Climate change could devastate the Middle East. Here’s how governments should deal with it.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is part of the most vulnerable places in the world to climate change. the UN highlighted the devastating toll that climate change will have on the region’s water supply and food production systems, and its potential to create breeding grounds for terrorism and violent extremism. No country will be spared: Wealthy Gulf countries will face depletion of freshwater resources over the next 50 years, while in conflict-ridden Iraq, average temperatures are climbing at a rate of two to seven times faster than the world average. Food and water production systems across the Levant face imminent collapse.

Climate change has already begun to exacerbate fragility in countries in conflict or post-conflict transition, and in countries struggling to cope with the impact of growing young populations, bloated public sectors, volatile oil prices, weak governance and the fallout from the pandemic. The crisis will contribute to the proliferation of armed groups, intensify conflicts over natural resources and make it easier for extremist organizations to attract recruits. To solve the problem, governments must approach climate change as a matter of public policy, a threat that is interconnected with a host of other challenges that combine to create a multiplier effect.

This requires a renewed effort to deliver services, to balance short-term economic grievances with the long-term imperative of austerity measures and good governance reforms, and ultimately to build resilience so that violence and terrorism cannot not easily prosper. The social fabric of the most vulnerable countries may continue to erode, but that does not mean governments cannot put in place response mechanisms to slow the downward spiral.

Already a problem, water shortage will get worse

Globally, average rainfall has hit new records over the past three decades, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which said in 2014 that human security will be gradually threatened as temperatures riseand reaffirmed the threat of climate-induced conflict in its 2022 report. In the Middle East, water scarcity is already a huge problem – a region that is home to 12 of the 17 most”countries under water stressaccording to the World Resources Institute. The outlook is worrisome: the World Bank estimates that climate-related water scarcity will cost Middle Eastern countries between 6% and 14% of their GDP by 2050, due to water-related impacts on agriculture, health and income.

These red flags already indicate serious short-term implications for national and regional stability, including geopolitical flare-ups. Turkey controls more than 90% of the water flowing in the Euphrates and 44% of that of the Tigris. Yet Ankara has been accused to militarize the water supply as it grapples with the conflict in Syria and geopolitical unrest. Since December 2020, Turkish dams have to cut the flow of the Euphrates to neighboring countries like Iraq by 60%, which has also led to food and electricity shortages in Syria. This has worsened the water crisis in Iraq, which could see at least seven million people lose access to water.

Likewise, upstream dams in Iran narrowed the tributaries of the Tigris, cutting off the flow of the Diyala River in northeastern Iraq. Lake Hamrin, the main water source for Iraq’s Diyala province, which borders Iran, has has lost nearly 70% of its waterdragging the province into a humanitarian and environmental calamity.

Yet climate change threatens all countries in the region. The aid groups have warned over 12 million people in Iraq and Syria have lost access to water, food and electricity due to rising temperatures and record low rainfall. Desertification is sweeping the region in Iraq, Syria, Jordanand Iran. The cost of water in Jordan has increased by 30% over the past decade due to lack of groundwater. The wealthier countries of the Middle East are also at risk. Apart from the fragile countries in the region, the UAE has the highest per capita world’s water consumption, but risks depleting its freshwater resources in the next 50 years due to population growth and increased domestic water use.

The domino effect of climate crises

Climate change can have a deleterious effect on security and the fabric of societies by deepening socio-economic divides and eroding trust in public institutions. The problem best boils down to interconnected crises that combine to create a domino effect of problems at local, national and geopolitical levels. It begins with weakened state institutions and ends with ungoverned spaces in which extremist armed groups and criminal enterprises thrive, causing the internal displacement of populations and an exodus of refugees that ensures that no country in the region and beyond beyond be spared.

Water scarcity and poverty force people to migrate to densely populated towns and cities in search of jobs, which imposes additional costs and strains on overstretched infrastructure. The link between climate crises and social unrest resulting from climate migration has long been established. The civil war in Syria has been awarded the five-year drought that hit the country in 2007, among other factors. The drought has produced unprecedented poverty, paving the way for migration to the outskirts of major Syrian cities, already overwhelmed by population growth. The influx of refugees and the resulting strain on poor infrastructure created the deep-rooted grievances that were at the heart of the 2011 uprising.

State failure, uncontrolled migration and ungoverned spaces directly enable armed groups and terrorists who prey on the vulnerabilities of the poor to swell their ranks. Infrastructure degradation resulting from poor governance, population density and rising costs can combine to create situations that become unsustainable for local people, especially in summer when scorching temperatures and lack of rain result in poor harvests and limited access to water and consumption. electricity. This manifested itself in region-wide protests and upheaval, including protests that rocked Iran’s ruling elites in Lebanon.

Climate change increases the risk of armed conflict

Geopolitical tensions – such as the row between Iraq, Turkey and Iran over the construction of dams that restrict water flows – and policies that militarize the water supply, increase the risk of conflict. Meanwhile, armed groups like ISIS have demonstrated a notable ability to militarize water infrastructure by exercising control over water infrastructure in Syria and Iraq to gain legitimacy or to punish enemies and communities under attack. organizational control; in some cases, it has taxed access to water. At one point, the group controlled the Tabqa Dam, which provided 20% of Syria‘s electricity and supplied water to five million people.

A Stanford University paper that studies how climate change affects the risk of armed conflict concludes that droughts, floods, natural disasters and other climatic changes have influenced between 3 and 20% of conflicts over the last century. The response to climate crises in fragile states is likely to be poor and slow, and the ensuing loss of trust in political elites makes it easier for activists to challenge the state. Some groups, such as Shiite militias in Iraq or militias in Syria, have established geographic advantages and control over water supply at the expense of other groups, creating zero-sum political and security conditions – in some cases underlined by ethnic and sectarian rivalries – which are intra-state conflicts over increasingly scarce resources on the move. According to the document, one in four intra-state conflicts will result from climate change.

Governments need to rethink how they tackle climate change

Governments in the Middle East must recalibrate the way they make decisions about climate-related threats, taking into account the short- and long-term implications of the crisis. For example, the digitization push in the region is still in its infancy – the UAE has become a pioneerwith others like the Kurdistan region of Iraq tries to follow suit – but it has the potential to reduce emissions and waste. the World Economic Forum estimates that digital technologies could reduce global emissions by 15%. Digitization will provide institutions in the Middle East with greater bandwidth to address the socio-economic challenges that climate change may produce or aggravate. Second, and as part of this process, regional and international governments, multilateral institutions and the private sector should increase funding for climate-related research in the MENA region, which currently pales in comparison to the resources given to Western institutions. .

Climate change will struggle to find its way to the top of national agendas until it is identified as a conflict and risk multiplier, rather than just another issue that should be added to the growing list of issues facing the region faces. As a multiplier, it creates the potential for a convulsion that will impose untold suffering on a region already engulfed in socio-economic crises, social unrest, violent extremism and terrorism. Investment in research and advocacy could trigger a cultural shift in government and society that would recalibrate public sector reform approaches and adjust good governance strategies to encourage and enable innovations that mitigate challenges. related to climate.

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