Arab world among most vulnerable to climate change

BEIRUT Sun Nov 14, 2010 8:01am EST

A view of a flooded street in Jeddah December 7, 2009.REUTERS/Susan Baaghil

A view of a flooded street in Jeddah December 7, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Susan Baaghil

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Dust storms scour Iraq. Freak floods wreak havoc in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Rising sea levels erode Egypt's coast. Hotter, drier weather worsens water scarcity in the Middle East, already the world's most water-short region.

The Arab world is already suffering impacts consistent with climate change predictions. Although scientists are wary of linking specific events to global warming, they are urging Arab governments to act now to protect against potential disasters.

There are huge variations in per capita greenhouse gas emissions across the region with very high rates for several oil and gas producers. Qatar recorded the world's highest per capita emissions with 56.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2006, while Egyptians emitted just 2.25 tonnes each, U.N. figures show.

While the region as a whole has contributed relatively little to historic greenhouse gas emissions, it is among the most vulnerable to climate change, and emissions are surging.

Inaction is not an option, said Mohamed El-Ashry, former head of the Global Environment Facility, a fund that assists developing countries on climate and other environmental issues.

"It's human nature to wait until there is a crisis to act," he told Reuters. "But you hate to wait until there is really a huge crisis where large numbers of people suffer needlessly."

Measures to tackle the region's environmental woes would also help offset future impacts of global warming.

"Addressing water issues, say, would have the dual benefit of responding to climate change issues, but also addressing the problems that result from population growth, poor management and very weak institutions related to water," Ashry said.

The Arab world's population has tripled to 360 million since 1970 and will rise to nearly 600 million by 2050, according to a U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) research paper this year.

LARGE-SCALE INSTABILITY

"For a region that is already vulnerable to many non-climate stresses, climate change and its potential physical and socio-economic impacts are likely to exacerbate this vulnerability, leading to large-scale instability," it says, adding the poor and vulnerable will suffer most.

Water scarcity, the biggest challenge, is already dire.

By 2015, Arabs will have to survive on less than 500 cubic meters of water a year each, a level defined as severe scarcity, against a world average exceeding 6,000 cubic meters per head.

That warning came in a report last week by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED), which said the region's water supply had shrunk to a quarter of its 1960 level.

Climate change will aggravate the crisis in a region where temperatures may rise 2 degrees Celsius in the next 15 to 20 years and more than 4C by the end of the century, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Its figures, cited by the UNDP paper, show the Arab world has undergone an uneven rise in surface air temperature ranging from 0.2C to 2C between 1974 and 2004.

Water scarcity and rising sea levels are a reality, but public consciousness in the Arab world lags behind.

"People are still not aware of those impacts," said AFED's secretary-general Najib Saab. "When you talk of climate change, they think the impact will be on the moon or other countries."

He cited satellite imagery from Boston University's Center for Remote Sensing showing a one-meter sea-level rise would affect 42,000 square km of Arab land -- an area four times the size of Lebanon -- and 3.2 percent of the Arab population, compared with 1.28 percent worldwide.

"Our study showed that during this century the Fertile Crescent (stretching through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories) will lose all signs of fertility if the situation continues as it is."

LOST IN BUREAUCRACY

Arab leaders do take water shortages seriously -- if only out of concern for their political survival -- but all too often leave climate change matters to their environment ministries.

"The environment ministries are often the weakest in these countries," said Habib Habr, the U.N. Environment Programme's regional director. "The policies are there, but often what we see is a lack of implementation or enforcement of the law."

In a conflict-prone region largely ruled by unaccountable governments and self-serving elites, political distractions push climate change and other social issues down the priority list, although Tunisia, Jordan and Oman are more active than most.

While conditions vary across the Arab world, declining water resources are often mismatched with burgeoning populations.

Imports of "virtual" water in the shape of food and other goods already amount to the equivalent of 5,000 cubic meters of water per capita, the AFED report says. Most Arab countries effectively said farewell to food self-sufficiency long ago.

In some countries, weather events and water scarcity have forced large numbers of Arabs to leave their homes.

A drought that began in 2007, aggravated by over-cultivation of subsidized cash crops, has displaced hundreds of thousands of people from eastern Syria. In Yemen, water scarcity is prompting many farmers to abandon their land and head for the cities, fuelling the capital Sanaa's 8 percent annual population growth.

Cross-border migration could also intensify due to the uneven distribution of oil and other resources in a region that encompasses fabulously wealthy statelets as well as populous nations such as Egypt, a fifth of whose 79 million people live on less than $1 a day, according to U.N. figures.

"There are bad projections about climate change, water and many things that don't need to happen, or not at the level predicted," said Ashry. "You can minimize that by planning."

Asked his advice for Arab leaders, he said: "It's not a hopeless situation, but you've got to start now or 10 years from now it will be worse because there will be more people, fewer resources and the gap between rich and poor will have widened."

(Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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