Michael Young discusses in an interview with Olivia Lazard the political impact of environmental degradation in the region. It is about whether the Middle East Remain Habitable?
Will the Middle East Remain Habitable?
- November 19, 2020
Olivia Lazard is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. Her research focuses on the geopolitics of climate, the transition ushered by climate change and the risks of conflict and fragility associated with climate change and environmental collapse. Lazard has over twelve years of experience in the peacemaking sector at field and policy levels. With an original specialization in the political economy of conflicts, she has worked for various non-governmental organizations, the United Nations, the European Union, and donor states in the Middle East, Latin America, Sub-Saharan and North Africa, and parts of Asia. In her fieldwork, her focus was on understanding how globalization and the international political economy shaped patterns of violence and vulnerability. Diwan interviewed her in mid-November to examine how environmental issues are impacting the Middle East.
Michael Young: Climate change has been largely ignored by regimes and even societies in the Middle East, yet it is affecting them in fundamental ways. Can you outline some of the major effects of climate change and tell us why we in the region should pay attention.
Olivia Lazard: Climate change has been ignored the world over because we fail to understand that our governance and economic systems are exhausting nature’s capacity to function, and therefore to sustain us and other species. The challenge ahead is difficult to apprehend. It is not just a matter of energy transition; it is a matter of profound political and socioeconomic transformation. It is about disrupting the status quo. So it is easy to understand why this is not welcomed by autocratic regimes who may stand to lose grip on power, or by democratic societies where coordinated action can be even more complex. Even as certain parts of the world, such as Europe, move closer to a climate transition, we are still at the very early stages of a long journey toward the profound transformations that we are going to need in order to genuinely address the drivers of climate change and, more broadly, ecological disintegration that threaten our ability to survive as a species on this planet.
So, I agree with you that regimes in the Middle East ignore climate change, because they rarely like to talk about transformative change. But I wouldn’t say that the societies ignore climate change per se. In fact, I think it is fair to say that the Arab Spring was a climate-disrupted appetizer that upended the world’s understanding of the region, but also of the links between societal and environmental shocks. Arab societies were actually precursors in ringing the alarm bells on a combination of events that lead to disruption and protracted sociopolitical conflicts: drought, monoculture failings, speculation over staple goods leading to market failures, and worsening social disenfranchisement with no safety net in sight. Increasing temperatures, erratic weather patterns, the unreliability of rainfall, protracted drought, and increasing reliance on chemical inputs to grow crops were all the long-term backstory to these issues back in 2011, which few analysts picked up on. The biophysical factors that characterize climate change were already at play.
MY: How were the Arab uprisings climate-disrupted appetizers, as you’ve said?
OL: This is a side of the story that still doesn’t get told very often when we examine the Arab Spring and its aftermath, so let me dwell a bit on it by looking at Tunisia. In Tunisia, landscapes across the country are ecological deserts—export-oriented monocultures as far as the eye can see. It makes them very vulnerable to climate and economic shocks. Two years ago, I was traveling across the country and I could see that, between the touristy coast where inequalities could not be starker and the extractives regions of the south, decades-long agricultural and economic policies had turned a country which used to be fertile into a bare piece of rock and dust.
Today, a decade after the start of the Arab Spring, you have a country where unemployment is still soaring, where youths find no meaning or economic opportunities outside of the informal economy, where urban centers of the hinterland are boiling with anger and frustration, and where the free movement of people is extremely constricted from one governorate to another. Look around in a place such as Sidi Bouzid, and you either see depressing concrete in town or depressing desert as far as the eye can see. There is no life, there are no prospects. Both the land and the economy have come to a standstill. So people feel stuck. Local cultures have lost their vibrancy and intergenerational divides are growing wider. In this bare and inert environment, drug consumption, domestic violence, and radicalization are rising.
The land is actually the canvas of terrible policies that have favored extraction and predatory politics over resilient social fabrics, culture, and vibrant economies. And the problem is that climate change exacerbates problems that are already present. In Sidi Bouzid in 2010, the spark was Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation. But his story was yet another reminder of problems running deeper and taking root in environmental exploitation, abuse of hard security at the expense of social and human security, enduring economic inequalities, poor governance, and rising violence. It is striking to see how national and international responses to these problems are missing out on the environmental story as a backdrop to social and economic violence. They just do not focus on it.
The picture that I am trying to paint here is one of interconnectedness between the environment and human security, which has always existed but that we really have only started noticing more as a result of climate disruption. Climate change will have two consequences—to exacerbate and disrupt. The Middle East knows this well. The history of landscapes in the region is one of abundance that cradled human civilization. But mismanagement of resources led to natural exhaustion and cycles of violence for centuries. Today, the region is in an advanced stage of desertification, with fewer and fewer resources to support human populations. The environmental degradation is coupled with an atmospheric accelerating force resulting in extreme natural shocks—floods, devastating droughts, and resulting fires. Unsurprisingly, the Middle East concentrates yet again all the ingredients that mark the history of our times.
Where human security is weakened by predatory and hard security-oriented regimes, economies tend to be more extractive toward nature. But nature can no longer sustain extraction. Resources are not just running lower—such as water or land fertility—they are also more erratic. The Middle East is now replete with foretellers of climate catastrophes—massive floods in the Arabian Peninsula, fires in the Levant, and drought everywhere.
These disasters are mostly showing one thing, namely that people have no safety nets to rely upon from their governance systems. There is no preparedness, no relief capacity. This means, once again, that Middle Eastern populations are left to struggle for their own dignity, or karama, the key word during the Arab Spring. It may well become a refrain of disruptions to come related to climate shocks.
Still, some regimes in the Middle East are talking about climate change. I am thinking particularly of the United Arab Emirates, but they do so in a “business as usual” way. They aim to demonstrate that economic power and technological innovation are a way to face the crisis. This is not going to work. Governance and socioeconomic systems need to be rethought in terms of their relationship with nature. We also have to look a lot more in the direction of nature-based solutions in order to navigate the unfolding disaster.
MY: There has been an argument that the Syrian uprising was caused by the drought between 2007 and 2010. Your thoughts?
OL: Without a doubt the drought played a role in the multidimensional uprising in Syria. But the drought itself has a story. It began in 2007 and became protracted over the years. Rainfall patterns were becoming more erratic. This was the result of two things: global warming resulting from excess carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere and changes in landscapes at the local level. Apart from the coastline, over time Syrian land was denuded of natural vegetation, which is responsible for stocking water underground and pumping it into the atmosphere.
In addition to breaking the ecological integrity of the land (which regulates local climates), there were other things that created additional stress for the agricultural capacity in the area of Dar‘a and elsewhere. The Assad regime relied on two main crops for export—wheat and cotton—both of which are highly water intensive. So, atmospheric conditions were not providing rain, and on top of it there were agricultural incentives, such as subsidies, pushing unsustainable ground water consumption. In parallel, the liberalization of the economy led to hikes in diesel prices which farmers could not afford. The crops eventually failed, collapsing an already fragile economy and pushing people into acute food insecurity and economic vulnerability, which they were left to navigate mostly by themselves.
What followed was a mass movement from rural to urban zones, as well as a boom in the informal economy, which is often accompanied by abuse and insecurity for all members of a family household. This is an extremely violent process of the disintegration of livelihoods and security that spirals out of control. In those cities to which people moved, the population influx led to unsustainable water consumption, which created tensions between “old” and “new” communities. The land was impossibly stretched, and the state only concentrated on containing a bubbling situation by unleashing the security forces. Populations were squeezed between scarcity and violence. No wonder communities revolted. So, again, this is a story of exacerbation and disruption.
I was in Syria in 2009, and I remember then that all the communities with which I spoke accepted President Bashar al-Assad as the “devil they knew.” They knew that the equilibrium between the central state, the clans, and the various communities was precarious, but it was an equilibrium to which they could adhere for lack of a better alternative. When mass displacement, impoverishment, and violence started increasing, this equilibrium was upset. The state reacted in a such a way that it broke irremediably the multiple contracts that Assad had with various constituencies.
When you look through the lens of the environment, you can actually retrace the story of peoples, economic policies, and governance structures. Ask any elder in the Middle East what the land was like 60–70 years ago, and they will spend hours telling you stories about fruits and vegetables tasting better, people being more resilient, and communities being more intertwined. The state of the land is usually a reflection of socioeconomic situations—either of resilience or destitution. With increasing liberalization over the last decades, especially through structural adjustments, there have been inequalities and social dislocation. In the Middle East, governance structures are highly centralized and informally organized according to ancestral cultural and identity groups. The mix between the two has led to politics of group benefits and zero-sum games. In modern economies, that means that land and other natural resources are mostly integrated in an economic trickle-up model in which resources accrue to a few at the expense of social and natural public goods.
Climate change is a systems-disruptive force. It will upset old equilibriums to which authoritarian states and inefficient bureaucracies are ill-adapted to respond. So, yes, climate change is tied in with politics in the region, and it will have exponential effects over the coming years.
MY: One consequence of drier climates is that it will exacerbate water scarcity. Can you outline potential scenarios if the question of water is not adequately addressed by Arab states? What might be some ways of resolving the issue?
OL: Let’s fix a slight misconception first. Water scarcity leads to climate disruption leads to water scarcity. In other words, climates become drier because of inadequate water and land management. When you do this globally, all the while burning fossil fuels, you end up with a global climate regime deregulation. Agricultural, energy, and extractive policies are the primary drivers of water scarcity. Climate change exacerbates an already existing state of water scarcity.
Now, on scenarios. It is very hard to lay these out, because they depend on water levels, water sources and flows, water infrastructure, and socioeconomic relationships to water. What I can tell you is that water scarcity is a process of man-made depletion. It is not an overnight shortage. So, necessarily, the disruptions and sociopolitical breakdowns that result from it also take place in a process of exacerbation until it reaches points of disruption.
We can look at two different countries to understand how water scarcity impacts stability. Jordan is currently experiencing its worst drought in 900 years. The consecutive refugee flows coming from Palestine, then Iraq, then Syria over the last decades have led to repeated sudden bursts of population concentration in various parts of the country. In recent years, Mafraq and Irbid Governorates have been under acute water stress every summer, leading to severe tensions between refugee and host communities, higher criminality, xenophobia, and the reinforcement of tough security measures on the part of the Jordanian state. As a result of water running low, people have dug random boreholes into local water tables, which tends to worsen water stress for everyone, but also can lead to water pollution.
At a more structural level, in and near those governorates you have intensive forms of agriculture that drain water tables further. In Amman, where the government is under more direct political pressure, the city has been moving toward more efficient water infrastructure, and it is looking at desalination plants to increase the availability of water. But it is not the same story across the country. Water vulnerability is increasing and is having a series of knock-on effects. These effects are so far contained, so the two questions we need to ask are “until when?” and “and then what?” Here, we need to look at policy responses and ecological interdependencies underpinning Jordan’s water resources. It gives us an idea of the type of violence that may emerge and how far it can go geographically.
From an ecological standpoint, technology can only get you so far. As long as Jordan can make up for water shortages that sustain its economies, it will maintain a level of stability and water conflicts may remain confined to social tensions or to geographically confined zones. But that will have a growing cost over time, which will destabilize the country’s economy and sociopolitical fabric. If Jordan also reacts with force rather than rethinks its investment in the social and environmental fabric, it will likely pay a heavy price in the coming decade.
Iraq, on the other hand, is moving into active water conflict, especially around the ancestral ecosystem of the southern marshes. The water branches feeding into this ecosystem are impacted by hydroelectric infrastructures reducing the flow of water, general pollution, growing salination, and the collapse of local biodiversity. Because of the environmental degradation, people are moving into cities, which are themselves facing water stress. This has led to greater demand for water imports, forcing all households, including vulnerable ones, to spend their income on making up for the lack of available water. This leads again to growing social tensions, but also growing frustration with a central state that remains crippled by its inability to provide basic services, and therefore needs to constantly find ways of legitimizing itself.
Iraq is dependent for its water supply on Turkey and Iran. The more the Iraqi government fails to deliver at home, the more it is likely to escalate tensions with its neighbors. Over time, if this doesn’t lead to open warfare—which it probably won’t given Iraq’s weak defense capacity—it will reduce the chances for water-based cooperation to stop water depletion. This will impact all countries’ stability negatively, and will make them more vulnerable to climate change. The more individual states prioritize their national needs first, rather than cooperating on the basis of ecological integrity and environmental regeneration, the more they will undermine their own stability and cause environmental degradation. In other words within decades this region of the world may simply become uninhabitable.
In terms of solutions, there are a few. But I’ll focus on broad strokes. First, states and regions would need to transition away from activities that deplete water tables. This is no small feat as it is multisectoral. You need a shift toward regenerative agriculture, energy-efficient systems, and infrastructure development that do not encroach on ecosystems. The process does not just require an economic transition at the country level, it also requires a change in economic infrastructures and frameworks at the international level. Agricultural produce for example should be isolated from international speculation, and production should primarily serve for internal consumption and to reinforce resilience. Countries should encourage a diversity of cultures, including a return to indigenous seeds and crops, rather than systematized crops that are simply not suited to the ecological make-up of areas undergoing desertification.
Secondly, Middle East states need to adopt regenerative landscaping practices that literally help them to plant rain into the soil again. Globally, we need to harness the hydrological cycle in order to recover livable climates at local and global levels again, and preemptively manage floods. The interesting thing is that this is a sector that requires new competencies and which is also labor intensive. It is about redesigning landscapes so that they retain water, leading them to again become productive. This is a message that particularly resonates in the Middle East because rebooting functional ecosystems is also about rebooting local soil-related cultures. The Middle East was the cradle of civilization and culture as a result of its agricultural might for an enormous part of its history. There is the potential to recover for the future.
MY: Do you envisage a time when governments in the region will be able to wean themselves off the extractive policies that have damaged their environments? Or are they not thinking in these terms?
OL: They are not. Nor is it just governments in the region. Extractive policies are a function of growth-oriented economies that require energy. As long as we don’t change what extractive policies are used for, extraction will not cease. A tree will be worth more dead than alive. Underground resources will be more valuable unearthed and used than buried. Aggressive underground resource extraction made the Middle East what it is today. It came with economic growth as well as economic predation, inequalities, disenfranchisement, corruption, violence, and war. It also came with authoritarianism.
Unfortunately, we are likely to see the same type of story develop over the new scramble for resources related to renewable energy. For a long time, the Middle East played a central part in the global economic march that led us to where we are. But the Middle East won’t hold the same importance in tomorrow’s energy competition because it is not endowed with the needed resources such as rare earths and related materials. Admittedly, Middle Eastern countries are endowed in natural sunlight that can help their power transition, but the materials and technology used to harness this renewable energy is where the resource competition will play out, and give rise to new drivers of instability globally. These materials and technology are not located in the Middle East, which means that the center of gravity in energy politics will incrementally shift. This transition will be unsettling, but it may also represent an opportunity to try out different economic models on the basis of ecosystems regeneration. The European Union has already indicated its readiness to work with Middle Eastern partners on multiple transitions. It is however necessary to have a hard look at which type of governance systems are needed to usher in truly resilient transitions in a way that revive local and national economies from the ground up—literally.
MY: What for you are the top three most pressing environmental problems that countries in the region will need to prioritize in the coming decade?
OL: Water scarcity and land degradation will lead to crop failures. Floods will create more humanitarian and economic disasters, and will damage infrastructures that are already fragile. Urbanization is likely to increase, depleting water tables even more. Global energy shifts will lead to changes in oil price structures that may actually lead to more revenues in the short term and, possibly, more investments in security forces. The most pressing environmental problem is that we are entering an era of vicious cycles rather than isolated shocks. But this is not inevitable and what’s at stake is to break those cycles.
The overall challenge across the Middle East, like elsewhere in the world, is to rebuild ecological integrity. That means recreating landscapes that can hold carbon and water, and therefore sustain human activity again. It is about restoring equilibriums that help both to chart another socioeconomic path forward as well as to adapt to climate change and reverse it over time.
So that requires two tempos of change: adaptation and transformation. With respect to adaptation, climate-related disasters are already locked into the planet’s system due to past emissions and environmental degradation. The most pressing thing is to anticipate where and how disasters will hit and prepare accordingly. It requires ensuring continuous and shock absorption relief capacity in the future, which will demand internationally and regionally pooled resources. In addition, it will require redesigning landscapes in such a way that they can buffer the impact of disasters and store as much flood water as possible. This sounds abstract when you are not familiar with ecological design, but if you have a look at projects such as Greening the Desert in Jordan or regenerative projects in Saudi Arabia, you can get a sense of how to work with landscapes to adapt to new challenges.
On transformation, achieving this is hard work. Climate change calls for a profound redesign of political and socioeconomic systems. It is about transforming the way in which agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and other economic systems are set up and relate to the environment. And it is about investigating which governance systems best deliver on a safe operating space for human populations in a viable environment.