CAIRO Climate change is likely to hit the water-starved Arab world harder than many other parts of the globe and threatens to slash agricultural output in the area, U.N. and Arab League officials said.
Arab governments have shown more awareness of the issue but need to cooperate further to improve research and policies to protect vulnerable groups, including women who could bear the burden of adapting to increased water scarcity, they said.
"Climate change will be critical for the Arab world because this region in particular already suffers from poverty, widespread aridity, water scarcity and social marginalization," said Sima Bahous, Deputy Secretary General for Social Development in the Arab League.
Fifteen percent of people in the Arab world already have limited or no access to potable water, the officials said, speaking on Tuesday at the launch in Cairo of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) report on climate change.
The report was released worldwide on November 18, ahead of U.N. climate change talks in Copenhagen in December.
UNFPA Regional Director for Arab States Hafedh Chekir said that, while 80 percent of Arab world water consumption was for agriculture, climate change induced scarcity was expected to cut food production by half in the region.
Henrietta Aswad, regional communication adviser for UNFPA, said more cooperation between the Arab League, UNFPA, and Arab non-governmental entities was needed to help governments draw up appropriate policies.
"Awareness in the Arab region is getting better at this point and governments are aware of the impact of climate change," she said.
"Yet more studies and data need to be conducted to basically have a better assessment of the real impact especially on vulnerable groups in the region," she added.
The UNFPA report did not outline specific policies for the region but said policies should focus on women, children and the elderly because these groups were likely to carry a bigger burden of adapting to water scarcity and climate change.
It said the disproportionate burden on women can create "a cycle of deprivation, poverty and inequality."
Chekir said Egypt, where most of the 77 million population are crammed into Nile Valley and low lying Delta, could be one of the world's countries worst effected by climate change.
A previous U.N. study said 8 million people could be displaced by a one meter rise in sea levels flooding the Delta, a major agricultural production area. Egypt is already the world's biggest wheat importer.
"We want to integrate the human element into environmental policy making," Chekir said.
The report said slower population growth would help build social resilience to the impact of climate change and would help reduce green-house gas emissions in future.
(Editing by Edmund Blair)