Negligence unacceptable as climate change bites
Heavy rains fell on several regions of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait last Friday. In Saudi Arabia, footage on social and traditional media showed neighborhoods of Riyadh that had become flooded, including major tunnels. In Kuwait, even more severe flooding in the capital spread concern across the country, which is not accustomed to such inclement weather. But it was in Jordan where the rains and subsequent flooding took the heaviest toll, having led to the deaths of at least 11 people and the evacuation of 4,000 tourists from the ancient city of Petra.
This came on the heels of flooding last month near the Dead Sea that resulted in the deaths of 21 people, mostly children, which forced the country’s education and tourism ministers to resign. Kuwait’s minister of public works also resigned in the wake of the recent flooding.
Natural disasters are always tragic. They also happen just about everywhere, including in the most advanced and developed countries. After all, the people of the US state of California have been battling deadly wildfires for about a week and thousands have endured mandatory evacuations in the process. Wildfires are not new to California and they seem to have happened with increasing frequency in recent years.
For government planners, these natural disasters are also a time to draw lessons from mistakes and to take measures to prevent future disasters, or at least to minimize their damage. For the victims of disasters, justice cannot be served without holding those responsible for poor planning, negligence or potential corruption accountable. That is all understandable and necessary.
However, the seemingly increased frequency of inclement weather, including heavy rains and flooding in the winter and dangerous heatwaves and droughts in the summer, could indeed be related to climate change, which scientists and development specialists agree could do serious damage to many countries around the world, but perhaps especially in the Middle East. This means that, going forward, measures must be taken to not only mitigate the impact of natural disasters, but also to reduce the likelihood of them occurring in the first place.
More studies appear to be needed to ascertain whether the region should expect more of these extreme weather patterns and what should be done about them.
In 2015, Jeffrey Sachs, the former director of the Earth Institute and adviser to the former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals, rang alarm bells during a television interview. He argued that there was a looming crisis in the Middle East in the form of extended and unprecedented periods of severe drought that would create serious economic and demographic challenges for the entire region. Although he accounted for several other factors, Sachs argued that drought in Syria — for example the one experienced between 2006 and 2010, which he called the “worst in its history” — was a major factor in the ensuing civil war that began in 2011 and continues today.
Likewise, a video produced by well-known Washington-based think tank the Middle East Institute warned that the region was “the driest in the world and is about to get much drier.” The same video projected that average temperatures will increase by 5 degrees Fahrenheit in the coming decades and that rainfall will decrease by 20 percent. At first, these projections may seem to bely the seemingly increased incidences of inclement weather patterns characterized by heavy rains, strong winds and even hailstorms that have impacted much of the region in recent months.
However, scientists have made it clear that climate change, including global warming, has varied deleterious effects that manifest themselves in seemingly contradictory ways. The end result, however, is a change in the climate that impacts how we and others species live and survive.
The overwhelming majority of countries in the region appear to understand the potentially catastrophic impact of climate change and environmental degradation, and have signed the Paris accord on climate change. Many have pledged to take measures to reduce carbon emissions, for example, which is a leading cause of global warming. Nevertheless, more studies appear to be needed to ascertain whether the region should expect more of these extreme weather patterns and what should be done about them.
At the same time, the resignation of ministers in both Kuwait and Jordan as a result of the recent flooding is also noteworthy. Some would suggest that they are indicative of an admission of a lack of preparedness and that officials must be held accountable. The same sentiment prevails in Saudi Arabia, where previous flooding in Jeddah, for instance, has led to investigations of wrongdoing and negligence on the part of local officials and contractors.
Natural disasters are always a reminder of how far mankind has to go in its ongoing quest to master and control the environment. The key has been scientific studies and discoveries: That means that the best way to minimize, or perhaps even reverse, manmade environmental degradation is through careful studies and analysis and accurate predictions.
At the local level, city planners, municipal officials and building contractors must realize that protecting people from floods, earthquakes and fires is as serious a responsibility as it gets. It is a matter of life and death; literally. While innovation and ingenuity must be harnessed to minimize and guard against the damage done by natural disasters, those who are found to be negligent or simply corrupt, whoever they are, should also be held accountable.
- Fahad Nazer is a political consultant to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington and an International Fellow at the National Council on US Arab Relations. He does not represent or speak on behalf of either organization. Twitter: @fanazer