Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs jointly tackle climate change
The Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) region is one of the most vulnerable to climate change. It’s already being hit disproportionately by rising temperatures, water scarcity and desertification. And the outlook for the future is grim.
These are all compelling reasons for experts in the region to collaborate more, say the organizers of a conference on agriculture, water and food security. The conference, which was attended by experts from Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories and several Arabic and Muslim countries, aimed to develop practical programs to address regional challenges.
“So much can be done in this region by cooperating across borders,” said William Wechsler, senior director of the N7 Initiative which organized the conference held last week in the capital of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi. The initiative promotes collaboration between Israel and Arab and Muslim nations that have signed the Abraham Accords, a deal brokered in 2020 to normalize relations between Israel and several Arab countries, including Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
“For example, water can be made more available, food prices can be lowered, and people’s lives can be made more secure,” said Wechsler, listing the advantages of potential cooperations.
Wechsler believes agriculture is an ideal basis for climate change collaboration. Not only is it a field where progress can be made quickly, it could also have a big impact on people’s lives across the MENA region.
“If we miss the opportunity to address climate change now, the window of opportunity will eventually close,” Wechsler warned.
Although there are challenges to establishing governments and private sector cooperations, Wechsler believes those actively involved in tackling climate change and its effects are keen to work together.
“At the end of the day, scientists and engineers are practical people who are interested in solving problems, no matter where they are from,” Wechsler told DW.
Difficult to find funding for joint projects
For conference participant Faouzi Bekkaoui, the director of Morocco’s National Agricultural Research Institute, Israel has much to offer his country.
“Israeli expertise relates in particular to water usage efficiency, such as irrigation systems and developing more resilient crops and varieties,” he told DW.
Morocco is among the world’s most water-stressed countries, according to a World Bank 2022 report, and its agricultural sector is badly affected by the water shortage and climate change.
“Israel also made significant progress in biotechnology or genomics, and all these areas could be beneficial for Morocco, as well,” he said.
But funds for joint Moroccan-Israeli projects or academic exchanges are limited. Bekkaoui has now applied to the US-based Merck Foundation, which funds projects between Israel and the Arab countries that signed the Abraham Accords, for a grant.
The region lacks a tradition of cross-border academic cooperations.
“Most national research administrations … have limited pathways to grant research funding to foreign organizations,” said Youssef Wehbe, a researcher at the National Center of Meteorology in Abu Dhabi, in a recent podcast by the Middle East Institute.
Finding funding for cross-border projects to combat climate change is even more complex. During the World Climate Summit COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, richer nations agreed to provide adaptation funds worth $40 billion (€37.3 billion) annually for low- and middle-income countries from 2025 onwards.
But most of this finance is awarded in the form of loans for mitigation projects to reduce fossil fuel usage, such as installing solar panels or wind farms, which return a profit to lending nations, explained Wehbe.
In contrast, financing for adaptation schemes is low as they are “harder to fund and are less attractive to funding nations compared to the loan model, which returns a profit for these lending nations,” Wehbe said.
He calls for more globally oriented research programs targeting climate change “to solicit ideas from the international scientific community.”
Tackling climate change to reduce conflict
Agriculture and climate change expert Jamal Saghir, a professor at Canada’s McGill University and former World Bank director, also regards collaboration across borders as the best solution.
“Regional cooperation is always a win-win situation and much better than national or bilateral projects,” he told DW. “Most of the Mideast countries are not doing enough yet and climate change is much faster.”
The Middle East is warming at twice the global average. This is expected to fuel competition and conflict over dwindling resources – making it essential for the region to tackle climate change and its consequences such as more migration and unrest.
However, Saghir believes the region can leapfrog these issues through technology. Here he seesIsrael and the Gulf countries in a position to take a lead.
“Israeli technology is leading in desalination and irrigation and the region would benefit a lot from these methods,” he said. The United Arab Emirates, beyond their thriving oil business, have also made significant investments in renewable energies, he pointed out.
“Joint collaboration will lead to new ideas in research and development, which can then be implemented by several countries,” he said. “What are they waiting for? This could happen now.”
Building a basis of trust
Tareq Abu Hamad, executive director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel, believes tackling climate change together with other scientists across the region could turn into “a great opportunity to build trust.”
“We live in a small region that is considered as a hotspot when it comes to climate change, and we do not have any other option than cooperating with each other to deal with these challenges,” he said.
Alex Plitsas, who is involved in the N7 Initiative, was struck by one scene at the conference that filled him with hope.
“The most extraordinary thing I witnessed … in Abu Dhabi was when a male Arab diplomat from a Gulf state wearing traditional thobe & donning a kaffiyeh sat with a female Israeli entrepreneur and I late at night,” he wrote on Twitter, “as they worked to figure out how to make people’s lives better.”
Edited by: Jon Shelton and Kate Hairsine
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