Climate change may act as 'threat multiplier' in strife-torn Middle East, study shows

The Middle East is already the most water-scarce region in the world, with demand outstripping supply in most places.

sun global warming 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
sun global warming 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
While it is unlikely that scarcities caused by climate change will start wars in the Mideast, they could become "threat multipliers" in an already conflict-ridden area, a report released on the weekend concluded. The report, "Rising Temperatures, Rising Tensions: Climate Change and the Risk of Violent Conflict in the Middle East," was written by the Canada-based International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), which attempted to examine potential scenarios caused by climate change and how they would affect Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Syria and Lebanon. The report was released in Israel at a press conference arranged by the Danish Embassy, the IISD, and Friends of the Earth Middle East. The Middle East is already the most water-scarce region in the world, with demand outstripping supply in most places. Rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns as a result of climate change could exacerbate the situation considerably, report authors Oli Brown and Alec Crawford wrote. Increasing water scarcity could drive a whole series of security threats into the region. Moreover, Brown and Crawford contended, climate change must be fought on a regional and global level as well as on the local level, but the Levant is so full of conflict and mistrust that regional cooperation is practically nonexistent. Many countries in the region do not allow neighboring countries' citizens to enter, let alone work together to adapt to a changing climate. On a straightforward level, rising sea levels threaten the coasts of Lebanon, Israel and Gaza, they wrote. Much of Lebanon's economic industry is based on the coast. In addition, rising sea levels could contaminate coastal aquifers in Israel and Gaza. If the rivers begin to dry up, some predict the Jordan River will be reduced by 80% within a century and the Euphrates by 30%, then a whole host of concerns would arise. The report divided the situation into six threats and four coping strategies. Much of the threat centers around water scarcity, according to the report. Over the next decade, water scarcity would likely be caused by rapid population growth, but after that, it would more likely be caused by climate change. Existing peace deals and future ones all have water components to them, which could get much trickier and more volatile if there were less to go around, the report noted. Countries might be less inclined to part with territory if it contained water resources. For example, Israeli-Syrian negotiations have broken down several times because of disputes over access to Lake Kinneret and its sources in the Golan Heights. Similarly, one of the final-status issues for Israeli-Palestinian peace is the water issue. Less water and hotter temperatures would likely cause a drop in agricultural productivity as well, the authors wrote. Climate change elsewhere could also drive up global food prices. That could lead to food shortages, which could drive nations to seek more land to meet rising population demands. As a result, both Syria and the PA could hypothetically begin to step up efforts to agitate for the return or granting of land. Climate change could also indirectly lead to decreased economic growth, a phenomenon not restricted to the Mideast. Essential industries like tourism and agriculture would be hard-hit, reducing government revenue and driving up unemployment. Unemployment and less agricultural productivity could also result in forced migrations. With millions of refugees in the region already, the newcomers could cause flare-ups with local populations. In Lebanon, for instance, refugees are a contentious topic because the political system is divided according to sect. Even if water resources don't shrink as much as expected, the perception of shrinking resources could push local governments to deploy military assets to protect water sources, Brown and Crawford suggested. While no actual "water war" has ever broken out in the region, there have been skirmishes in the past, between Israel and Syria and between Jordan and Syria, the report noted. Finally, if the West and Israel were not perceived as vigorously fighting climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it might contribute to the Arab world's resentment of the West and Israel. The authors were careful to note that climate change would never be the sole cause of any conflict in the region, but could easily elevate tensions. They proposed four strategies for coping: Fostering a culture of conservation, adapting to the impacts of climate change, avoiding dangerous climate change and enabling regional cooperation and international engagement. Conserving water and energy through better national management and working together to adapt and fight climate change could turn the threat into a unifier, the authors wrote. However, it was more likely that since the threat would exacerbate existing tensions, the coping strategies would merely reduce those tensions. Many of the interviewees said that conflict did not necessarily have to emerge from climate change if the right steps were taken. Since climate change is a global phenomenon, it would take more than regional efforts to combat it, the authors said. They also called on international agencies to render whatever assistance was necessary to ameliorate the effects in the Mideast.