The Middle East is running out of water

There is little to celebrate on World Environment Day 2022 in MENA, which has been hit severely by climate change.

 A SINKHOLE NEAR the Dead Sea. (photo credit: YANIV NADAV/FLASH90)
(photo credit: YANIV NADAV/FLASH90)

Sunday marks World Environment Day 2022, an annual celebration of the environment, founded in 1973 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and honored by 150 countries worldwide. This year, World Environment Day commemorates 50 years since the first-ever international meeting on the environment – the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment.

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Yet research by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace suggests that the Middle East has little to celebrate, with climate change set to amplify problems of governance, sharpen socioeconomic inequalities and create new disruptions.

The region has been severely affected by climate change over the past few decades, with temperatures rising by 1.5 degrees Celsius since the 1950s, according to Gidon Bromberg, the Israel director of EcoPeace Middle East, an organization that brings together Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli environmentalists with the aim of promoting environmental cooperation, as a gateway to more general cooperation.

“And we’re expecting an additional four-degree increase in temperature by the end of the century,” Bromberg told The Media Line.

 A camel seen at the Sahara Desert. (credit: REUTERS/AHMED JADALLAH) A camel seen at the Sahara Desert. (credit: REUTERS/AHMED JADALLAH)

Water scarcity in the Middle East

A report by the Carnegie Endowment in February 2022 showed that water scarcity is now threatening to trigger violent conflict in the Middle East and North Africa, as MENA is projected to be the first region in the world to “effectively run out of water.”

Rainfall in Jordan is expected to drop by 30% before the end of the century, and some models predict a reduction in MENA’s internal renewable water of around 4% by 2050.

According to the Carnegie Endowment, this will affect between 80 million and 90 million of the region’s inhabitants, who are currently on track to experience water insecurity by 2025.

Bromberg says that water insecurity is currently the most pressing concern in the Middle East, requiring urgent redressal measures at the regional level.

“There’s a failure still to understand that the response to the climate crisis cannot be sufficient on a national level, it must be at a regional level,” he explained. “Climate crisis does not hit one particular country; it hits the region as a whole, and if the region is to survive then the region is going to have to respond.”

Bromberg’s organization EcoPeace is promoting The Water-Energy Nexus (WEN), a regional water and energy pact between Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Mutual cooperation

The nexus intends to cultivate mutually beneficial relationships between the three partners to maximize the use of natural resources.

According to the terms of the agreement, Israel and the PA would produce desalinated water, which they would sell to Jordan, which would then sell renewable energy back to the Palestinians and Israel.

As EcoPeace’s website explains, this would enable each partner to “harness their comparative advantage in the production of renewable energy and water.”

In November 2021, some progress was made toward this desired outcome with the signing of the EcoPeace-led UAE/Israel/Jordan water-energy agreement.

According to the terms of the deal, Jordan will construct 600 megawatts of solar generating capacity to be exported to Israel, while Israel will provide Jordan with 200 million cubic meters of desalinated water.

Yet, despite these gestures of goodwill, water insecurity in the region remains critical, and more needs to be done.

Bromberg said that the situation could be partially rectified by “harnessing the sea through large-scale desalination of seawater,” and “large-scale harnessing of sun, mostly through solar power.”

The latter objective is critical to reducing CO2 emissions in the region and converting the Middle East from an exporter of fossil fuels to a potential exporter of renewables.

Hala S. Murad, executive director of the Dibeen Association for Environmental Development located in Jordan, told The Media Line that government rhetoric on climate change frequently outstrips practice.

Murad points to the numerous environmental conferences held in the Middle East, such as the World Earth Forum in Jordan, and the Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention (COP27), which will be held in Egypt at the end of 2022.

She bemoaned government slowness, saying that “the self-preparation of the participating Arab governmental teams remains below expectations and hopes.” 

This is partially due to technical and financial limitations. For example, Murad pointed to the regional Arab Environment Council of the League of Arab States, which works on promoting regional solutions, but is financially limited by the lack of a unified Arab fund to support regional environmental projects.

One of Dibeen’s key scientific approaches to the impending climate crisis is to monitor cities and villages in Jordan, particularly observing how efficiently they manage natural resources such as land, forests and water.

Murad explained that Dibeen’s objective is to maximize the efficiency of Jordan’s natural resources and minimize waste.

Other organizations in the region are striving to prevent water insecurity by protecting the Red Sea.

Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA) is an Egyptian operation seeking to preserve marine life and biodiversity in the Red Sea and to prevent pollution.

Dr. Mahmoud Hanafy, a scientific advisor at HEPCA, says that regional cooperation is crucial, especially in relation to marine environments.

“Marine environments are a kind of connected ecosystem,” he explained, adding that Red Sea coral is especially tolerant of the effects of climate change, so it may be the last refuge of coral in the world.

 A still image taken from underwater video footage shows corals and fish near barrels, as divers from Israel Nature and Parks Authority remove corals from objects, in the Red Sea, near Katza beach in Eilat (credit: REUTERS) A still image taken from underwater video footage shows corals and fish near barrels, as divers from Israel Nature and Parks Authority remove corals from objects, in the Red Sea, near Katza beach in Eilat (credit: REUTERS)

“So, we have an issue not of local or regional importance, but global importance, and we have to pay more attention to this issue,” he added.

As part of its campaign to preserve the Red Sea coral reef, HEPCA has installed 1,400 moorings along the Red Sea coast, to stop the anchoring of pleasure boats which cause irreparable damage to the reef.

Regional cooperation appears to be the only means through which the Middle East can roll back some of the damage that has been inflicted upon its environment and strive to prevent further deterioration.

“We’re seeing more heat waves; we’re seeing real change in the way rain patterns occur; all rain on the coast is lost at sea; less recharge of groundwater and less water in the whole Jordan river system; less water in Jordan’s dams,” Bromberg observed.