Climate change’s outsized impact on North Africa

Climate change’s outsized impact on North Africa

Globally, North Africa is one of the regions most affected by climate change (File/AFP)
Globally, North Africa is one of the regions most affected by climate change (File/AFP)
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North Africa is one of the regions most affected by climate change globally, with summer temperatures predicted to rise by 4 degrees Celsius over the next 50 years. Conventionally exposed to more than 3,000 hours of sunlight each year, North Africa is today witnessing prolonged heat waves, which are exacerbated by acute water shortages, higher sea levels and rising desertification.

The challenges posed by climate change cut across sectors and, today, the region is both heating up and drying much faster than the global average. This has limited the ability of North African states to maintain water and food security and sustain infrastructure development to generate economic opportunities.

Water shortages have become a defining feature of the socioeconomic environment in North Africa in recent years. In Morocco, repeated droughts are creating unprecedented water stress that could reach lethal levels by 2040. Currently, the country’s supply of renewable water per capita stands at 620 cubic meters per year, which is far below the 1,000 cubic meters threshold for water scarcity. Egypt shares this challenge, with the UN predicting that it could run out of water as soon as 2025.

Owing to a combination of pollution, dams, increased demand for its water and the gradual drying up of its main source, Lake Victoria, the Nile River today holds much less water than its normal capacity and this lifeline for Egypt is expected to continue drying up for years to come. At the same time, the country is facing a predicted sea level rise of 50 centimeters by 2100, which would submerge 2 million hectares of arable land and displace 8 million people.

Water shortages have become a defining feature of the socioeconomic environment in North Africa in recent years

Zaid M. Belbagi

Similarly, Tunisia and Algeria only have about 400 and 300 cubic meters of annual renewable water per capita, respectively, which is significantly below the scarcity level and is putting tremendous pressure on these states to maintain a continuous water supply to households. These North African states also bear the brunt of an alarming rate of desertification, with more than 75 percent of land in these countries likely to become arid due to sustained droughts and unpredictable rainfall. This is a direct threat to livelihoods in the region, as the resultant infertility of the land will challenge conventional agricultural productivity, which forecasts show will fall by up to 30 percent by 2050.

Such climatic conditions have significantly increased food prices in the region over the past decade. Between 2019 and 2022, for example, Algeria witnessed a 12.2 percent reduction in food affordability. When combined with disruptions in the global food supply chain, the price of essential grains and crops is expected to continue rising. The food insecurity and unemployment that will be a consequence of these developments will aggravate existing social grievances. The eruption of riots in central Algeria last month due to sustained water insecurity indicates the tipping point that the region is approaching as citizens face economic pressures from all sides.

This is impacting development in a more tangible way than ever before. Climate migration, an increasingly global challenge, is now a reality in North Africa, with close to 20 million people in the region projected to be internally displaced due to the impacts of climate change on agricultural productivity and water levels. The region already has one of the highest rates of urbanization globally, with urban populations expected to grow to above 75 percent by 2050, up from just 35 percent in the early 1960s and about 60 percent in 2018.

This is largely a result of the concentration of economic development in the region’s urban centers, which also tend to be located along the coast. Given the increasingly adverse climatic conditions, people in rural communities are seeking opportunities to move to urban areas to access economic opportunities and resources.

The human cost of this is significant in a region that has an average unemployment rate of more than 11 percent

Zaid M. Belbagi

Therefore, climate change poses multifaceted challenges to North Africa’s urban centers. While climate displacement will increase urban populations and, in turn, raise pressure on water resources in the cities, rising sea levels will continue to threaten millions of urban residents with the risk of flooding, destruction of crops and increased water salinity. The human cost of this is significant in a region that has an average unemployment rate of more than 11 percent. Given that the region erupted into public protest and revolution in 2011 because of these factors, the increasingly challenging climatic conditions have forced people to not only be displaced internally but are also leading them to emigrate outside of the region in search of economic opportunities.

In a wider change to the social makeup of these states, climate change has also taken a toll on the region’s native nomadic tribes. The ancient nomadic lifestyle of such communities faces the challenge of prolonged droughts and water shortages, as insecure water supply has made it difficult for them to maintain the livestock that they carry for subsistence, meaning they are increasingly forced to settle in villages and towns. The loss of traditional nomadic communities is therefore leading to a notable cultural erosion in North Africa.

North Africa’s contribution to global carbon emissions is meager, yet it faces an outsized impact as a result of climate change and global warming. While much of climate mitigation is a long-term and multilateral effort, North African countries can begin the process by strengthening the necessary policies on water management, desalination, reduction of industrial emissions, reforestation and sustainable agriculture.

Desalination, in particular, is a desirable option for water-stressed countries and has been a successful strategy in other regions such as the Gulf. However, this is only a temporary solution. Countries in the region would also benefit from the creation of climate-resilient infrastructure outside of traditional urban centers in order to distribute the population load and reduce the pressure on urban resources.

Given the expensive and scientifically advanced nature of these efforts, the international community must assist the countries of North Africa in their climate mitigation strategies, as adverse conditions in the region will in turn impact neighboring countries in the form of migration and increased dependence on food imports. The region must be supported with climate financing and knowledge transfer to develop drought-resistant agriculture, water harnessing, advanced early-warning systems and biodiversity conservation methodologies.

  • Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council region. X: @Moulay_Zaid
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