droughts contributed to conflicts that led to migration, including from Syria.

“Climate change will not cause conflict and subsequent asylum-seeking flows everywhere,” researcher Jesus Crespo Cuaresma said in a statement, “but in a context of poor governance and a medium level of democracy, severe climate conditions can create conflict over scarce resources.”

Lambert and D’Alessandro said Arab countries must use what’s already available. While the United Nations will help finance better urban planning in coastal cities, Arab countries haven’t been using those resources while China, India and Kenya have, they said.

“Consistently investing in the management of sea-related urban risks could transform a major challenge for Arab cities into a structural competitive advantage and economic opportunity,” the authors concluded.