Author : Yossi Mann

Expert Speak Terra Nova
Published on Nov 16, 2023

The climate crisis has become a leading concern in the Middle East and the upcoming COP28 climate conference in the UAE serves as a pivotal platform to address this pressing threat

Another looming crisis in the Middle East: Climate change

Southern Iraq, once known as the Garden of Eden, is poised to become a scorching wasteland in the forthcoming decades. A study, led by this author in collaboration with the chief researcher of the Israel Meteorological Service, Dr Yoav Levi, projects that in the not-too-distant future, residents of this region will endure hours daily with temperatures soaring above 55°C. While this grim forecast is for the future, the ominous uptick in temperatures isn't speculative but already a reality in Iraq.   

In a region traditionally linked more with security challenges, the climate crisis has become a leading concern. It ignites the very sparks of violence, poverty, inequality, and migration, exacerbating regional instability. 

Measurements conducted between 2012 and 2019 have seen temperatures spike to a staggering 54°C on several occasions. Last year, we witnessed heatwaves exceeding 50°C, causing recurrent power blackouts, dwindling levels of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers—Iraq's lifelines—coupled with food shortages, plummeting labour productivity due to unbearable heat, and an increase in sandstorms, which obstruct oil tankers' access to the southern ports. These challenges have incited not just socio-economic turmoil but also severe security disturbances, as evidenced by the violent protests of 2018 in southern Iraq. 

The impact of climate change on the stability of the Middle East is now being felt in Libya as well. After enduring a decade-long devastating civil war, the nation showed signs of recovery in recent years, with oil production climbing from a mere 315,000 barrels per day in 2018 to 1.2 million just last month. Yet, a catastrophic cyclone in September 2023 submerged significant parts of Libya, shutting down four crucial seaports and jeopardising its oil exports. Just as in Iraq, a climatic calamity ignited violence after the government faced backlash for its inadequate flood response, which resulted in over 5,000 casualties. 

In contrast to Iraq and Libya, where riots seen in the wake of climate disasters were relatively short-term, in Syria, the onset of the 2011 civil war can be partly attributed to a climatic disaster. The country suffered its worst drought in nearly a millennium in 2010, wiping out the livelihoods of 800,000 people and decimating 85 percent of the country’s agriculture. This prompted 1.5 million individuals to migrate to already congested cities, brewing discontent and unrest.

Another country in the region that has experienced a series of riots in recent years related to climate crises is Iran. Once the Middle East's (West Asia) wheat breadbasket, Iran has been rocked by climate-induced protests. In 2018 and again in 2021, severe droughts triggered mass demonstrations, demanding better water management and expressing broader regime disapproval. By August 2023, another wave of protests erupted in southern Iran due to prolonged droughts affecting agriculture and regular water supply. 

In October 2019, violent riots broke out in Lebanon following the government's intentions to cut gasoline subsidies to raise taxes. However, this is not the first time that angry demonstrations have broken out in a country saturated with bloody civil wars. But the background to the riots is also rooted in climate change. A few weeks before the demonstrations, a severe heat wave broke out, resulting in huge fires in the Shuf Mountains. As a result, the air was polluted, and some of the water sources were deemed unfit for drinking. These fires broke out in the land known as the “Land of the Trees of Lebanon,” which is reflected in the country’s flag. This means that the country that for thousands of years preserved the unique identity of its high Cedar trees, experienced a wave of fires that damaged what it is most associated with it. The fact that the area is full of cedar trees poses a fire hazard that could consume whole villages and even cities. Therefore, although in the eyes of many, the immediate threats of access to water and electricity are more serious, in Lebanon, climate change has proven to be an immediate threat here as well.

Yemen epitomises the complex challenges of the Middle East. It is suffering from extreme poverty, unemployment estimated at 13.59 percent, alarming levels of illiteracy, and minimal access to fresh water. It also serves as a hub for radical Islamist groups from both Shia and Sunni sects. On top of all this, Yemen is among the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change, ranked 171st out of 181 countries in the ND-GAIN Index. Similar to the civil war in Syria, a connection can be found between climate change and the ongoing war in Yemen—the population's dire need for water.

The water crisis, made worse due to climate change, is a critical factor underlying the country's unrest, and as such can potentially prolong and worsen the ongoing conflict. Fuel prices, which in Yemen are closely related to the price of water, helped ignite protests in 2014. Yemen, one of the world’s hottest countries, is already bearing the brunt of regional droughts and an extremely dry climate. While it is unclear to what extent the water crisis was a catalyst to the current war, a 2011 report had already highlighted factors that could potentially lead to civil unrest in the country—including, a water shortage so severe that it threatens people's survival and their livelihood, predominantly based on agriculture. Furthermore, reports from February 2016 revealed that Saudi planes bombed and destroyed a reservoir that held the drinking water for over 30,000 Yemenis, with approximately 5,000 cubic meters of water, which caused another flare-up of fighting near the area of the attack. Such incidents underscore the connection between climate change, civil unrest, and sustained regional instability.

The upcoming COP28 climate conference in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) serves as a wake-up call for the international community and Middle Eastern countries to join forces in addressing this pressing threat.

In a region traditionally linked more with security challenges, the climate crisis has become a leading concern. It ignites the very sparks of violence, poverty, inequality, and migration, exacerbating regional instability. Food scarcity in a region marked by high birth rates and consumption, migration from unbearably hot zones to cooler territories, and threats to an agriculture sector still employing 40 percent of the Middle East's population, underscore the monumental challenges posed to the region by the climate crisis. This upheaval threatens not just regional stability but that of the world.

The upcoming COP28 climate conference in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) serves as a wake-up call for the international community and Middle Eastern countries to join forces in addressing this pressing threat. Amid growing escalation following the brutal attack by Hamas on Israel, the unfolding Israeli response,  and the looming potential for violence to spread in the region, the conference can serve as an important show of regional and international action aimed at promoting regional stability and problem-solving. 

Middle Eastern nations, despite historical and current animosities and conflicts, and faced with rapid regional changes, need to recognise the shared threat of climate change. There is potential for regional cooperation in terms of knowledge-sharing, disaster response strategies, and investment in renewable energy sources.

Hosted by a nation with proven transformative domestic policies and growing regional sway, the COP28 conference is taking place amid growing acknowledgement that issues like climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, and indeed war, necessitate international and regional solutions. Given these circumstances, the UAE is in a particularly fitting position to spearhead efforts to tackle what is already understood by many as an immediate and existential threat to the region.

Dr. Yossi Mann is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Middle East at Bar Ilan University and the Lauder School of Government at Reichman University.

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