The Environmental Challenges Facing the Middle East

 It is well known that the Middle East is a water scarce region.  Water however is not the only element determining the survival of Middle Eastern regimes.  Environmental discourse and policy are fairly new in the Middle East.  The environment itself is very closely related to politics; it challenges the decision makers, but even more, it challenges the everyday life of people in these countries. 


Creating renewable energy in the Golan. Photo: Shmuel Willner
Dr. Moshe Terdiman is a Middle Eastern Studies scholar, who is an expert on Islam in Africa, Islamic social issues, environmental issues in the Arab and Muslim world, Islam and the environment, and interfaith environmental cooperation.   Dr. Terdiman has contributed great deal in studies understanding the environmental discourse in the Middle East.  He has been working for several Israeli Ministries, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Interior, and has been a consultant for the Ministry of Environmental Protection.  Dr. Terdiman lectured on Environmental Policy in the Middle East at the Arava Institute, where I had an opportunity to interview him and learn from his vast experience and knowledge.
Dr. Terdiman describes and explains the connection between environmental discourse and regional political challenges, and how they are all intertwined with each other.  According to him there are five main environmental challenges facing the Middle East: water security, energy security, food security, land degradation, and desertification; all are closely related to both regional stability and security.
The future of Middle East water management lies on desalination of seawater; there is no doubt about this.  Israel’s strategy of ensuring water security for its population in 2020 is dependent on efficient demand management and the creation of recycled wastewater and desalinated water on a large scale.  However, there are many nations in the Middle East where the situation only deteriorates.
According to Dr. Terdiman, “Yemen is a state on the verge of catastrophe, as its capital Sana faces very serious water shortage by 2026.  So what will people do, is a big question”.  Desalination could be an answer, but Yemen is a very poor country and the problem is that people don’t have money for desalination technology, and further, they don’t have energy to create potable water.
Israel has very developed water management.  Why couldn’t Israel’s accomplishments in the field of water be used in the rest of the water scarce Middle East?  The challenge is to rethink water in the Middle East, and to treat it as an opportunity for peace and development.
Many wars have been fought over energy.  Energy security is a universal challenge, and concerns each and every government in the world.  In the Middle East, this is equally important since there are both nations which are abundant in oil and gas, and nations which struggle to produce enough to supply their needs.  Israel, on the contrary, has been blessed with major offshore gas discoveries, which secure its energy production for long time.  “Energy independence is the big thing”, Dr. Terdiman adds.
“What happens to the states that don’t have oil, like Jordan, Lebanon and Syria?” asks Dr. Terdiman.  Jordan and Syria don’t have the money to import all the energy they need, yet they still have to supply their energy needs.  This is why electricity prices are very high in Jordan, especially after the explosion of the Sinai gas pipeline, which supplied Jordanian gas.  “As they don’t have enough  energy supply in Jordan, there have been many protests.  This is a vicious cycle”.
However, the oil-rich Gulf States are already developing renewable energy sources, such as solar and bio-gas.  “They need to get ready for the time when there is no oil available.  They understand that their survival depend on this.  People cannot live in these places without energy”, Moshe Terdiman points out.
In order to live, people need to eat.  The price of food has been a big issue in the Middle East.  The events of the “Arab Spring” were created partly because of rising food prices in the Arab world.  As a result of the water scarcity and the change in the climate, Middle Eastern countries forced to import food, as they haven’t been able to sustain their own needs.
Years of drought can cause a major increase in land degradation and desertification.  Israel on the hand has been the only country in the Middle East that has more forests and green areas than before a hundred years ago, thanks to the pioneering work and contribution of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund over the period of more than 110 years.
As a result of global warming, deserts spread over fertile land, and over time, conquer it.  For instance, the desert in Darfur of Africa spread over one hundred kilometers in just forty years, and as a result, the herders didn’t have enough water for their flocks.  When the herders moved from one area to another, conflicts erupted between the various tribes.  “This was part of the genocide in the region”, Dr. Terdiman explains.
Environmental challenges continue to plague Middle East, and if they are not dealt with properly, there will be more land degradation, and more conflicts.  Dr. Terdiman sums up the interview and concludes: “Nothing is ''just'' environmental in the Middle East.  Everything is connected to politics, especially when the issues are connected to Israel and its neighboring countries.  In Israel, it is important to understand the environmental discourse within the Arab world.”
“You need to think their way in order to accomplish something, and this is the challenging part in this region.  Environmental policy is very much related to politics.”