Desert storm: Protecting a fragile Middle East

The Middle East and North Africa is one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to climate change. What is it doing to address the problem?

If the sea were to rise by one metre, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) would lose 0.25% of its total land area. This might be less than the developing world average of 0.31%, but the World Bank says the social, economic and ecological impact would be even more devastating.

The figure of a one metre rise in global sea level is notional, though not impossible by the end of the century. What the United Nations predicts, by 2050, is a rise of 0.1 metres to 0.3 metres. Yet even this would put the MENA region’s coastal areas at considerable risk – for example, the Gulf states of Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman.

Dr Nadim Farajalla, assistant professor of hydrology and water resources at the American University of Beirut, shudders at the memory of tropical cyclone Gonu. With a force of 100mph, Oman’s worst storm in 60 years ripped through the Gulf state last year, leaving thousands homeless. “You can imagine how much this would have been magnified if the sea were just a foot higher,” he says. “The damage would have spread inland and it would have been enormous.”

In some countries rising sea levels will mean mass migration. The UN Environment Programme predicts that a rise in sea level of just 0.25 metres could displace one to two million Egyptians by 2050, specifically those living in the port cities of Alexandria, Rosetta and Port Said. For the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza, this would contaminate their only water source, the Coastal Aquifer.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the MENA region should prepare for a temperature rise of up to 2% in the next 15-20 years.

“Some will move on, desertification will set in, and the poorest of society – the small-scale farmers will suffer most,” predicts Munqeth Mehyar, chairman and director of Friends of the Earth in Amman. Once changed, the climate pattern will lead to lower rainfall, while loss of vegetation means less moisture will be retained. So dry was last year’s summer in Lebanon, forest fires destroyed all of the trees planted between 1991 and 2007.

Social and political effects

To understand the knock-on effects of climate change in the Middle East, one need only visit the poverty banks that have sprung up around major cities such as Beirut and Cairo – rural communities displaced by drought, unskilled for urban work, and reliant on the state for any kind of support. The fact that much of the MENA region is poor leaves it particularly vulnerable.

Experts agree that any decline in agricultural production would lead to economic misery and ultimately political unrest. The solution calls for better cooperation, but tensions remain between Israel and Syria, Israel and the Palestine Authority, and Jordan and Syria over the current status of various water-sharing agreements in the region.

Rising emissions

According to the World Bank, MENA greenhouse gas emissions are small in absolute terms (in 2000 about 4.5 per cent of the world’s total). However, between 2000 and 2004, the rise in the region’s CO2 emissions from fuel combustion was the third largest in the world – up 88%. Energy transformation and use accounted for 83.9% of this figure.

The region’s oil-producing countries – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria and Iraq – are responsible for 74% of total emissions. But under the terms of the Kyoto Protocol they are considered developing countries and hence do not have specific reduction targets. According to the WWF, OPEC countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, are exploiting this loophole and continue to block GHG reductions.

Mehyar would like to see MENA governments use incentives to encourage carbon-free or alternative energy ventures. “We are pushing for investment in solar energy in particular,” he says. “Wind energy is more complicated as it needs more research, but if we used just 5% of our deserts to build solar power, we could possibly meet the energy needs of the world. The private sector needs to realise that there is money to be made, but unfortunately, the sector is still disorganised.”

The UAE federal government’s energy predictions only underscore the need for investment in renewables. In a recent report, it said energy requirements will grow by more than 160% by 2020 – more than double the current demand of 15,550MW. The government admits that known volumes of gas will be insufficient to meet such demand.

Partly to blame is the rapid growth in the Middle East’s population, which rose from 162 million, in 1957, to 524 million last year, according to a Middle East Economic Digest report. The trend has put extra pressure on power and water supplies, as has inflation, which is itself partly the result of rising energy prices.

This year, the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority increased its charges by 50 per cent. The city’s developers, in response, hiked their own rates for the year, from US$1650 to US$2450 for the size of an average studio apartment. For the many unskilled laborers living in Dubai on an average monthly wage of US$163, independent living is a luxury they cannot afford, says NGO Human Rights Watch. Forced to rely on their employers to provide any accommodation, the workers live in labour camps, for which the Dubai Government, in response to growing criticism, only implemented minimum standards last year.

Projects for change

But there have been breakthroughs. For the first time this year, six Arab countries participated in the International Day of Action against Climate Change. Whereas once Gulf Cooperation Council nations were reluctant to adopt a renewable energy strategy, an hike in the cost of extracting hydrocarbons, gas scarcities and a rise in demand has led to a rethink. Saudi Arabia has announced plans to convert hazardous, organic and toxic wastes to saleable electricity, while Oman has proposed a big solar thermal plant and a 750MW wind farm. Dubai is studying the feasibility of a US$1 billion wind farm with the potential to supply 10% of its power needs.

The Middle East’s most ambitious renewable energy project is Masdar City. Under construction near Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, the US$22 billion project aims to become the first carbon-neutral city in the world. Abu Dhabi has also earmarked another $15 billion for various renewables projects.

BP’s 2007 statistical review of energy predicts that known sources of fossil fuels will run out in 40 years. Faced with this knowledge, and with less than two years left to draft a new text for the post-Kyoto regime starting in 2012, the pressure is on the Arab world to lift its game.


The World Bank
Middle East and North Africa Region (MENA)
Sustainable Development Sector Department (MNSSD)
Regional Business Strategy to Address Climate Change


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