Long downplayed or ignored by elites and governments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), climate change will affect the region in dire and far-reaching ways, amplifying long-standing problems of governance and sharpening socioeconomic inequalities while also creating new disruptions. For countries already grappling with the fallout from the pandemic, civil wars and conflict-induced displacement, population growth, and a long-term decline in global demand for the oil upon which many MENA economies rely, the cascading effects of climate change add to a daunting array of challenges.
Water scarcity has been the most headline-grabbing effect of climate change in the MENA area: the region has been consistently described by experts as “the world’s most water-stressed.” Rising temperatures and their pernicious effects on health and productivity, desertification, population movements (both within the region and from elsewhere), and food insecurity are other climate effects projected to impact MENA inhabitants, especially those in rural areas and urban peripheries, migrants and refugees, informal sector workers, and other vulnerable communities.
The likelihood of new violent conflict directly triggered or aggravated by climate change in the MENA region is an oft-cited and oft-sensationalized effect. Yet the reality is more complex than the dark prognostications of some so-called climate determinists. In cases of previous wars and political unrest in the MENA region, most scholars find that climate change is at most one variable among a multitude of more directly contributing factors, including endemic corruption, authoritarianism, economic exclusion, demographic pressures, and other governance maladies.
Given the pressing risks of climate effects in the region, a number of MENA governments have made pledges to mitigate global warming through a transition to renewable energy and green technologies, and some have already taken steps in that direction. But there is much more that they can do at home. Most critically, policymakers in the MENA region need to bolster the ability of their societies to withstand and adapt to climatic stresses through greater political and economic inclusion and by prioritizing policies that protect the most vulnerable sectors of their citizenry.
Droughts, Water Scarcity, and Rising Sea Levels
Worryingly, the MENA region is projected to be among the first in the world to “effectively run out of water,” as water resources are being used faster than they’re being replenished by precipitation. Climate change adds to the existing pressures on water demand placed by an expanding population, and will likely continue to diminish water availability, both total and per capita, to critically low amounts in an already water-scarce region. This is especially true in countries like Iraq where the irrigated agricultural sector is significant. This, combined with poor governance, has led to countries overdrawing water from rivers and aquifers and thus degrading already scarce water resource bases.
The Mediterranean is an especially at-risk region. Dubbed a major “climate change hot spot” in several modeling predictions, the region has experienced consistent drying in the last twenty years, largely due to anthropogenic (human-made) greenhouse gases. The Levant in particular is projected to be one of the areas in the MENA region most affected by droughts and reduced precipitation; rainfall in Jordan, for example, is forecasted to decrease by 30 percent by the end of the current century.
Some models predict that climate change and decreased precipitation will reduce internal renewable water, which refers to rivers and aquifers replenished by precipitation, in the MENA region by around 4 percent by 2050. Between 80 and 90 million of the region’s inhabitants are set to suffer from some form of water stress by 2025; protests over water shortages have already occurred in Iran. The growing need for water resources is spurring governments to pursue expensive desalinization projects or to shift much-needed water resources away from agriculture, both of which could worsen existing economic inequalities and widen the urban-rural gap. For example, privileged citizens in Middle Eastern cities are already prioritized for water procurement and reallocation initiatives, with poorer and more marginalized citizens often paying for water from private providers at inflated rates.
Water scarcity has also been weaponized in times of war in the Middle East by armed actors. In Libya, for example, local militias have used water infrastructure, especially the Great Man-Made River, as a source of leverage against rivals or the central government. In the capital of Tripoli, residents were forced to dig through paved concrete for water after a militia turned off the flow to pressure a rival militia into releasing an imprisoned leader. Climate change effects could make these sub-state conflict dynamics more acute.
The MENA region is also one of the most vulnerable regions to rising sea levels caused by climate change; according to some studies, the mean global sea level is set to rise 30–122 centimeters (1 to 4 feet) by the end of the century. The consequences are manifold. When sea levels rise, seawater can intrude into coastal aquifers and wells, thus salinizing the water there and devastating littoral agricultural communities. The inundation of coastal areas could also make some waterfront cities and towns in the MENA region uninhabitable, adding to economic and migration-related stresses on already beleaguered governments. Here, the countries of North Africa are especially at risk, in terms of total population threatened by sea level rise; the cities of Algiers, Benghazi, and Alexandria in particular will be exposed to even modest increases in sea level by 2050.
Even if global warming is limited to a 2°C increase, the MENA region is set to experience temperatures well beyond this projection. Indeed, much of the region will experience global warming at a more severe rate because of the desert warming amplification phenomenon, in which drying soil prevents natural cooling effects and creates a feedback loop that further intensifies heat. Temperatures are set to rise in the region by at least 4°C by 2050—that is, if greenhouse gases continue to increase at the current rate—and heat waves are set to be experienced ten times more frequently by the same year. Future temperatures in the region are projected to exceed a threshold for human adaptability, leading to higher mortality rates for children and the elderly.
Similar to other climate change phenomena, moreover, global warming and its felt impact continue to increase socioeconomic inequalities and further endanger marginalized groups across the region. In Kuwait, for example, wealthy citizens and residents are often able to avoid the effects of rising temperatures through air-conditioning and summer vacations to Europe, while non-Kuwaiti laborers from developing countries work outdoors—making them up to three times more likely to die on extremely hot days.
Rising temperatures and decreasing water resources will accelerate the rate of desertification in the region, even though climate change by itself is not the sole driver for this and other forms of soil degradation and ecological depletion, which have been features of the MENA region since well before the industrial age. In addition to increased water scarcity, climate change will produce increased aridity in parts of the MENA region in the next century, thus shrinking arable lands and disrupting agricultural patterns. Moreover, already dry soil is set to become drier, and desert dust will increasingly accumulate in the atmosphere and create more sandstorms, especially in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. In Western Iraq, for example, there was a significant increase in sandstorms, and by extension desertification, in the last two decades.
Desertification poses a range of deleterious effects on air quality, human health, land productivity, and ecosystem dynamics. In response, governments, corporations, and multilateral organizations have undertaken a range of measures in the region, such as reforestation, afforestation, and new agriculture projects, to both curb desertification and reduce carbon levels in the atmosphere. But these actions have elicited skepticism from some scholars who consider them counterproductive and ecologically damaging.
Agriculture is the largest water-consuming sector in the Middle East, so desertification is expected to intensify food insecurity in the region. Half of the land around the Mediterranean, for example, is primarily used for agriculture, consuming 60 to 80 percent of water supply. Production of wheat, an important food staple in the Middle East, is already being negatively impacted by increasing heat waves and droughts—a trend that threatens to apply to other crops and food sources.
Warmer and drier climates produced by climate change are set to significantly impact agricultural patterns, and by extension, food sources, as lower rainfall and higher temperatures are forecasted to shorten growing periods, decrease crop yields and crop productivity, and adversely influence livestock production through changes in the length of the grazing season and reduced drinking water. Herders in northeastern Syria, for example, lost 80 to 85 percent of their livestock because of recurring droughts between 2005 and 2010. Ultimately, climate change will decrease food production, increase food prices, and aggravate food insecurity, which in turn will lead to an increase in child malnutrition and a drastic reduction in calorie consumption.
Migration and Urbanization
Migration is another frequently mentioned effect of climate change and one that is often securitized. Here again it is important to take a nuanced view; migration has long been an adaptive mechanism for populations in the MENA region, both during times of drought and war and seasonally, for laborers, herders, and nomads. The direct impact of climate change on migration will vary depending on the severities and types of climatic events, as well as the resources available to affected populations.
As climate change causes droughts to become more common, severe, and sustained, in-migration within rural areas and especially to cities will likely increase and could become more permanent. Gender parity will be adversely affected by this mostly male outflow of labor in rural areas; women will be left to shoulder more burdens of local work and the household economy, depriving them of access to education and job training. Aside from this labor dynamic, women are further endangered by migration-inducing climate events and their knock-on effects—women and girls, for example, become more vulnerable to human trafficking and exploitation in the immediate aftermath of a flood, drought, or famine as their local safety nets are uprooted and they are forced to live in insecure conditions. Rising sea levels and declining water availability will also affect the livelihoods of coastal dwellers who are involved in agriculture and the tourism industry; the coastal areas of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and the Nile Delta are particularly at risk. On top of this, migration into North Africa, as both a destination and a transit zone, is expected to increase as climate effects are felt in the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa, exacerbating already acute food insecurity.
The towns and cities in the MENA region that have historically been zones of refuge for past waves of conflict or seasonal migration may themselves be overwhelmed already by climate stresses on service provision or, in the case of some urban areas along the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf, no longer habitable. The resulting competition for resources could have grave consequences for migrants and refugees, aggravating their already poor access to sanitation, health, and housing. Their plight could be further worsened as regimes adopt securitized, scapegoating approaches to migration rather than focusing on governance improvements.
Climate Change as a Driver of Conflict: A Mixed Picture
The prospect of violent conflict in the MENA region triggered by climate change remains the subject of much alarmism and debate. Yet the preponderance of studies, drawing from recent wars in the region, shows that “the extent and strength of this relationship remains inconclusive.” Any causal line from climate change to open conflict, they find, can be offset by a number of intervening factors—specifically, a country’s social and governance structures.
The case study of Syria and its post-2011 civil war remains the most frequently contested regarding a climate-conflict nexus. While some studies argued that migration resulting from a climate change-induced drought contributed to civil unrest and the consequent civil war in Syria, they have been critiqued for ignoring already present sociopolitical factors in Syria and for overstating both the contribution of so-called climate migrants to the protests and the scale of the drought itself, as well as its anthropogenic nature. A more rigorous analysis of past conflicts, drawing from Syria but also Yemen and Sudan, frames security and climate change as an interrelationship where conflict increases social and political vulnerabilities, which then raises the likelihood that climate change will worsen a conflict.
Beyond conflicts within countries, some scholars have predicted that climate change could increase the likelihood that transboundary water competition between states in the MENA region could erupt into direct or proxy conflict. The most commonly cited case here is the tension between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Nile River Basin and specifically the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which the Egyptian government has often argued poses an existential threat to the Egyptian population. Though some analysts point to the dispute pushing both countries toward war, others see it as an opportunity for bilateral cooperation and diplomacy. Moreover, a comprehensive survey noted no recorded instances of recent wars resulting from river disputes. Resource competition can also spur changes in domestic water management: Egypt, for example, has undertaken projects to improve irrigation and wastewater reuse, as well as desalination initiatives, in light of the uncertainties brought about by the GERD. As is the case for other climate effects, then, conflict over water scarcity between states is far from predetermined even as risks are still present from political rivalries and the absence of resource sharing frameworks.
MENA Climate Action: Beyond Green Pledges
Given the reliance of many MENA countries on extractive fossil fuel wealth, whether they are directly producing and exporting it themselves or receiving it as financial aid or remittances from partners, the region’s long-standing economic model has contributed to climate change by expanding the global carbon footprint. Over the decades, it has also been used by the region’s elites to entrench authoritarianism, sustain bloated public sectors, and perpetuate deep inequalities among citizens and between regions, all of which, when combined with geography and environmental fragility, have left the MENA region especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
Home to the world’s leading petroleum exporters, including Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, the Middle East represents about 31.3 percent of global oil production. Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil company Aramco is responsible for the most greenhouse gas release of any company in the world. Additionally, many societies across the region are heavily dependent on fossil fuel consumption, particularly for transport and electricity, which in turn further increases the region’s contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the MENA region accounted for 9.4 percent of global oil consumption in 2021 while comprising little over 6 percent of the global population. This is partly due to extensive subsidization by governments in Gulf countries: the MENA region has the highest share of pre-tax energy subsidies globally. High consumption also stems from carbon-intensive, deteriorating, or deprioritized infrastructure, such as public transportation, in other MENA countries. Further, the region contains some of the world’s largest per capita carbon dioxide emitters, with Qatar leading.
A number of major oil producers in the Gulf have pledged to meet climate targets: Saudi Arabia, for example, said it would aim for net-zero emissions by 2060, although this excludes emissions from exports. In tandem, Riyadh has introduced reforms on energy subsidies—historically a pillar of autocratic rentier states—mostly driven by economic considerations but also linked to multilateral climate commitments. The UAE, for its part, is targeting net-zero emissions by 2050. Others have indicated tentative moves toward future emissions reduction: in January 2022, Kuwait’s cabinet directed a review of ways to lower the country’s production of greenhouse gases, following an earlier pledge to trim emissions by a modest 7.4 percent by 2035. Still other states beyond the Gulf have garnered praise for innovative climate actions—Morocco, for example, has become a leader on solar energy. Egypt, meanwhile, is slated to host the next United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP27, in November 2022, while the UAE will convene COP28 in 2023.
Despite these projects, pledges, and fora, it remains to be seen whether policymakers in the MENA region, as well as those across the globe, will mobilize on climate change in a manner substantial enough to forestall its most severe effects. Faced with these looming risks, elites in the region will need to prioritize policies that will help insulate vulnerable segments of their population from climate shocks, including migrants and refugees; lower-income citizens, especially women; workers in the informal and tourism sectors; and the inhabitants of both rural interior and coastal regions.
Ultimately, though, regimes in the MENA region must integrate progress toward renewable energy, green technologies, regulatory improvements, and other mitigation actions into a more inclusive process of political and socioeconomic reform that will better position their societies to withstand the interlinked and systemic impacts of climate change. For such a holistic approach to succeed, it must depart from current top-down paradigms to involve a broader swath of citizenry and local institutions—an unfettered civil society, including women-led initiatives; empowered municipal governments; and an open media, to name but a few—on climate adaptation and on governance more broadly.
Research for this article was made possible through a generous grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.