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Authors Olivia Macharis is a researcher at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut and Nadim Farajalla is Program Director of the Climate Change and Environment Program at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. They came up with this realistic picture of the Middle East’s Threat Multiplier. It is published on Project Syndicate of 12 June 2020.

The picture above is that of An Egyptian boy holding bread and flashing the victory sign shouts slogans at Cairo’s Tahrir Square on April 1, 2011 as he joins tens of thousands of Egyptians who gathered, issuing calls to “save the revolution” that ousted president Hosni Mubarak and to rid of the country of the old regime. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/GettyImages)

Although many factors contributed to the mass protest movements in Iraq in recent years, and in Egypt a decade ago, climate change was the common denominator. By exacerbating endemic problems such as water scarcity and food insecurity, global warming threatens to plunge an already unstable region into the abyss.n Egyptian boy holding bread and flashing the victory sign shouts slogans at Cairo’s Tahrir Square on April 1, 2011 as he joins tens of thousands of Egyptians who gathered, issuing calls to “save the revolution” that ousted president Hosni Mubarak and to rid of the country of the old regime. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/GettyImages)
Survey the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and you will find no shortage of crises, from escalating tensions between the United States and Iran to the cycles of violence in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. Countless young people across the region feel a sense of despair as they confront the daily realities of poor governance, economic immobility, and sectarian violence. Now, the COVID-19 crisis is putting increasing and unprecedented pressure on the global economy, state institutions, and livelihoods. It has also highlighted the dire consequences of health, social, and economic inequality. And as bad as these problems are on their own, all will be exacerbated and magnified by an even larger crisis: the devastating impacts of climate change.
With its largely arid conditions, the MENA region is particularly vulnerable to the physical impacts of climate change. It is one of the world’s most water-scarce regions, with a high dependency on climate-sensitive agriculture. Along with rising temperatures, the region is already experiencing a wide range of deteriorating environmental conditions, including decreased rainfall in Iraq, longer droughts in Syria, more severe flash flooding in Jordan and Lebanon, increasingly intense cyclones in Yemen and Oman, and rising sea levels. There is also evidence of rapid desertification regionwide, as well as unprecedented heat waves and increasingly frequent and intense dust storms.
Looking ahead, researchers warn that summer temperatures in the region will increase twice as fast as average global temperatures. This will lead to increased evaporation rates and accelerated loss of surface water, which will reduce the productive capacity of soils and agricultural output. Projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also warn of rising sea levels and an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. In large parts of the region, the combination of worsening heat waves and increasing air pollution owing to sand and dust storms will likely compromise human habitability and force people to migrate.
Climate change not only has serious implications for the environment and public health, but also for economic growth, livelihoods, and peace. Climate-induced impacts have the potential to reinforce factors that lead to or exacerbate conflict and instability. For one, resource scarcity may undermine the livelihoods of vulnerable households and communities, potentially leading to increasing competition, which may turn violent in the absence of conflict resolution institutions. Most vulnerable are fragile states and communities with a history of violence. In Iraq and Syria, the occurrence of devastating droughts between 2007 and 2012, combined with governments’ inability to provide relief to vulnerable populations, favored radicalization and recruitment efforts by jihadist militias, including the Islamic State.
Other risks of conflict arise when growing resource scarcity is met with inadequate government action, which may cause grievances among the population and increase tensions along ethnic, sectarian, political, and socioeconomic lines. Water scarcity and contamination have already triggered recurrent protests in Iraq, and rising food prices have fueled protest movements in Egypt and other countries. The region desperately needs to start developing and implementing more robust adaptation strategies before it is too late.
Most countries in the region are woefully behind when it comes to preparing for the physical effects of climate change on the environment and for the socioeconomic effects on much of the population. Many governments are unable or unwilling to tackle issues related to poverty, slow and unequal economic growth, high unemployment, lack of basic services, and widespread corruption.
Instead, the region’s governments have long relied on what political scientists call the “authoritarian bargain,” an implicit contract in which the state provides jobs, security, and services in exchange for political loyalty (or at least obeisance). This contract assumes that the population will remain politically inactive. But protest movements over the last decade, from the Arab Spring to more recent demonstrations in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and other countries, have shown that people across the region want to renegotiate.
In many countries, the protests are the result of worsening economic and political conditions, many of which stem from strained government resources that have led to a decline in the provision of public services. With climate change projected to put additional pressure on water and food security, livelihoods, health, and overall living standards, public discontent is likely to keep growing in the coming years, resulting in a heightened risk of political instability and conflict.
The linkages between climate change, resource scarcity, and social unrest are of course complex. Examining two cases – one dealing with water scarcity and contamination, the other with rising food prices – can help shed urgently needed light on these dangerous dynamics.
A good place to start is by considering Iraq’s water resources, which have been under increasing stress for more than three decades. As a result of both natural and anthropogenic causes, water quantities have decreased and water quality has deteriorated. The natural phenomena include increasing climate variability and lower annual precipitation, resulting in a lack of snowfall in the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates. The anthropogenic causes center around increasing water demand, inadequate government policies, and dam-building by upstream neighbors Syria, Turkey, and Iran.
The Tigris and Euphrates are Iraq’s most important sources of freshwater. These twin rivers converge in al-Qurna, in the southern Basra governorate, to form the Shatt al-Arab River and drain toward the Gulf (see map). Both rivers originate in Turkey, with the Euphrates cutting through Syria before reaching Iraq. Several of the rivers’ tributaries originate in Iran, with the Greater Zab, the Lesser Zab, and the Diyala flowing into the Tigris. In total, more than 50% of the country’s renewable water resources originate outside of its borders.

Of particular concern to Iraq is Turkey’s controversial Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), which is located at the Euphrates-Tigris Basin in the upper-Mesopotamian plains. At an estimated cost of $32 billion, the GAP is one of the world’s largest river-basin development projects. Other serious concerns include Iranian dam-building activity and an expected increase in Syrian water usage. Regional cooperation to improve water management is limited, and political negotiations have so far fallen short of concluding a legally binding, comprehensive, and long-term agreement.
On the domestic front, while rapid population growth, urbanization, and increasing industrial production have driven up water demand, decades of conflict and sanctions, along with inadequate government policies and the lack of a regulatory framework for sustainable water management, have undermined investment in supply. The main challenges include chronic deterioration of infrastructure, inefficient irrigation and drainage, lack of water treatment facilities, and weak regulation of agricultural runoff and discharges of sewage, industrial waste, and oil byproducts. In addition, the continuous decline in the water levels of the Shatt al-Arab has led to severe saltwater encroachment from the Gulf into the river.
Basra, a port city with direct access to the Persian Gulf, was once glorified as the “Venice of the East” for its myriad of freshwater canals lined with palm trees. The surrounding governorate accounts for most of Iraq’s oil production, with nearby West Qurna considered to be one of the world’s most lucrative oilfields. But these strategic assets have not benefited the public, because government mismanagement and negligence have turned Basra into a decrepit and dysfunctional city, plagued by strained utilities and broken infrastructure. Its waterways have become open sewers that are poisoning the population.
In the summer of 2018, Basra became the epicenter of an environmental and socioeconomic disaster that threatened the stability of the entire region. In July, Iraqis took to the streets to demand basic services such as clean drinking water, electricity, jobs, and an end to pervasive corruption. Then, in August, an outbreak of gastrointestinal illnesses, most likely caused by water contamination, sent tens of thousands of people seeking medical assistance in increasingly overwhelmed hospitals. Later that month, the UN-affiliated Independent High Commission for Human Rights called on the Iraqi government to declare Basra a “disaster area.”
The water supply problems fueled further public outrage. Street protests resumed and gradually intensified. By September 2018, the protests had turned violent, with deadly clashes between protesters and security forces. Demonstrators burned government and political party offices and attacked the headquarters of the popular mobilization forces and the Iranian consulate, voicing anger over the growing influence of Iran-backed militias in the city. By early October, 18 civilians had been killed, and another 155 had been injured.
While a wide range of long-neglected issues fueled the protests, water scarcity was cited as the most immediate cause or trigger. According to one civil servant quoted in The Independent, “The water shortages have made all the other problems gather and explode. It’s so extreme because it’s water, it’s essential for life.” Concerns remained that the health of the Iraqi people would continue to be affected unless the water situation improved drastically and quickly. Despite efforts to contain the outbreak of waterborne diseases and despite promises by the government to improve water infrastructure, it did not.
In October 2019, the unrest spread to Baghdad, where protesters demanded economic reform, an end to corruption, and the provision of basic services, including clean water and electricity. A brutal crackdown by security forces resulted in more than 100 deaths in the first five days. Still, the demonstrations gained momentum, with protesters going so far as to call for an overhaul of the entire sectarian political system. According to the UN’s special envoy to Iraq, more than 400 people were killed, and another 19,000 were injured, just between October 1 and December 3 last year.
Likewise, climate change and politics have become inextricably intertwined in Egypt, where agricultural production and food security are threatened by acute water scarcity and other climate-related challenges. Egypt is also heavily reliant on food imports, which makes it all the more vulnerable to the impact of adverse weather events on global output and prices.
Similar to the situation in Iraq, increasing water stress in Egypt reflects not only climate change, but also rapid population growth and resource mismanagement. The government bears a significant part of the responsibility, as a lack of treatment facilities, poor infrastructure maintenance, and weak regulations against dumping domestic, agricultural, and industrial effluent have all created water scarcities.
Egypt’s water dependency ratio is one of the world’s highest, with the Nile River providing more than 95% of its total supply. Approximately 86% of the Nile’s total volume comes from the Ethiopian Highlands, flowing through Sudan before reaching Egypt (see map). As a result, water allocation has long been a source of political tension among Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan.
The biggest challenge to Egypt’s water supply currently comes from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project. At an estimated cost of $4.8 billion, the dam’s construction is a crucial step toward energy security for Ethiopia. For Egypt, however, the project poses a significant threat to its water supply, especially with Ethiopia becoming the dominant power in the Nile River Basin.

Egypt’s economy is highly dependent on agriculture, which itself is almost entirely dependent on irrigation, accounting for over 85% of the country’s total water usage. Egypt’s food production is thus severely restricted by rising temperatures and more frequent droughts, which translate into higher water demand and lower agricultural yields.
Worse, climate models show that Egypt’s national food production could decline by anywhere from 11% to 50% by 2050, depending on the level of warming. Moreover, the Nile Delta, Egypt’s breadbasket, is subsiding and extremely vulnerable to sea-level rise. Higher sea levels are expected to affect around 30% of fertile land in the Nile Delta within this century.
With tightening resource constraints and a growing population, Egypt’s dependence on imported food is growing, as is its vulnerability to supply and price risks on the global market. The Egyptian population was hit particularly hard by the global food crisis of 2006-08, which came at a time when the country’s domestic production was weakened by severe water scarcity and debilitating agricultural reforms.
As world commodity prices rose in 2007, Egypt’s government was unable to contain domestic food price inflation, owing to increasing resource scarcity, a corrupt and unsustainable food-subsidy system, and other structural problems. The annual rate of growth in food prices soared from 6.9% in December 2007 to a peak of 31% in August 2008, compared to an average of only 4% in the early 2000s. Rising food prices eroded the purchasing power of the population, causing poverty and food insecurity to rise. Between 2005 and 2008, the incidence of extreme poverty – defined as the inability to meet basic food needs – increased by about 20%, and a growing share of the population became dependent on government-subsidized bread.
When the government struggled to meet demand, bread shortages became the focus of a wave of anger at perceived official incompetence, indifference, and corruption. On April 6, 2008, in response to low wages and rising food prices, Egyptian textile workers in the northern town of Mahalla al-Kubra organized a strike. Residents took to the streets, participating in the biggest demonstration that Egypt had seen in years. Police responded with live ammunition to disperse the crowds and arrested more than 300 people. The strike spread to other cities, including Cairo, albeit not with the same intensity. According to news reports, the demonstrators’ complaints were mainly economic: higher food prices, stagnant wages, and “unprecedented” inequality. Many view the Mahalla protests as a precursor to the Arab Spring less than three years later.
Then, in 2010, fires in Russia and floods in Pakistan disrupted global wheat and rice markets, and the prices of basic foods in Egypt rose again (see graph). By the end of the year, Egyptians had been pushed to the brink by the sharp increases in food prices, escalating unemployment, chronic government corruption, rigged parliamentary elections, lack of political freedoms, growing concern about police brutality, and crackdowns on the media and universities. Resentment toward Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-old regime was growing. Social media had raised awareness of state repression and the fall of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, 2011, gave Egyptians hope that political change was possible.

Two weeks later, thousands of protesters poured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square, demanding dignity, democracy, and better livelihoods for all. One of the popular chants called for “bread, freedom, and social justice” (“aīsh, huriyya, adala igtima‘iyya”). As the call for “aīsh” indicates, the accessibility and affordability of food was part of the population’s key grievances against the government. And although rising food prices were not the main factor behind the uprising, they likely played an important role in the sequence of events that led to nation-wide demonstrations and deadly unrest. Protest movements were met with extreme police violence and the excessive use of force by the military. Reported deaths in January and February amounted to 846 persons, in addition to mass arbitrary arrests and many cases of abuse and torture.
Resource scarcity and the lack of basic services are feeding public frustration, social unrest, and broader instability throughout the MENA region. In Iraq, water scarcity and contamination have given rise to recurrent demonstrations in Basra, and also contributed to the protest movement that started in Baghdad in October 2019. In Egypt, steep increases in domestic food prices led to riots and sporadic protests in 2008 and contributed to the uprising in 2011.
Basic services such as running water, sanitation, stormwater drainage, solid-waste management, electricity, and access to staple foods, but also – as highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic – basic health care, social protection, and emergency response mechanisms, are the pillars on which governments build relationships with their citizens. The collapse of one or more severely erodes public trust and can lead to social upheavals, as demonstrated again by the recent uprisings in Lebanon, Jordan, Sudan, and other countries.
At the heart of the water and food scarcities in Egypt, Iraq, and other countries lie poor governance, weak regulation, and a lack of cross-border cooperation. But looming large in the background is a changing climate, which has exacerbated these problems. As the ultimate threat multiplier in a region that is extremely vulnerable to its effects, it must not be overlooked.
Given the risks, it is crucial that governments in the MENA region make adaptation efforts a top priority. If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored this need. Countries with preset plans have contained the spread of the coronavirus and managed its consequences much better than those with no plans. Likewise, confronting climate change requires developing comprehensive national and regional strategies that take into account the projected effects on water resources, agriculture, and human health. It is up to MENA governments to start building more resilience. The climate will not wait for them.


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