Arab world’s top climate priority must be water security
The Middle East and North Africa will host the next two climate summits, which will take place in Sharm El-Sheikh this year and Abu Dhabi in 2023. This highlights the Arab region’s pivotal role in confronting the planet’s greatest shared threat to date — climate change.
A cascade of activism and concerted global efforts are amplifying calls for bolder, more inclusive climate agendas that go beyond current and future commitments. After all, climate scientists warn that global temperatures are set to rise by 3 degrees Celsius compared with pre-industrial levels in the coming decades, in a sharp rebuke of the high-toned summits that have consistently failed to transform shared ideals into meaningful, sustainable climate action.
The hosting of two consecutive climate summits offers a rare and welcome opportunity to highlight the grave climate change-related risks that the Arab region faces. Worst of all is the growing, almost inevitable, prospect of prolonged water crises, which add a frustrating dimension to a region already notorious for its other complex, multifaceted challenges.
A majority of experts and leaders across the Arab world agree that water insecurity is perhaps the greatest threat to the MENA region, more so than even youth unemployment and political instability.
Nearly two-thirds of the region’s population lives in significantly water-stressed areas, and close to three quarters of MENA’s gross domestic product is generated there. It is a startling statistic compared with the global picture: Just over a third of the world’s population lives in areas with high-to-very high water stress, and these areas generate about 22 percent of GDP.
Furthermore, as the planet warms, it adds new complexities to the region’s unique water-food-energy nexus, which is already at risk from intensifying droughts, floods, worsening water quality, conflict, fragility, and adversarial transboundary water management.
Of greater concern to climate scientists, attuned policymakers and governments are the climate-related effects that are already locked in and therefore unavoidable, especially with regard to the intrinsically linked food and water security issues across the region’s arid expanses.
It is not too late for governments in the Arab world to at least start taking those critical first steps to enhancing water security.
In this part of the world, water has been — and always will be — a source of risks and opportunities, almost as much as the region’s vast hydrocarbon resources. For many centuries, the relatively effective management of scarce water resources contributed exponentially to the region’s growth, development and sophistication. It also created a stress-tested blueprint on how best to cope with water scarcity in constantly evolving environmental, political, social and economic contexts, albeit limited to the subnational level.
Granted, the Arab world of today is a vastly different place. Rapidly expanding cities and exurban communities are struggling to keep pace with a population that is growing by about 2 percent a year. By the middle of this century, it is estimated that urban populations alone will reach or exceed 400 million people, creating an enormous drain on already scarce water resources.
At present, sharp increases in consumption, combined with weak, ineffective or nonexistent frameworks to manage such a precious resource, have led to the rapid, unprecedented depletion of the region’s few water sources. Water crises in parts of the Arab region are now spawning or worsening hyper-localized clashes and, in some cases, intensifying cross-border tensions between states seeking to maximize their access to dwindling transboundary water sources.
Things will only get worse. River basins across the planet are facing rapid declines in surface area, while groundwater sources are being depleted faster than they can be replenished by precipitation. In an already water-stressed part of the world, a vicious confluence is rapidly emerging in which rising temperatures combine with population increases and excessive dependence on natural resources, leading to widespread vulnerabilities and displaced populations.
Arguably, the MENA region is already demonstrating how a warming planet can quickly become a crisis amplifier and multiplier, with grave implications for stability, peace and security. Worse yet, the global modus operandi of collective climate inaction only defers the burden to future generations that will have to deal with the worsening effects of climate change, with far fewer resources available to help them cope.
Fortunately, according to some experts, it is not too late to act, reverse a worrying trend and spark a virtuous cycle that can plug the growing deficits in the Arab world’s food and water security. Lessons from the past and innovations from around the world offer a wealth of knowledge on how best to improve assessment and allocation mechanisms, which can lead to more productive uses of scarce water resources. Overcoming water scarcity constraints will boost the region’s resilience to climate change-related shocks and help mitigate the harmful spillover effects of other protracted crises.
Other interventions include increasing the levels of investment in climate adaptation to not only help the region survive the unavoidable, but also to reduce the costs of much-needed transitions designed to lower the levels of harmful emissions. Investments in nature-based solutions not only protect water resources, they also reverse economic losses and create jobs.
The UN, for instance, estimates that every dollar spent restoring or protecting forested areas and mangroves yields between $7 and $30 in benefits, while also preventing climate change-related losses around the globe to the tune of $500 billion a year by 2050. In addition, every $10 million to $40 million invested in the implementation of such nature-based solutions results in a job-creation rate 10 times higher than comparable investment in fossil fuels.
Unfortunately, even in the midst of this era of acute scarcity, and despite the obvious upsides of sustainable, efficient and equitable resource management, improving water access and quality remains a low priority in Arab capitals. No number of critical warnings backed by exhaustive studies or the visible consequences of inaction have managed to elicit meaningful responses from leaders and policymakers.
In typical fashion, the decision-making and policy-setting echelons of contemporary Arab society remain hardwired only to react when crises unfold, as opposed to taking action to preempt well-known risks that could potentially metastasize, further amplifying their harmful effects.
For now, it is not too late for governments in the Arab world to at least start taking those critical first steps to enhancing water security, as opposed to simply coping with scarcity through piecemeal interventions that can barely mitigate water-related risks such as droughts and floods.
Going forward, any “new” solutions must have clear incentives to encourage the transformation of the management, conservation and allocation of water, in addition to improved engagement with civil society and youth to drive a groundswell of support for forward-looking initiatives aimed at boosting long-term water security.
In the absence of such foresight and resolve, the region risks water scarcity challenges that will amplify the harmful effects on the well-being of citizens, political stability and economic resilience.
• Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group.