Climate change, politics and conflict: the Middle East’s volatile mix
Population pressure and the worst drought in 900 years are bringing grave consequences to the region
In the summer months, when the most westerly tail of the Indian Ocean monsoon touches the rugged mountains of southern Oman, the sudden deluge that results produces one of Arabia’s most astonishing sights.
For a few weeks, the parched desert turns green, as water flows down long-dried up wadis, while a thick mist rises over the Jebel Al Qamar – the Mountains of the Moon.
For a short time, these rains, known as the khareef, change the whole landscape – and the inhabitants’ way of life.
And then – all too soon – the rains are gone.
Then, the blistering sun returns, burning off the green and drying out the streams and rivers. Rapidly, the region returns to desert.
In Arabia, there are few such dramatic examples of the transformative power of water and its necessity for life.
Yet now, all of the delicate systems that underpin the region’s water resources are under grave threat.
A combination of demographics, government decisions, conflict and climate change is already having major consequences.
Indeed, “For the whole Middle East,” says Research Scientist Dr. Somayeh Shadkam, from Goethe University in Frankfurt, “there is now a real crisis – and urgent responses are needed.”
A 2016 report from the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) shows that the Levant region – which includes Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Syria and Turkey – is currently going through its worst drought in around 900 years.
This is likely to get worse, too, according to the recent International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This has concluded that by the end of the century, the Middle East as a whole will be some 40% drier than it is now, if current trends continue.
“Many internationally renowned lakes and natural perennial sources of water have already completely dried up,” says Vahid Karimi, from the College of Agriculture at Shiraz University in Iran – one of the countries worst affected. “Farmers and their families have been impacted, with drought meaning lost assets, lost income, malnutrition and general impoverishment.”
Temperatures throughout the region have been rising, too – causing more rapid evaporation – while the amount of rainfall has also been declining. Volatility in rains is also a problem, with floods followed by much longer periods of drought, requiring farmers to irrigate for longer.
At the same time, there has been a huge increase in population.
While in 1950, the Middle East and North Africa was home to some 110 million people, by 2017, this had reached 569 million. According to a recent European Union-funded research project by MENARA, if current trends continue, the figure will be more than one billion by the end of the century.
In some countries too, such as Iran and Turkey, the government actively encourages citizens to have even larger families, adding to the pressure on dwindling resources.
Indeed, the state has often had a key role in the crisis.
In countries where government has been or is heavily involved in the economy, subsidised fuel, fertilizers, set prices for crops and other measures have helped boost rural populations – and often, inefficient use of water resources on newly-opened farmland.
The more recent liberalisation of these economies in recent years has also had a major impact. With the withdraw of subsidies, rural communities have sometimes collapsed, boosting urban populations as people abandon the land. Often, these urban centres are ill-equiped for such rapid growth.
Some argue, indeed, that it was this kind of migration that helped trigger the ‘Arab Spring’ in Syria in 2011, after a few years of major drought.
Yet often, those farmers were also pawns in a wider conflict.
Syria is also an example of this. The country’s main bread basket is the northeastern Hasaka region. This has also historically been a part of the country with a large ethnic Kurdish population.
“From the 1950s, Syria pursued a policy of Arabisation of this area,” says Professor Jan Selby, from the International Relations Department at Sussex University. “Many Syrian Arabs were resettled there to marginalise the Kurds, with whom the regime was in conflict. This rapidly increased the population and the pressure on water resources. In other words, it wasn’t so much that environmental problems caused conflict, as that conflict caused environmental problems.”
In the Gulf, meanwhile, highly arid states have invested in schemes such as desalination plants to address their growing populations and water needs.
Indeed, despite having no permanent surface water and a fast vanishing aquifer, the Gulf states are now amongst the heaviest users of water per person in the world.
Desalination may not be a long-term answer however.
“There is an unintended consequence,” says Aisha Al-Sarihi, Visiting Scholar at the Arab Gulf State Institute in Washington. “There is a lot of use of energy to desalinate, which means increasing oil and gas use, which in turn increases greenhouse gas emissions, negatively affecting climate change.”
Share and share alike
One other feature of the region is that some 60% of its surface water resources are trans-boundary, running across borders.
At the same time, most of the region’s nations also share transboundary aquifers – the large, underground water resources often accessed by farmers, via wells.
“Mostly, states cooperate over water,” says Dr. Michael Mason, Associate Professor of Environmental Geography at the London School of Economics. “Israel and Jordan cooperate, for example, over the Jordan River.”
This may also point to one way in which the current crisis might be addressed.
“The water crisis amplifies economic, political and ethnic tensions in this already volatile region,” says Dr. Shadkam. “As so much water is trans-boundary, however, we can turn the threat into an opportunity by setting aside political differences and coming together to deal with this.”
Certainly, each year, the rains of the khareef bring people together, with many travelling from elsewhere in the sweltering Arabian peninsula to experience the cool mists of southern Oman.
They may, however, be returning to ever higher temperatures at home, as aquifers drain and the rains get thinner.
“If we are looking for a solution,” adds Dr. Shadkam, “we should stop the blame game and adapt as soon as possible. If we don’t, the Middle East will become uninhabitable in the near future.”