Middle East, Uninhabitable?

Accessible freshwater has fallen by two-thirds

14 MARCH 2017,
Middle East and North Africa risks becoming uninhabitable in a few decades
Middle East and North Africa risks becoming uninhabitable in a few decades

New evidence has emerged now to deepen scientific fears that the Middle East and North Africa risks becoming uninhabitable in a few decades, as accessible fresh water has fallen by two-thirds over the past 40 years.

This sharp water scarcity simply not only affects the already precarious provision of drinking water for most of the region’s 22 countries, home to nearly 400 million inhabitants, but also the availability of water for agriculture and food production for a fast growing population.

The new facts are stark: per capita availability of fresh water in the region is now 10 times less than the world average. Moreover, higher temperatures may shorten growing seasons in the region by 18 days and reduce agricultural yields a further 27 per cent to 55 per cent less by the end of this century.

Add to this that the region’s fresh water resources are among the lowest in the world, and are expected to fall over 50 per cent by 2050, according to the United Nations leading agency in the field of food and agriculture.

Moreover, 90 per cent of the total land in the region lies within arid, semi/arid and dry sub/humid areas, while 45 per cent of the total agricultural area is exposed to salinity, soil nutrient depletion and wind water erosion, adds the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Meanwhile, agriculture in the region uses around 85 per cent of the total available freshwater, it reports, adding that over 60 per cent of water resources in the region flows from outside national and regional boundaries.

The Nile Delta

This alarming situation has prompted FAO’s director general to call for urgent action. On his recent visit to Cairo, Jose Graziano da Silva said that access to water is a “fundamental need for food security, human health and agriculture”, and its looming scarcity in the North Africa and Middle East region is a huge challenge requiring an “urgent and massive response”.

Meantime, the rising sea level in the Nile Delta –which hosts the most fertile lands in Egypt– is exposing the region’s most inhabited country (almost 100 million people) to the danger of losing substantial parts of the most productive agriculture land due to salinisation.

“Competition between water-usage sectors will only intensify in the future between agriculture, energy, industrial production and household needs,” on March 9 warned Graziano da Silva.

FAO’s chief attended in Cairo a high-level meeting on the Rome-based organisation’s collaboration with Egypt on the “1.5 million feddan initiative” (1 feddan is equivalent to 0.42 hectares, or 1.038 acres), the Egyptian government’s plan to reclaim eventually up to two million hectares of desert land for agricultural and other uses.

What to Do?

Egypt’s future agenda is particularly tough as the country “needs to look seriously into the choice of crops and the patterns of consumption,” Graziano da Silva also warned, pointing to potential water waste in cultivating wheat in the country.

“Urgent actions supporting it include measures aimed at reducing food loss and waste and bolstering the resilience of smallholders and family farmers, that require implementing a mix of social protection interventions, investments and technology transfers.”

Previously, several scientific studies about on-going climate change impact on the Middle East region, particularly in the Gulf area, had already sounded loud warning drums.

“Within this century, parts of the Persian Gulf region could be hit with unprecedented events of deadly heat as a result of climate change, according to a study of high-resolution climate models,” a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) research said.

Deadly Heat

The research–titled “Persian Gulf could experience deadly heat”, reveals details of a business-as-usual scenario for greenhouse gas emissions, but also shows that curbing emissions could forestall these “deadly temperature extremes.”

The study, which was published in detail ahead of the Paris climate summit in the journal Nature Climate Change, was conducted by Elfatih Eltahir, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT, and Jeremy Pal of Loyola Marymount University.

The authors conclude that conditions in the Persian Gulf region, including its shallow water and intense sun, make it “a specific regional hotspot where climate change, in absence of significant mitigation, is likely to severely impact human habitability in the future.”

Unprecedented Threshold

Running high-resolution versions of standard climate models, Eltahir and Pal found that many major cities in the region could exceed a tipping point for human survival, even in shaded and well-ventilated spaces. Eltahir says this threshold “has, as far as we know … never been reported for any location on Earth.”

MIT, which was founded in 1861 with the stated mission to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century, alerts that “detailed climate simulation shows a threshold of survivability could be crossed without mitigation measures.”

The research, which was supported by the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science, reveals that the tipping point involves a measurement called the “wet-bulb temperature” that combines temperature and humidity, reflecting conditions the human body could maintain without artificial cooling, the say.

That threshold for survival for more than six unprotected hours is 35 degrees Celsius, or about 95 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the research.

The severe danger to human health and life occurs when such temperatures are sustained for several hours, Eltahir says — which the models show would occur several times in a 30-year period toward the end of the century under the business-as-usual scenario used as a benchmark by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

An Even Hotter and Drier Middle East

For its part, the IPCC– Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change latest assessment warns that the climate is predicted to become even hotter and drier in most of the Middle East and North of Africa (MENA) region. Higher temperatures and reduced precipitation will increase the occurrence of droughts, an effect that is already materializing in the Maghreb,” says the World Bank while citing the IPCC assessment.

“It is further estimated that an additional 80–100 million people will be exposed by 2025 to water stress, which is likely to result in increased pressure on groundwater resources, which are currently being extracted in most areas beyond the aquifers’ recharge potential.”

In addition, agriculture yields, especially in rain fed areas, are expected to fluctuate more widely, ultimately falling to a significantly lower long-term average.

Costal Flooding

“In urban areas in North Africa, a temperature increase of 1-3 degrees could expose 6–25 million people to coastal flooding. In addition, heat waves, an increased “heat island effect,” water scarcity, decreasing water quality, worsening air quality, and ground ozone formation are likely to affect public health, and more generally lead to challenging living conditions.”

The World Bank report “Adaptation to Climate Change in the Middle East and North Africa Region” warns that the Middle East and North Africa region is particularly vulnerable to climate change.

“It is one of the world’s most water-scarce and dry regions; with a high dependency on climate-sensitive agriculture and a large share of its population and economic activity in flood-prone urban coastal zones.”

On the other hand, the report adds, societies of this region have been under pressure to adapt to water scarcity and heat for thousands of years, and have developed various technical solutions and institutional mechanisms to deal with these environmental constraints.

Climate Change and the Cities

While global models predict sea levels rising from about 0.1 to 0.3 meters by the year 2050, and from about 0.1 to 0.9 meters by 2100, the World Bank says, for MENA, the social, economic, and ecological impacts are expected to be relatively higher compared to the rest of the world. Low-lying coastal areas in Tunisia, Qatar, Libya, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and specially Egypt are at particular risk.

Climate change also poses many challenges to the region’s cities, which represent hubs for economic, social, cultural and political activities. Rising sea level could affect 43 port cities—24 in the Middle East and 19 in North Africa, according to the World Bank study.

“In the case of Alexandria, Egypt, a 0.5 meter rise would leave more than 2 million people displaced, with 35 billion dollars in losses in land, property, and infrastructure, as well as incalculable losses of historic and cultural assets.”