WASHINGTON: Climate change is happening and the effects will only get worse as temperatures continue to increase, oceans warm, sea levels rise and freshwater resources that are already scarce in some regions dwindle. This will fuel conflict and migration, especially in the poorest and most vulnerable nations in the Middle East and Africa.
This was one of the messages from participants in a panel discussion hosted by the Middle East Institute in Washington on Wednesday titled “Climate Injustice? How poorer nations are shouldering the burden of climate change.”
Mohammed Mahmoud, director of the institute’s Climate and Water Program, said many poorer nations contribute little to the carbon emissions that cause climate change, in comparison to wealthy, developed Western nations, but are suffering greatly from its effects.
He said that there are three main factors that determine which countries are likely to be worst affected by climate change now and in the future.
Firstly, as sea levels rise, island nations and countries with large coastlines are at risk of flooding and loss of landmass. In addition, their sources of fresh groundwater could be “compromised” by the saltwater intrusion.
Secondly, nations with a high heat index, in particular those near the equator that receive high levels of solar radiation, are particularly vulnerable to even small rises in global temperatures.
The third and most important factor, Mahmoud said, is the existing limited supplies of fresh water in some countries.
“The interesting thing to draw between these big categories is that all of them are present in the Middle East and North Africa region,” he added. The more of these issues that countries in the region face, the greater the risk of climate-related crises.
The panelists agreed that a nation’s economic strength, or lack thereof, plays a major role in determining how effectively it can tackle the looming threats of climate change.
Countries in East Africa, for example, which are already experiencing the worst drought in decades and have weak economies, will be less capable of dealing with the effects of climate change than, say, a Gulf nation such as Bahrain, which is a water-stressed country but much better placed, economically, to deal with potential challenges.
The financial capacity of countries to address issues related to climate change, including their ability to afford the technologies and tools they need to deal with their specific problems, is critical, Mahmoud said. In addition, he added, proper education and training needs to be a part of the overall strategy to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Ayat Soliman, the World Bank’s regional director of sustainable development for Eastern and Southern Africa, agreed that financial strength is important but said that there is an element of “injustice” in the way different nations are affected by the global issue of climate change.
In Africa and the Middle East, she said, “we see climate charts are increasing in terms of its intensity.” Parts of Africa, for example, are experiencing their worst drought in years and millions of people are facing hunger, she added.
The effects of climate change in Africa are therefore affecting some of the most vulnerable people in the world, which is expected to result in massive migration, said Soliman. World Bank research estimates that in the next 20 years, the effects of climate change will force about 90 million people to leave their homes and find somewhere else to live. This will add to the strain on the already critical issue of food security in less wealthy nations.
“It will be mostly the poor, the vulnerable and rural dwellers who will be packing up and moving,” Soliman said. “Climate stress also is, and will be, causing conflicts around the world.”
Hajar Khamlichi, the president and co-founder of the Mediterranean Youth Climate Network said that young people in the worst-affected regions have a key role to play in the effective implementation of international agreements that shape global action on climate change, and so it is important that they participate in the process and are listened to, which is not always the case.
“The voice of young people is not heard in the Arab World,” he said, adding that this failure affects local and international strategies to deal with the effects of climate change.