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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The MENA’s Fight Against Climate Change: Oil-Rich versus Crisis-Riddled Countries

MENA's Climate Change
A child walks on the dried-up bed of Iraq’s receding southern marshes of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province on August 23, 2022. Hussein FALEH / AFP

Dana Hourany

The earliest known agricultural civilizations are thought to have started in present-day southern Iraq. Known as the “Fertile Crescent,” the area situated between the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers’, witnessed the birth of the earliest known sedentary civilizations on earth.

Mesopotamia, the earliest human settlement in the area, saw the development of agrarian societies, the domestication of animals, thriving agriculture, and the invention of irrigation methods owing to the Tigris and Euphrates’ abundant water supply.

In 2022, the UN Environment Program placed Iraq, which was 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 more than 50 degrees Celsius, devastating water resources, food supplies, and agricultural livelihoods and needs.

Although Iraq is one of the MENA region’s most severely affected, 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?

In the past couple of years, Iraq’s annual rainfall has decreased exponentially causing more drought and structurally denting the agricultural sector.

While reasons vary, solutions are scarce. Upriver damming in Turkiye and Iran has restricted the water flow from the Tigris and Euphrates. Scorching temperatures affect soil moisture and salinization (increasing the amount of salt in the soil) have further degraded the land.

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

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

Once a region of luscious greenery and a vibrant community of farmers, landowners and fishermen, it is now at great risk of desertification as farmers abandon their lands in hopes of landing better job opportunities elsewhere.

“This is their livelihood and main set of skills. If they move to urban areas they might not have access to job opportunities which can push them to unlawful activities, compounding local conflicts and putting pressure on an already fragile infrastructure,” environmental climate-security at The Hague’s Clingendael Institute, Maha Yassin told Fanack.

“The responsibility falls on the state to ensure these people are well taken care of to maintain civil security across the country,” she added.

More crisis for the crisis-riddled

Amidst this summer’s heatwave and crippling energy shortages, homes are plunging into darkness as power cuts become the norm in crisis-riddled Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Despite its abundant oil supply, the Iraqi electricity sector has seen years of neglect, deteriorating under the hands of corrupt leaders, according to analysts.

Similarly, cash-strapped Lebanon has been the subject of constant neglect and systemic corruption that crashed its economy and devastated its infrastructure. Unable to provide for itself, Lebanon relies on Iraqi oil imports to avert nationwide blackouts that now plague the country.

Syria’s power infrastructure as well has suffered heavy blows during the 11-year crisis causing frequent electricity cuts. Subsequently, many people in all three countries are turning to solar power to remedy the situation.

Syria’s state electric company has recently completed a 1-megawatt solar power station connected to the electricity grid, located between the central city of Homs and Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Only 50-250 houses will benefit from state solar energy.

Lebanese, on the other hand, are left to fend for themselves as many flock to private companies to purchase solar panels for their houses and businesses. As for the Iraqis, ambitions have been set to generate up to 12 GW of electricity from solar power by 2030, according to the Iraq oil report. However, political stalemate, disputes over payment terms and general political inefficiency have put the plans on hold.

“This is what sets Iraq apart from other oil-rich countries in the Gulf. Political instability and frequent protests push lawmakers to shelve important environmental projects,” Yassin said.

A huge impediment to decent living standards

While the peoples of crisis-affected MENA nations swelter the blazing summer heat, sandstorms add to their woes.

“Families have been going out less and less. People are forced to remain in their houses as if imprisoned and this is mentally taxing. You become easily irritable and unmotivated,” Obeid said.

Physical well-being is also at risk as Yassin puts it, “sandstorms compound pulmonary diseases such as bronchitis and asthma, while water pollution propagates cholera outbreaks and skin diseases.”

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

“Climate change was never a top priority for MENA governments. The majority of environmental policies were developed as quick fixes. This has proven ineffective in an area that is prone to climate crises and has unequal mitigation capacities,” Non resident fellow at TIMEP Achref Chibani told Fanack.

In his 2022 research, “Sand and Dust Storms in the MENA Region: A Problem Awaiting Mitigation,” Chibani states that Gulf countries’ economic and technological advancements facilitate fielding faster and bigger projects to curb the climate’s impact, particularly sandstorms which he believes are only getting worse.

Saudi Arabia for instance is working on the “Saudi Green Initiative” and has invested several billion dollars in developing green belts, while the UAE has invested in new technologies that allow monitoring dust storms through a forecasting system to better prepare for any incoming threats.

Kuwait, on the other hand, reported dangerous air quality levels in some regions without discussing proper mitigation tactics.

Unlike Iraq, which suffers from similar breathing and temperature issues, most Kuwaitis enjoy day-long indoor cooling. Similar to Iraq though, Kuwaiti politicians delay finding solutions as inaction reigns over a comprehensive approach to tackle climate change.

North African countries at risk

According to Chibani’s observations, countries at most risk of climate crises are on the North African belt, while Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan sway behind. He says this is due to crops vanishing from North African fields, as well as threats of fiercer sandstorms, rising water stress, and soaring electric bills.

Algeria, Libya, and Egypt are also dependent on the hydrocarbon industry and much of their revenue comes from exporting fossil fuels to Europe. Any negative diplomatic differences will therefore wreak havoc on economic security.

Tunisia, meanwhile suffers from limited natural freshwater resources, deforestation, soil erosion and rising sea levels. In addition to ravaging wildfires spread across North Africa and also Lebanon.

“Governments elevating the costs of electricity and water bills might make people more conscious of how much they’re wasting. However farmers need to switch to harvesting crops that consume less water for irrigation to further preserve our resources,” Chibani said.

Divided, we fall

Egypt will host the 27th UN climate Change Conference in November, which encompasses over 40 countries, in hopes of pushing a climate agenda suitable for the MENA’s challenges and needs.

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

Until then, civil society and renewable energy seem to be the most productive remedies. Around 312 NGOs support the MENA’s environmental causes including bio-diversity, conservation, and protection. However, Yassin says that their existence is endangered by state corruption, scarcity of funds, and governmental pressures.

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

Obeid points to the importance of civilian involvement in minute details such as conserving water and maintaining the cleanliness of public areas while keeping in mind that responsibility falls primarily on the governments that are not leading the way for people to follow.

“I estimate that in 30 years the MENA will have less water and more sand threatening its environment. Countries must cooperate, otherwise the whole region is in danger, particularly its poorer communities. Well-off countries need to help the economically vulnerable states to salvage what’s left of the region’s environmental richness,” Chibani said.

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