Climate change and conflict hotspot: Middle East and North Africa

MENA is a key climate change hot spot.

A BREATHTAKING view of the Dead Sea and the Judean Desert can be seen while guided jeep tour with Te’ima Mehamidbar (photo credit: EYAL TAMIR)
A BREATHTAKING view of the Dead Sea and the Judean Desert can be seen while guided jeep tour with Te’ima Mehamidbar
(photo credit: EYAL TAMIR)
As we observe the current European heat wave with temperatures soaring to 46ºC in Portugal and above 30ºC many days in Sweden, we must contemplate the interaction of the two greatest threats to humanity in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region: Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) and human conflict.
MENA is a key climate change hot spot. Observations show that there has been an increase in heat waves, dry spells and drought. Warm spells increased by up to 18 days annually in MENA from 1981 to 2010 – the largest for any region.
The maximum number of consecutive dry days – a measure of drought – reveals trends toward drier conditions, especially in the Middle East. Given the nature of low rainfall in MENA, the extension in length dry (summer) season is significant.
More alarming are estimated trends toward 2100. Results project that warming in MENA will be greatest in summer, whereas elsewhere it is in winter. Warm spell durations are expected to increase from 16 days now to 83 to 118 days by 2050 and more than 200 days by 2100 for the business-as-usual climate projections. The highest temperatures during the hottest days now are about 43°C. This could increase to 46°C by the middle of the century and reach 50°C by 2100 CE, again, for business-as-usual scenarios.
For mammals, including humans, survival is partially a function of environmental temperature. 35°C is the threshold value of “wet bulb” temperature (a measure of humidity or degree of “mugginess”) beyond which any exposure for more than six hours would be intolerable even for the fittest of humans, resulting in hyperthermia (overheating) and death. The body can cope through perspiration and evaporation, provided that the wet bulb temperature remains below 35°C. When the highest temperature on earth of 56.7°C was reached in Death Valley in 1932, flocks of birds that entered the area plummeted to their death from heat exhaustion.
A recent study in the science journal Nature concludes that projections in MENA are expected to exceed this critical threshold (35°C) wet bulb temperature due to AGW, making areas not survivable. Regional climate simulations and high-resolution model projections show MENA being affected by more severe droughts. Summer droughts are projected to start earlier in the year and last longer. One climate model study projects one to three weeks of additional dry days for the Mediterranean by 2100 CE. With 70% of the MENA’s agricultural production rain-fed, the sector is highly vulnerable to fluctuations in temperature and rainfall as a result of AGW. Impacts will vary, but it is often poorer, rural communities that are hit hardest by lost crops and livestock.
All these factors make the MENA a top climate hot spot, both now and for the remainder of the century, becoming a much more scorched-earth region, with some places not survivable.
MENA IS also the top hot spot for conflict and fatalities, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Syria has the largest number in recent years, amounting to 400,000. The top countries for fatalities in 2017, to the nearest 1,000, were Syria (39,000), Afghanistan (23,000), Mexico (15,000) and then Iraq (13,000). The next nearest was the Rohinga crisis with an estimate of 6,700. The Mexican fatalities were a result of drug wars. Compare this with a mere 42 in 2017 for the Palestinian conflict. These could be overshadowed by an expected 150,000 mortalities due to heat exhaustion later this century.
The World Bank has launched its MENA climate action plan for the poorer countries such as Yemen, which will struggle to cope with the adverse impact of AGW. The $1.5 billion annual budget is geared toward financing initiatives to help countries in the region transition to low-carbon energy, secure food and water supplies, build sustainable cities that can adapt to new climate conditions, and protect underprivileged countries that are most at risk from AGW.
The state of Middle East environments and climate change published two years before the 2011 uprisings found “no work… carried out to make the Arab countries prepared for climate change...” Although the delay in climate change adaptation and resilience-building in MENA cannot be blamed on any single factor, a major theme that has undermined preparation for climate change challenges is the chronic state of heavy conflict in the region. MENA’s vulnerability to climate change impact will grow deeper still unless this destructive element is reversed.
All states in MENA are at high risk of corruption, posing a continuing threat to security and stability in the region, according to a new Government Defense Index from Transparency International situated in London; 16 of the 17 states assessed in the index receive either E or F grades, representing either a “very high” or “critical” risk of defense corruption. Only Tunisia performs better, although is still classed as “high risk.” The region has some of the most rapidly growing defense budgets in the world, with a spend of $135b. Up to a third of all government spending can be on defense.
Those at critical risk are Kuwait, Morocco, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Oman, Egypt, Qatar, Algeria, and Yemen, as there is virtually no accountability or transparency of their defense and security establishments.
The failure to end the current conflicts in the MENA and corruption also has serious ramifications on a regional level. AGW is amplifying the real threat of water scarcity, deepening the vicious cycle of conflict. The budget of only $1.5b. on climate change mitigation and adaptation, compared with a military spend of at least $135b. is catastrophic, given the risk to human and animal survivability in this region as a global climate change hot spot. Peace initiatives are imperative for the entire region.
The writer is a visiting professor at the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Haifa and New Zealand regional president, B’nai B’rith Australia/New Zealand.