The MENA region’s fight against climate change: oil-rich countries versus countries in crisis

A child walks on the dry bed of the receding southern marshes of Chibayish, in the province of Dhi Qar, on August 23, 2022. Hussein FALEH / AFP

Dana Hourany

The earliest known agricultural civilizations are believed to have begun in present-day southern Iraq. Known as the “Fertile Crescent”, the region between the Tigris and Euphrates valleys saw the birth of the first known settled civilizations on earth.

Mesopotamia, the first human settlement in the region, saw the development of agrarian societies, the domestication of animals, flourishing agriculture and the invention of irrigation methods thanks to the abundant water supply of the Tigris and the Euphrates.

In 2022, the United Nations Environment Program placed Iraq, long considered the “cradle of civilization”, as the fifth most vulnerable country to climate change.

The effects of climate change have long been most severe in Iraq. Temperatures have soared to over 50 degrees Celsius, devastating water resources, food supplies and agricultural livelihoods and needs.

Although Iraq is one of the hardest hit countries in the MENA region, environmental scientists and academics warn that if MENA governments continue to be inactive and unwilling to work together to create sustainable mitigation strategies, no country will be spared.

What went wrong?

Over the past two years, annual rainfall in Iraq has decreased exponentially, causing more drought and structurally affecting the agricultural sector.

Although the reasons vary, the solutions are few. The construction of upstream dams in Turkey and Iran has restricted the flow of water from the Tigris and Euphrates. The scorching temperatures affect soil moisture, and salinization (increasing the amount of salt in the soil) has further degraded the land.

“The water flowing in the southern region is also extremely polluted. By the time it reaches us, it is no longer purified water flowing from the mountains of northern Turkey. Ours are mixed with sewage, chemical pollutants and waste,” Basra-based researcher Mishtak Idan Obeid told Fanack.

The researcher added that “diplomatic incompetence of politicians” exacerbated the crisis since “Iraqi politicians failed to negotiate with Turkey and Iran, allowing them to take advantage of our water resources.”

Once a region of lush greenery and a vibrant community of farmers, landowners and fishermen, it is now at great risk of desertification as farmers abandon their land in the hope of landing better employment opportunities elsewhere. .

“It’s their livelihood and their main skill set. If they move to urban areas, they might not have access to employment opportunities which can drive them into illegal activities, aggravating local conflicts and putting pressure on already fragile infrastructure,” Maha Yassin told Fanack.

“The responsibility lies with the state to ensure that these people are well taken care of to maintain civil security throughout the country,” she added.

No more crisis for those in crisis

Amid this summer’s heatwave and crippling energy shortages, homes are plunged into darkness as blackouts become the norm in crisis-ridden Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Despite its abundant oil supply, Iraq’s power sector has suffered years of neglect, deteriorating at the hands of corrupt leaders, analysts say.

Likewise, cash-strapped Lebanon has been subject to constant neglect and systemic corruption that has destroyed its economy and devastated its infrastructure. Unable to support itself, Lebanon is relying on Iraqi oil imports to stave off the nationwide blackouts that are now plaguing the country.

Syria’s electricity infrastructure also suffered heavy blows during the 11-year crisis, causing frequent power outages. Subsequently, many people in the three countries are turning to solar energy to remedy the situation.

Syria’s state-owned electricity company recently completed a 1-megawatt grid-connected solar power plant located between the central city of Homs and Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Only 50 to 250 homes will benefit from state solar power.

The Lebanese, on the other hand, are on their own as many turn to private companies to buy solar panels for their homes and businesses. As for the Iraqis, they have the ambition to produce up to 12 GW of electricity from solar energy by 2030, according to the Iraqi oil report. However, political stalemate, disputes over payment terms, and general political inefficiency put plans on hold.

“This is what distinguishes Iraq from other oil-rich Gulf countries. Political instability and frequent protests are pushing lawmakers to suspend important environmental projects,” Yassin said.

A huge obstacle to a decent standard of living

As people in crisis-affected MENA countries stifle the scorching summer heat, sandstorms add to their woes.

“Families go out less and less. People are forced to stay at home as if they were imprisoned and it is mentally taxing. You become easily irritable and unmotivated,” Obeid said.

Physical well-being is also threatened, as Yassin says, “sandstorms aggravate lung diseases such as bronchitis and asthma, while water pollution spreads cholera epidemics and diseases of the stomach. skin”.

No country in the region is immune to climate change, but the effects are uneven and the solutions are unique.

“Climate change has never been a top priority for governments in the MENA region. The majority of environmental policies were developed as quick fixes. This has proven ineffective in a region prone to climate crises and uneven mitigation capacities,” MENA climate change expert Achref Chibani told Fanack.

In his 2022 research, “Sand and Dust Storms in the MENA Region: A Problem Awaiting Mitigation,” Chibani states that economic and technological advances in Gulf countries are facilitating faster and more efficient projects. important in limiting the impact of the climate, especially sandstorms which he says are only getting worse.

Saudi Arabia, for example, is working on the “Saudi Green Initiative” and has invested billions of dollars in the development of green belts, while the United Arab Emirates has invested in new technologies that help monitor dust storms. through a forecasting system to better prepare for any incoming threat.

Kuwait, on the other hand, reported unsafe air quality levels in some areas without discussing appropriate mitigation tactics.

Unlike Iraq, which suffers from similar respiratory and temperature issues, most Kuwaitis benefit from indoor cooling throughout the day. As in Iraq however, Kuwaiti politicians are slow to find solutions as inaction reigns over a comprehensive approach to tackling climate change.

North African countries at risk

According to Chibani’s observations, the countries most at risk of climate crises are in the North African belt, while Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan lag behind. He says this is due to the disappearance of crops from North African fields, as well as threats of more severe sandstorms, rising water stress and soaring electricity bills.

Algeria, Libya and Egypt also depend on the hydrocarbon industry and much of their income comes from the export of fossil fuels to Europe. Any negative diplomatic divergence will therefore wreak havoc on economic security.

Tunisia, meanwhile, suffers from limited natural freshwater resources, deforestation, soil erosion and rising sea levels. North Africa and also in Lebanon.

“Governments that increase the cost of electricity and water bills could make people more aware of how much they are wasting. However, farmers need to shift to harvesting crops that use less water for irrigation to further conserve our resources,” Chibani said.

Divided we fall

Egypt will host the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference in November, which brings together more than 40 countries, in hopes of promoting a climate agenda tailored to the challenges and needs of the MENA region.

However, Chibani notes that the region lacks environmental research that could contribute to future projects.

Until then, civil society and renewable energies seem to be the most productive remedies. About 312 NGOs support environmental causes in the MENA region, including biodiversity, conservation and protection. However, Yassin says their existence is threatened by state corruption, scarcity of funds and government pressure.

“Civil society groups run the risk of sounding like politicians when they employ rhetoric that citizens perceive as elitist and condescending. More work needs to be done on climate change messaging for non-Western audiences,” Chibani noted.

Obeid emphasizes the importance of civil involvement in minute details such as conserving water and keeping public spaces clean while bearing in mind that the responsibility lies primarily with governments that fail to show the way forward.

“I estimate that in 30 years, the MENA region will have less water and more sand threatening its environment. Countries must cooperate, otherwise the whole region is in danger, especially its poorest communities. Rich countries must help economically vulnerable states save what remains of the region’s environmental wealth,” Chibani said.

Teresa H. Sadler