What increasingly hot and dusty Middle East summers mean for public health, productivity and energy demand

Special Men stand underneath a roadside shower along Sinak street in Baghdad to cool off due to extremely high temperature rises amid a heatwave. (AFP)
Men stand underneath a roadside shower along Sinak street in Baghdad to cool off due to extremely high temperature rises amid a heatwave. (AFP)
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Updated 26 August 2022

What increasingly hot and dusty Middle East summers mean for public health, productivity and energy demand

What increasingly hot and dusty Middle East summers mean for public health, productivity and energy demand
  • Region expected to experience extreme weather events including drought, flash flooding and sandstorms
  • Frequency of dust storms in the Middle East could double by 2050 as average temperatures keep rising

DUBAI: This summer, at least 20 countries around the world have recorded maximum temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius or above, with extreme heat episodes striking Europe, the Middle East and Africa — often for the first time on record.

The Arab region in particular has experienced progressively extreme temperatures year on year, attributable to long-term variations in weather patterns. Environmental activists warn that at this rate, the reality of climate change could well prove worse than the forecasts.

“Countries in the Middle East that have surpassed temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius include Kuwait, Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” Hussein Rifai, chairman of Australian company SPC Global, public speaker and a keen environmentalist, told Arab News.

“Temperatures are expected to rise in the region by at least 4 degrees Celsius by 2050 if greenhouse gases continue to increase at the current rate.”

According to an International Monetary Fund report published in March, temperatures in the Middle East are set to rise by almost half a degree Celsius per decade, leading to extreme weather events including drought, flash flooding and dust storms.

The findings show that climate disasters in the region are already reducing annual economic growth by 1-2 percentage points on a per-capita basis.

“This is not fiction or exaggeration,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in April, responding to the latest findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“It is what science tells us will result from our current energy policies. We are on a pathway to global warming of more than double the 1.5-degree limit (above pre-industrial levels agreed by world leaders in Paris in 2015).”

The effects can already be seen in Tunisia, where 90 percent of coastal tourism infrastructure is threatened by erosion caused by seawater flooding. Similarly, in Iran a severe drought last year sparked protests as water shortages destroyed farmers’ livelihoods.

Hotter summers and more frequent dust storms have implications for public health, productivity and energy demands say experts. (AFP)

“Climate change is exacerbating desertification and water stress,” said Rifai, whose Shepparton-based company made a commitment last year to a sustainable future for the planet. “Repeated sandstorms like those in Iraq will continue to shut down commerce and send thousands to hospital.”

Because of the Middle East and North Africa’s geographical location, average temperatures have already risen much faster than other inhabited regions, up by around 1.5 degrees Celsius in the last three decades — twice the average global increase of 0.7 degrees.

A study published in the scientific journal Climate Dynamics, which introduces a new and more precise way to project temperatures, claims the threshold for dangerous global warming could be crossed as early as 2027, and certainly by 2042.

“It’s a combination of burning fossil fuels, faulty waste-management systems, continuous deforestation and excessive urbanization, creating greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere and make the planet warmer,” Zoltan Rendes, chief marketing officer of SunMoney Solar Group, which manages a large community solar-power program, told Arab News.

Erratic weather patterns could be especially harmful for regions that are already hot. Droughts could be longer, deeper and more common, while the frequency of dust storms in the Middle East could double by 2050.

“To put things in perspective, in 2015 a major dust storm blanketed Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq, causing widespread disruption. It was so massive that it could be seen from space,” said Rendes. “One can only imagine how dangerous the situation will be in the years to come.”

Policymakers throughout the Arab world are now grappling with what increasingly hot summers will mean for public health, infrastructure, productivity, the natural environment and energy demand.

No matter what measures are taken at the global and regional levels to slow the pace of global warming, experts say communities will have to adapt quickly to cope with hotter summers and mitigate their most harmful effects.

Research shows that greenhouse-gas emissions are making heatwaves more common and more intense.

Indeed, this summer at least 90 cities worldwide issued heat alerts, urging the public to remain indoors to avoid excessive sun exposure and heat exhaustion.

Iraqi youths beat the heat in the Shatt Al-Arab river in the southern port city of Basra. (AFP)

The elderly, the homeless, and those with pre-existing medical conditions are especially vulnerable. Hundreds of heat-related fatalities were recorded over the summer months in places that lacked the facilities and infrastructure required to deal with the abnormal weather conditions.

The combination of high temperatures and relative humidity is potentially deadly if the human body is unable to cool off through sweating — a phenomenon known as “wet-bulb” temperatures.

Scientists have calculated that a healthy human adult in the shade with unlimited drinking water will die if wet-bulb temperatures (TW) exceed 35 degrees Celsius for a period of six hours.

It was long assumed this theoretical threshold would never be crossed. However, US researchers came across two locations — one in the UAE, another in Pakistan — where the 35C TW barrier was breached more than once in 2020, if only fleetingly.

Hotter climates will also reduce worker productivity and cause overheated equipment to malfunction.

The Arab world in particular has experienced ever-more extreme temperatures year on year, due to a mixture of suspected man-made climate change and long-term variations in weather patterns. (AFP)

“This is particularly true in manual-labor jobs, but even office workers can be affected when temperatures become too hot,” said Rendes.

Under the circumstances, air conditioners have to work harder to keep people cool, which puts further strain on power grids in the form of higher energy demand.

“If we don’t take action to increase energy efficiency, switch to renewable sources of energy like solar, and propel clean energy solutions through green investments, these problems will grow bigger in the days to come,” said Rendes.

With even roads, railway tracks and runways at risk — some of them literally melted in this year’s summer heat — disruption of economic activity is likely to become more frequent.

Equally worrisome is the increasing risk of conflict and social unrest resulting from human displacement, discomfort and deprivation as rising temperatures destroy livelihoods, overwhelm infrastructure and cause shortages of even basic necessities.

“There will be geopolitical unrest as marginalized citizens fight for access and control of scarce food and water resources,” said Rifai, predicting a looming security threat if no action is taken.

Countries need to be more ambitious with their climate change legislation, the lives and those of future generations are at stake if not, according to Hussein Rifai, SPC Global chairman. (Supplied)

Responding to the challenge, the Gulf states have sought to lower their greenhouse-gas emissions in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement by reducing their reliance on fossil fuels.

The UAE, for instance, has pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and to invest up to $160 billion in clean and renewable-energy solutions.

Last year, Saudi Arabia launched the Saudi Green and Middle East Green initiatives, committing the Kingdom to reach net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2060 and to plant 10 billion trees over the coming decades.

Rifai thinks widespread adoption of alternative green technologies such as wind turbines, solar panels and battery-powered electric vehicles is the way to go.

If wind and solar-power facilities were to be set up in half the world’s countries, he says, not only would their greenhouse-gas emissions be negligible, but the combined cost of installing them would be much lower than operating the existing fossil-fuel power plants.

Some Gulf countries have made notable progress in the development of utility-scale solar and wind power, including the third phase of the Mohammed bin Rashid solar project in Dubai completed last year, and the inauguration of Saudi Arabia’s first wind farm at Dumat Al-Jandal.

A man rides his scooter along a street during a sand storm in Dubai, on August 14, 2022. (AFP)

Saudi authorities aim to increase the Kingdom’s solar-photovoltaic power-generation capacity to 40 gigawatts by 2030.

Another sustainable-energy source being explored by Gulf states is hydrogen, which is regarded by many experts as a clean fuel of the future, particularly green hydrogen, which is produced using solar energy.

Some countries are also tapping the potential of artificial rain to combat drought and increasing aridity.

Cloud seeding is a man-made intervention to increase precipitation, where clouds are seeded by aircraft or ground rockets, which then release the required material, most commonly silver iodide.

Worldwide, as many as 56 countries are using cloud-seeding technology, according to the World Meteorological Organization. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have both launched programs to boost precipitation.

“In the UAE, where warm clouds are prevalent, salts mixed with magnesium, sodium chloride and potassium chloride are used,” Rifai said.

Palestinian children play in a public fountain during a hot summer day in Gaza City. (AFP)

Of late, the UAE has been testing a new method of cloud seeding by using drones that zap clouds with electricity. Rifai believes more research is needed to fine-tune cloud-seeding technologies.

“It’s not a perfect solution to drought issues, as it requires the presence of clouds to work and a specific type of cumulus cloud. In drought-affected areas, there are likely to be fewer seedable clouds,” he said.

Viewed together, the aforesaid clean-energy, environmental and weather-modification initiatives show that Arab countries that have the requisite resources and political will are getting to grips with the climate crisis.

Even so, hotter temperatures appear to be the new normal, which Middle East populations will simply have to adapt to.

“It’s not too late, but countries need to be more ambitious with their climate-change legislation. Our lives and those of our future generations are truly at stake,” Rifai said.

“Rich nations that have pledged billions in annual funding to help poor countries transition to renewable energy have to start delivering on this promise.”



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In Syria, mounting cholera cases pose threat across frontlines

In Syria, mounting cholera cases pose threat across frontlines
Updated 6 sec ago

In Syria, mounting cholera cases pose threat across frontlines

In Syria, mounting cholera cases pose threat across frontlines
IDLIB/HASAKA, Syria: A cholera outbreak that has claimed 29 lives in Syria is posing a danger across the frontlines of the country’s 11-year-long war, stirring fears in crowded camps for the displaced who lack running water or sewage systems.
First linked to contaminated water near the Euphrates river, the outbreak has now spread across the fractured nation, with cases reported in government- and rebel-controlled regions. In all, at least 2,000 cases have been reported so far.
“How am I not supposed to catch cholera with the sewage running right next to our tent?” said Sobha Al-Jadoue, 60, who lives in a camp for displaced people in the rebel-held Idlib region. “We can no longer sleep or sit because of the smells. A few days ago the sewage spilled into my tent.”
Cholera is spread by the ingestion of contaminated food or water and can cause acute diarrhea. While most of those affected will have mild or no symptoms, cholera can kill within hours if untreated, the World Health Organization website says.
The devastation wrought by the Syrian conflict has left the country particularly vulnerable, demolishing much of the infrastructure including water pumping and treatment plants.
Climate change has worsened water shortages.
“Because of the war there has been great destruction of the health infrastructure and infrastructure in general, so if it spreads in these areas — especially in the camps — it could have a grave health impact and kill a lot of people,” said Shahem Mekki, who runs a disease monitoring center in the area.
The war has killed some 350,000 people since it spiralled out of an uprising against President Bashar Assad in 2011. The World Health Organization says 55 percent of health care facilities in the country are not functioning because of the war.
The first cholera cases were detected on Sept. 5 in Deir Ezzor province, before spreading to other areas including the cities of Raqqa and Hasaka, said Jawan Mustafa, health director in the Kurdish-run administration of northeastern Syria.
He said there were more than 4,350 suspected cases of cholera in northeastern Syria, and 100 confirmed cases. “The cases are increasing but, fortunately, slowly,” he said.
Amshah Shehade, 45, said she brought her daughter to hospital in Hasaka due to diarrhea and dizziness, and that her grandchild had suffered the same symptoms. “It was caused by contaminated tank water,” she said.
Public awareness campaigns are underway on the causes, symptoms and prevention of cholera.
Eva Hinds, chief of communication at the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, in Syria, said the agency and its partners had scaled up water trucking and chlorination in the cholera hot spots to ensure access to clean water.
“It’s time to act now. We are investing heavily in measures to prevent the further spread,” she said.

Sudan officials warn of disease from unidentified bodies

Updated 1 min 12 sec ago

Sudan officials warn of disease from unidentified bodies

Sudan officials warn of disease from unidentified bodies
CAIRO: Sudanese medical officials warned Monday that more than 1,500 unidentified bodies piled up in several of the country’s morgues could lead to an outbreak of disease, amid accusations the government is covering up their causes of death.
Among the deceased are believed to be pro-democracy protesters, who activists say were killed by government forces in their crackdown on demonstrations. They believe the failure to conduct proper autopsies is an attempt to conceal evidence of those killings.
Mahjoub Babaker, a forensic medicine and toxicology consultant for the country’s autopsy body, expressed concerns because of the proximity of one of the morgues to a market, saying the bodies “could spread cholera among local residents.”
At a press conference Monday, he and three other officials argued against the need to carry out independent autopsies, saying instead that there should be a mass burial of the bodies for public safety reasons. They announced a postponement of any autopsies in order to discuss matters with the deceased individuals’ families.
Reports of the backlog of bodies awaiting autopsy first emerged in May, with news videos released earlier this month showing piles of corpses kept in a building that appeared to have no refrigeration. Then, the country’s top public prosecutor authorized the mass burial of the bodies last month without an autopsy.
It came as the country faced an ongoing crackdown on anti-military protests after a military coup last year. In October, Sudan’s short-lived democratic transition was upended when the country’s leading general, Abdel-Fattah Burhan, deposed the government and locked up hundreds of officials and activists.
Pro-democracy groups and families of missing protesters have said the failure to conduct proper autopsies is an attempt to conceal evidence of the killing of hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators by Sudanese armed forces following the 2019 popular uprising that ousted long-time ruler Omar Al-Bashir. In June 2019, the Rapid Support Forces, a powerful armed paramilitary group, opened fire on a group of sit-in protesters in Khartoum, killing more than 100 people.
The prosecutor’s decision in May has sparked several demonstrations outside the morgues from pro-democracy groups.
On Sunday, the Sudanese Doctor’s Committee, which has tracked protester deaths and injuries since the coup, held a protest outside the prosecutors’ headquarters. In a statement, the group, called for all burials to be stopped until “a team of international, independent and reliable forensic medicine is retrieved, protecting the rights of the missing and their relatives, and seeking to reach the truth and achieve justice.”

Arab League, Egypt condemn repeated Israeli violations of Al-Aqsa

Arab League, Egypt condemn repeated Israeli violations of Al-Aqsa
Updated 3 min 16 sec ago

Arab League, Egypt condemn repeated Israeli violations of Al-Aqsa

Arab League, Egypt condemn repeated Israeli violations of Al-Aqsa
  • Tension increased at the compound on Monday with incursions into the area by hundreds of Jewish settlers
  • A statement from the Arab League said Israeli forces and settlers stormed Al-Aqsa and arrested several Palestinians stationed inside it

CAIRO: The Arab League and Egypt have condemned the storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque by Israeli forces and several settlers, holding the Israeli government responsible for igniting the situation.

Tension increased at the compound on Monday with incursions into the area by hundreds of Jewish settlers, under the protection of Israeli police, to mark the start of Rosh Hashanah.

Extremist Jewish groups continued calls to be allowed to enter the compound on Monday and Tuesday to celebrate the Jewish New Year.

A statement from the Arab League said Israeli forces and settlers stormed Al-Aqsa and arrested several Palestinians stationed inside it, to impose a temporal and spatial partition on the mosque, “which means changing the existing historical and legal situation.”

This continued policy on the part of the Israeli government, it said, is a “flagrant violation of international law” and a provocation for Palestinians and Muslims in general.

Ahmed Aboul Gheit, secretary-general of the Arab League, stressed that what happened was and “unacceptable crime,” and called on the international community to assume its responsibilities and confront the “dangerous Israeli escalation.”

He tweeted: “East Jerusalem is occupied land in accordance with international law and United Nations and Security Council resolutions, and it should not be treated as otherwise.”

Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the continuation of provocative practices in the vicinity of the Islamic holy sites in Al-Haram Al-Sharif area would heighten tensions and fuel violence.

It said Egypt condemns the repeated, escalating violations of the sanctity of Al-Aqsa Mosque, “carried out by Jewish extremist elements in full view of the Israeli occupation forces.”

It stressed that restrictions on the movement of Palestinian worshipers and their performance of religious rites, and the continuous attempts to change the legal and historical status of Jerusalem, remain a violation of international law and a dangerous escalation that undermines the chances of achieving a comprehensive settlement of the Palestinian cause and the two-state solution.

Adnan Al-Husayni, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Jerusalem department, blamed the Israeli government for any repercussions caused by the escalation.

Al-Husayni called on the Arab and Islamic worlds to take a serious stand in support of the Palestinian people in confronting the aggression of the Israeli occupation.

Teachers’ strike and soaring fees: Lebanon’s public school pupils miss class

Teachers’ strike and soaring fees: Lebanon’s public school pupils miss class
Updated 19 min 51 sec ago

Teachers’ strike and soaring fees: Lebanon’s public school pupils miss class

Teachers’ strike and soaring fees: Lebanon’s public school pupils miss class
  • Lebanon’s three-year financial meltdown has left public schools shuttered so far this academic year
  • Teachers wage an open-ended strike over their severely devalued salaries

DEIR QUBEL: School teacher Claude Koteich, her teenager daughter and 10-year-old son should have all been back in class weeks ago – but a crisis in Lebanon’s education sector has left them lounging at home on a Monday afternoon.
Lebanon’s three-year financial meltdown has severely devalued the country’s pound and drained state coffers, pushing 80 percent of the population into poverty and gutting public services including water and electricity.
It has also left public schools shuttered so far this academic year, with teachers waging an open-ended strike over their severely devalued salaries and administrations worried they won’t be able to secure fuel to keep the lights and heating on during the winter.
Koteich, 44, has taught French literature at Lebanese public schools for exactly half her lifetime.
“We used to get a salary high enough that I could afford to put my kids in private school,” she told Reuters in her living room in the mountain town of Deir Qubel, overlooking the Lebanese capital.
But since 2019, Lebanon’s pound has lost more than 95 percent of its value as other costs skyrocket following the government’s lifting of fuel subsidies and global price jumps.
From a monthly salary that was once about $3,000, Koteich now earns the equivalent of $100 – forcing her to make a tough choice last summer over whether to put her children back in costly private schools or transfer them to a public education system paralyzed by the pay dispute.
“I was stuck between yes and no – waiting for our salaries to change, or if the education minister wanted to fulfill our demands,” Koteich said.
By September, there had been little progress on securing higher salaries given Lebanon’s depleted state coffers. At the same time, her children’s private school was asking for tuition to be paid mostly in cash dollars to guarantee they could afford to pay for expensive fuel and other imported needs.
That would amount to a yearly fee of $500 per student, plus 15 million Lebanese pounds, or about $400.
“I found the number was very high and out of this world for me,” she said.
So as their former classmates don their private school uniforms, Koteich and her two children still have no clear idea when they will return to class.
Lebanon’s education system has long been heavily reliant on private schools, which hosted almost 60 percent of the country’s 1.25 million students, according to the Ministry of Higher Education.
However, the strain on households from Lebanon’s financial collapse has forced a shift: around 55,000 students transitioned from private to public schools in the 2020-2021 school year alone, the World Bank has said.
But public education has been historically underfunded, with the government earmarking less than 2 percent of GDP to education in 2020, according to the World Bank — one of the lowest rates in the Middle East and North Africa.
And the combined stresses of recent years – from an influx of Syrian refugees starting in 2011 to the COVID-19 pandemic and the port blast which damaged Beirut – has beleaguered schools.
“My students’ worries are beyond educational – they started to think about how they can make a living. This age is supposed to be thinking of their homework,” Koteich said.
The head of the United Nations’ children agency UNICEF in Lebanon told Reuters that about one third of children in Lebanon – including Syrian children – are not attending school.
“We have worrying numbers of an increase in children being employed in Lebanon, and girls getting into early child marriage,” said Edouard Beigbeder.
A UNICEF study this year found that 38 percent of households had reduced their education expenses compared with just 26 percent in April 2021. This trend makes a return to class ever more important.
Some hope schools will re-open in October, although there has been no such indication from the government.
“There’s a kind of race against the clock to ensure the first week of October, we will have the right kind of opening,” Beigbeder said.

Lebanese lawmakers to convene to elect country’s president

Lebanese lawmakers to convene to elect country’s president
Updated 27 September 2022

Lebanese lawmakers to convene to elect country’s president

Lebanese lawmakers to convene to elect country’s president
  • The country’s 128-member parliament votes for a president, who must be a Maronite Christian

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s parliament speaker on Tuesday summoned lawmakers for a session this week to elect the country’s next president, offering a glimmer of hope of a political step forward even as chaos roils this Mideast nation.

Parliament is to convene on Thursday, according to a memo from the speaker, Nabih Berri. Under Lebanon’s fragile sectarian power-sharing system, the country’s 128-member parliament votes for a president, who must be a Maronite Christian.

The six-year term of incumbent President Michel Aoun — a retired military general and an ally of Iran-backed militant Hezbollah group who was elected in October 2016 following a two-year stalemate — ends on Oct. 31.

Aoun’s successor is to be elected at a time when Lebanon is going through an economic meltdown and the government struggles to implement structural reforms required for a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

The crisis, which started in late 2019, has plunged three-quarters of the tiny Mediterranean nation into poverty and the Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value against the dollar.

However, it is unclear whether legislators in a deeply divided parliament will be able reach a quorum for the session, raising prospects of renewed political paralysis.

In recent months, no majority or consensus candidate has emerged for the post of Aoun’s successor.

Sleiman Frangieh of the Marada Party, an ally of Hezbollah who calls Syrian President Bashar Assad a “friend and brother,” has the backing of some key parties but hasn’t received the backing of a major Christian bloc.

The other announced candidates, Tracy Chamoun, the granddaughter of a former Lebanese president running on an anti-Hezbollah platform, businessman Ziad Hayek, and writer and women’s advocate May Rihani have yet to receive any formal endorsements.

Hezbollah’s opponents, backed by the United States and Gulf Arab monarchies, are hoping to use their influence to ensure that Lebanon’s next president is not an ally of Hezbollah. Separately, 13 independent reformist lawmakers are lobbying to try to push for a reformist president who would prioritize reforms and pull Lebanon out of the quagmire.