Green water – the rainwater available to plants in the soil – is indispensable for life on and below the land. But in a new study, we found that widespread pressure on this resource has crossed a critical limit.
The planetary boundaries framework – a concept that scientists first discussed in 2009 – identified nine processes that have remained remarkably steady in the Earth system over the last 11,700 years. These include a relatively stable global climate and an intact biosphere that have allowed civilisations based on agriculture to thrive. Researchers proposed that each of these processes has a boundary that, once crossed, puts the Earth system, or substantial components of it, at risk of upset.
So far, it has been suggested that human use of freshwater is still within safe limits globally. But earlier assessments only considered the extraction of what is called blue water – that which flows in rivers and resides in underground aquifers. Even then, regional boundaries are likely to have been crossed in many river basins due to a sixfold increase in the extraction of blue water over the past century. Besides irrigating crops to sate growing demand from people and livestock, population growth and higher standards of living have raised global domestic and industrial water consumption, disrupting aquatic ecosystems and decimating the life within them.
By including green water in our assessment, we found that freshwater’s ability to sustain a stable Earth system is even more threatened than first reported.
Research shows that clearing forests reduces the flow of moisture to the atmosphere, dampening how efficiently the Earth system can circulate water and ultimately putting ecosystems like the Amazon at risk of collapse. Global heating and changes to how the land is used, especially deforestation, are among the biggest factors responsible for humanity’s transgression of this planetary boundary. Their combined influence indicates that the planetary boundaries interact and need to be treated as one networked system.
We found that since the industrial revolution, and especially since the 1950s, larger parts of the world are subject to significantly drier or wetter soil. This shift towards extreme conditions is an alarming development due to the indispensable role of water in maintaining resilient societies and ecosystems
Too much soil water is no good either. Water-saturated soils make floods more likely and suffocate plant growth. Abnormally large quantities of water evaporating from wet soils can delay the onset of monsoons in places like India, where the dry season has extended and disrupted farming. High humidity combined with high temperatures can also cause deadly heatwaves, as the human body quickly overheats when sweating becomes impossible in very moist air. Several regions, like South Asia, the coastal Middle East and the Gulf of California and Mexico, are experiencing this lethal combination much earlier than expected.
What can be done?
Growing scientific evidence suggests that the planet is both drier and wetter than at any point within the last 11,700 years. This threatens the ecological and climatic conditions that support life.
Our analysis shows that the sixth planetary boundary has been crossed. But ambitious efforts to slow climate change and halt deforestation could still prevent dangerous changes to the cycling of Earth’s green water. Along with other measures, switching farming practices to sustainable alternatives would prevent more soil being degraded and losing its moisture. Explicitly governing green water and its protection in policy and legal frameworks may also be necessary.
Climate change is among the most impactful and yet the least debated sources of instability for the whole of the MENA region. Initiatives and dispersed actions are witnessed here and there. Al Jazeera TV questions whether the MENA countries can fight climate change the same way?
Can MENA countries fight climate change the same way?
With Egypt’s COP27 less than six months away, experts are calling attention to the Middle East and North Africa region’s transition to clean energy.
MENA watchers are using upcoming UN climate negotiations in Egypt to bring the region into focus, particularly regarding the challenges it faces in transitioning to clean energy [File: Mohammed Dabbous/Reuters]
By Sanam Mahoozi
11 June 2022
Global climate talks are coming to the hottest and driest part of the planet.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region will host the next United Nations climate change conference where decision-makers from around the world will come together to agree on actions required to limit rising temperatures.
Last year, governments made a pact during COP26 – the climate summit that took place in the United Kingdom’s city of Glasgow, to prevent the planet from heating more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by mid-century, a threshold that if surpassed could have catastrophic results for humans and ecosystems.
At the same time, Egypt was selected to host COP27 this November in Sharm El-Sheikh, a resort town located between the desert of the Sinai Peninsula and the Red Sea. Incidentally, COP28 will also happen in MENA in the United Arab Emirates the following year.
Since the UN meetings began back in 1995, the region has accommodated the international climate change conferences known as COPs only a few times – twice in Marrakesh, Morocco, and once in Doha, Qatar, almost a decade ago.
Climate meetings are where leaders present national targets and proposals for cutting back emissions of greenhouse gases. The main objective is to get governments to prevent the release of large quantities of emissions into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels.
The problem, however, is that about 80 percent of the world’s power comes from coal, oil and gas, and most nations are heavily reliant on these for their energy needs. Current energy mixes need to be replaced with greener alternatives, but in practice, fossil fuels are still very much running the show.
The International Energy Agency recorded the highest yearly level of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions for the energy sector in 2021.
Secure a pathway
Transforming energy systems is costly and is a difficult undertaking worldwide. For oil and gas producers in MENA, this task is even harder given that 95 percent of their electricity is generated from fossil fuels.
Climate change has also been drying and warming the region faster than anywhere else on Earth, making it more vulnerable to extreme weather events such as drought.
A pathway for the region that is safe and fair must be created and COP27 can serve as the platform to do that, analysts have said.
“Climate change negotiations tend to focus mainly on energy and decarbonisation while other important issues such as justice and water scarcity are not getting the attention they deserve,” Kaveh Madani of United Nations University and head of Iran’s delegation to COP23 told Al Jazeera.
“Prescribing identical solution measures is wrong because not all countries have access to equal resources and opportunities,” Madani added.
MENA watchers have used the negotiations in Egypt to bring the region into focus, particularly regarding the challenges it faces in transitioning to clean energy.
The most recent assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change left no doubt that quick and deep emission cuts will have to take place across all economies, including in MENA, to prevent the worst effects of global warming from happening.
To do that, predominantly fossil fuel energy mixes in the region will need to start including more alternative sources. Renewables such as solar and wind have been considered possible alternatives.
Hydropower, however, may be the least desirable because electricity is generated by reservoirs of water barricaded by large dams and excessive dam building for energy and agricultural purposes in the region has already contributed to major rivers in Iran, Syria, Iraq and Egypt drying up.
“Water, energy, and environment are three interconnected factors. They are the pillars that define the quality of life in any country … If one goes wrong the others follow,” said Essam Heggy, a scientist at the University of Southern California.
So, whether it is at the climate summit in Egypt or the UAE, “any discussion on clean energy in MENA will have to address the issue of water management in the region,” added Heggy.
A fair transition
Most countries in the Middle East and North Africa have economies that depend solely on revenue derived from the production and export of oil and gas.
Energy transitioning means complying with international climate agreements, a scenario in which, by the year 2050, all greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere are offset.
For this to happen, MENA countries will need to move from fossil fuels to renewable energy. However, not all governments can commit to this timeframe simultaneously.
With COP27 on the horizon, it is likely that more nations, including Egypt, will be pressured into submitting decarbonisation plans faster. Some wealthy countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have already done so.
But green financing opportunities are not equal across the region. Iran, for example, one of the highest carbon emitters in the world, is prohibited from receiving foreign investment to develop its renewable energy sector because of US sanctions
War-ravaged nations, such as Iraq and Syria, in the Middle East will also have trouble allocating the money needed for reconstructing cities and industries with clean energy.
Moreover, decision-makers in MENA have said developed economies, such as the United States, the EU, and China – the most responsible historically for greenhouse gas pollution, should help pay for the technology they need for decarbonisation.
According to a survey published by management consultancy McKinsey, lower-income fossil fuel-based nations will have to spend significantly more on transitioning given their high exposure to climate change and its damages.
In their defence and the interest of fairness, mitigation cannot be expected to occur the same way across the MENA region.
As Ali Ahmad, energy and climate change specialist at the World Bank told Al Jazeera, “obstacles facing the region are very country specific, each one has its own political economy considerations that shapes the pace and depth of its energy transition pathway.”
Bridging the gap
Global oil and gas markets have changed significantly since COP26 concluded in Glasgow, Scotland, last November with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the plethora of sanctions that followed on Moscow.
To keep the security and costs of its energy sector in check, the EU will have to find a new partner to provide it with the gas it currently gets from Russia. Specifically, countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
Iran, Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Egypt have some of the world’s largest gas reserves, and possess the expertise in using it for both domestic energy intake, as well as for exports.
“It’s really likely that over the next few years Europe will start replacing its gas imports from Russia, and so basically the gas that is produced in MENA will find a renewed market at possibly a higher price,” Ahmad said.
Egypt and Qatar are already reaping the rewards having signed major deals with the Europeans for the development of the liquefied form of natural gas (LNG), which can be easily delivered by tankers rather than pipelines.
Even though natural gas is notoriously bad for the atmosphere and releases huge amounts of methane – the second-leading contributor to human-induced climate change – it is being championed as a bridging agent that can help pave the way for MENA’s transition to clean energy.
Natural gas emits about 45 percent less CO2 than oil and coal and has been recognised as the cleanest form of fossil fuel by the International Energy Agency.
Solar, wind, and green hydrogen are better options to constitute MENA’s future energy mixes, but “we need to check and evaluate which one of these fuels has a well-established supply chain and existing infrastructure to fill the gap in energy transition for now, and the answer is natural gas,” Farid Safari, visiting research fellow at Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, told Al Jazeera.
Ultimately for the Middle East and North Africa, “the energy mix will differ by country and really depends on the region and the range of circumstances – including renewable resources, access to capital, and available alternatives,” Ali al-Saffar, Middle East and North Africa programme manager at the International Energy Agency, told Al Jazeera.
The Middle East has a severe climate problem. According to a recent International Monetary Fund report, the average temperature in the region has risen by 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1990, which is more than twice the global average. On top of that, countries there and in Central Asia account for nearly half of the fifty countries most prone to “extreme heat events” (periods of excessive temperatures and humidity). Further temperature increases are expected, with adverse economic, environmental, and societal consequences for the region.
For example, in 2019, the United Nations sounded the alarm of a coming era of “climate apartheid,” wherein extreme temperatures and prolonged heatwaves threaten to “‘undo the last 50 years’ of development, global health and poverty reduction” and impoverish millions. This new reality will be particularly consequential for the Middle East, which has already been struggling to address electricity shortages, economic inequality, and human harm intensified by lengthy heatwaves with record temperatures. These pains are likely to have a pronounced economic effect: as the IMF reports, “Even in a moderate emission scenario (RCP 4.5) that limits global warming to 2-3 [degrees Celsius] by 2100, mortality-related costs [the cost of deaths and adaptations on society] … could reach an average of 1.6 percent of GDP per year during 2040-59.” And the situation is even grimmer for the region’s hottest countries—such as Bahrain, Djibouti, Mauritania, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. The IMF says that these nations could see an “immediate decline in per capita economic growth of around 2 percentage points” for every “temperature increase of 1 degree Celsius.”
Of course, it is not just rising temperatures but also declining precipitation rates that are exacerbating the region’s challenges. Indeed, decreasing annual precipitation rates are aggravating the Middle East’s water crisis, which is one of the world’s worst due to the region’s arid climate and years of state governments mismanaging their water resources and subsidizing water-intensive agriculture and animal husbandry. Adapting to the coming climate emergency will greatly burden the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), a region that uses, on average, more than four times of its available freshwater resources and is home to twelve of the seventeen most water-stressed countries in the world.
Image courtesy of the International Monetary Fund’s report, “Feeling the Heat: Adapting to Climate Change in the Middle East and Central Asia,” where MENAP represents the Middle East and North Africa plus Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Experts have been pointing out for years that the North African region is a “hotspot”, and that the risks associated with temperatures already above the global average, would be higher (1.5 degrees by 2035, with the possibility, without a radical policy change, of reaching 2.2 degrees in 2050).
Rainfall is expected to decrease and temperature to rise, which will have a direct impact on water resource capacities. Climate models show that these trends will strengthen over the future years.
As the agricultural sector is the main consumer of this resource, agricultural production – and therefore the supply to consumers – will be directly affected.
Agricultural lands are largely located in the arid and semi-arid area, representing 85% of the total land area (excluding the Sahara), and will now be increasingly subject to frequent droughts and climatic accidents.
This diagnosis, widely shared by the National Climate Plan (PNC) adopted by the authorities in 2018, has not been followed up, and the climate change adaptation measures adopted by the PNC are far from being implemented.
A major challenge, therefore, arises in a country where the orientation given to policies is aimed at a further intensification of the modes of exploitation of natural resources: how in these conditions to increase agricultural production while preserving natural resources strongly threatened in the future by ongoing climate change?
Secondly, there is the economic shock caused by the rise in world prices for basic agricultural products, which are very heavily consumed by the population (cereals, milk, edible oils, and sugar).
The market crisis and the rises in commodity prices in the spring of 2020 were accentuated by the Russia-Ukraine conflict that began on 24 February 2022.
Soft wheat prices, which hovered around $200 per tonne in the years 2011-2012, reached amounts that are around $290 per tonne in the last quarter of 2021.
The health crisis was a trigger for this market crisis and this with, on the one hand, the consequence and the weight exerted by imports from China – which became the world’s leading importer of agricultural and agri-food products during 2020/2021 season – and on the other hand, the rise in transport prices combined with temporary export restrictions implemented in several exporting countries (Russia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Argentina, India…).
Since the beginning of the war, soft wheat has increased by 50% to $450 per tonne. World prices for vegetable oils increased by 23%, sugar by 7%, and meat by 5%.
Algeria will thus buy at the end of February 2022, 600,000 tons of milling wheat, of French origin at $ 485 per ton (cost and fees) to load March-April 2022.
Egypt, the world’s largest importer of soft wheat, will acquire 240,000 tons of French soft wheat for loading at the end of May, at $492.25 per tonne.
The featured image is of Workers harvesting wheat in a field on the outskirts of Berouaguia, southwest of Algiers. (Reuters)
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