Climate Change in the Arab World: Threats and Responses
Mohamed Abdel Raouf Abdel Hamid
The Arab World’s Vulnerability to Climate Change
The Arab World will be one of the regions most affected by global warming. According to the Climate Change Index (CCI) developed by Maplecroft, a British risk analysis consul- tancy, it is home to 5 of the top 10 countries most exposed to the impacts of climate change: Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, and Somalia.
The Arab countries face numerous environmental challenges and have to reconcile many conflicting priorities, from promoting economic diversification, ensuring water supply and food security, and furthering environmental protection and conservation to adapting to the impacts of global warming.
A World Health Orga- nization study has estimated that the modest warming that has already occurred since the 1970s was responsible for 150,000 excess deaths by the year 2000.1
Egypt ranks as the second most exposed country. With the vast bulk of its population con- centrated in the Nile Valley and Delta, it is at high risk of inland flooding; it also faces extreme risk of negative health effects. Iraq, fifth most vulnerable, is at high risk for coastal flooding, exposure to extreme temperatures, susceptibility to decreasing food availability, and the negative health problems these create. Morocco and Somalia, at 6th and 10th place respectively, are both expected to experience increased risk of inland flooding and extreme temperatures.
In the critical Persian Gulf, all six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—Bah- rain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) —are pro- jected to suffer significant repercussions from global warming. Bahrain, 11th on the CCI, has a relatively small land mass that is in danger of being inundated as sea levels rise with climate change. Qatar is especially susceptible to inland flooding, with 18.2 percent of its land area and 13.7 percent of its population less than 5 meters above sea level. Bahrain and Qatar, together with Kuwait, figure among the countries exhibiting “extreme” vulnerability on the Maplecroft index. Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are all rated “highly” vulner- able. Many other countries in the region are also expected to be significantly affected by climate change. Yemen ranks among those “extremely” vulnerable, and Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, and Tunisia score “high” on the CCI.
Most of the Arab world falls under the classification of extreme water scarcity, defined by the United Nations as anything below 1,000 cubic meters per capita of average annual water supply. Many countries of the region already use more than 40 percent of their total available water resources, and more still are projected to do so in the next two decades (see annex 1).
Global warming will exert new pressures on water resources around the world.
Water is at the heart of the problem of climate change. Accelerated glacier melt, rising sea levels, drought, and desertification are all water-related issues. Historically, civiliza- tions rise near the banks of major rivers and are heavily dependent on their flow for water, agriculture, transportation, and trade. Water has always been both a blessing and a source of conflict. In fact, the English word “rivalry,” derived from the Latin rivalis, essentially means “one using the same river as another.”4
Water is also inextricably linked to the health of a population. Fresh water is required for drinking, sanitation, and irrigation of cropland. It has a direct influence on agriculture, which in turn affects harvests and livelihoods, particularly in subsistence farming areas. Changes in saltwater levels could result in saltwater intrusion into aquifers, rendering the groundwater unpotable. Water quality will also be affected by higher surface water tem- peratures which promote algal blooms and increase bacteria and fungi content.5
It is hardly surprising that some of the most parched regions of the world also suffer from perennial unrest. Extrinsic factors, such as rising food prices, can fan civil discord. Yet it is often the dependence of agriculture on scarce water supply that lies at the heart of the problem.