5 reasons why MENA countries are so affected by climate change

Air pollution in Cairo

Air pollution in Cairo. (World Bank Photo Collection/Flickr)

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Every year, massive crowds gather in Mecca for a religious pilgrimage known as the Hajj. For the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims, making Hajj at least once is considered a religious obligation. Experts, however, say increasing temperatures and humidity in Saudi Arabia could make that duty an “extreme danger.”

Pilgrims at the Hajj
Crowds gather around the Kaaba during the annual Hajj. Heat waves in coming years could make the ritual physically unsafe. (Adil Wahid/Wikimedia Commons)

It’s jarring to imagine such a long-standing custom becoming unsafe. But this threat to tradition is just one potential impact of climate change in the Middle East and North Africa.

The region, known as MENA, is no monolith; generalization is dangerous. However, experts anticipate it being affected by global climate change more than other world regions.

While there are unknowns, certain factors make MENA particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change. Knowing these factors matters as we develop targeted solutions and work to piece together the global climate story across borders.

1. MENA’s most populous cities are coastal; rising sea levels pose serious flood risks 

Doha, Qatar
In Doha, Qatar’s most populous city, 96% of the city’s population lives on the coast, according to the Middle East Institute. (Francisco Anzola/Flickr)

MENA’s coastal cities are the most population-dense in the region. In the Arabian Sea and Gulf region, cities like Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Dubai are at higher flood risk being located on low-lying coastal zones or islands. The World Economic Forum has identified 24 ports in the Middle East and 19 ports in North Africa they consider vulnerable to sea level rise. 

Flood planning is going to be crucial as rising sea levels could make future major environmental events like cyclones even more devastating. Doha may develop flood management protocol that could be relevant in California, too.

2. The MENA region is the most water-stressed region in the world  

Collecting public water
Locals fill jugs with public water in Sana’a, Yemen, where water has become particularly scarce due to climate change effects compounded with ongoing conflict. (World Bank Photo Collection/Flickr)

While MENA will be seriously affected by flooding, it’s also the most water-stressed region in the world. By 2050, there are indications that natural water resources in MENA will drop to 11 times less than the global average. 

While the water supplies are naturally lower due to heat, growing demands have pushed the limits. As a result of global warming, annual mean precipitation in the region could decrease by 10% in the region, according to a study from The Cyprus Institute. Creative water management systems are going to be vital. Efforts to desalinate and recycle water are possible, but underutilized due to issues with integration and associated costs.

3. The MENA region is naturally one of the hottest, driest regions on Earth

Sunset over Baghdad
Sunset over Baghdad. This summer, the city experienced record high heat waves with the temperature hitting 125.2 degrees Fahrenheit on July 28, 2020, according to The Washington Post. (Yates Austin/Flickr)

Most people know MENA for its naturally hot and arid climate. However, the “hottest days of today” could be daily occurrences on the Gulf Coast by 2070. The heat waves could make certain areas nearly unlivable. 

But even if it doesn’t escalate to that point, the implications for agriculture and the economy are vast. As average temperatures increase, dry seasons become longer and crops wither. With drier land, illness-inducing dust storms become more common, losses from dust storms total to $150 billion and more than 2.5% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on average in MENA already.

4. MENA countries have experienced some of the fastest population growth rates worldwide

Shopping in Cairo
Cairo is one of the most populous cities in the MENA region. All conditions consistent, the Egyptian population is expected to grow to 128 million by 2030 according to government figures. (Effe letsanders/Flickr)

As globalization and urbanization in MENA continue, so does population growth. MENA experienced the highest rate of population growth of any region in the world over the past century.

As population growth continues, there will be increased water and energy demands. As we’ve discovered so far, climate change will only make resources more scarce. As water becomes scarce, water treatment techniques like desalination will require more energy input. More people means this vicious cycle is only propelled further.

5. Historically, climate change and conflict have been inextricably linked throughout the region

Israel-West Bank barrier wall
Israel-West Bank barrier wall. In the context of Israeli-Palestinian relations, the distribution of water to the West Bank and Gaza Strip has been one of the most significant drivers of conflict. (Florian Richter/Flickr)

Qualifying MENA solely through its conflicts isn’t nuanced or helpful. Still, understanding that climate change and conflict are linked throughout MENA is imperative.

In Yemen, where the government has been absent, and armed conflict has increased, water has been weaponized at civilians’ expense. Islamic State efforts to control the Mosul and Fallujah Dams in 2014 speaks to how terror organizations consolidate power by manipulating resources.

As climate change causes scarcity, the relationship between climate and conflict is one of the most important dynamics to consider. The MENA region illustrates the relationship, but it is not alone in experiencing it.

Where do we go from here?

The rest of the world cannot be absolved from caring about these factors under the guise of distance. MENA is a unique region, so it requires unique solutions. However, the trends outlined here are part of global climate patterns that can and will affect populations regardless of borders. Education on MENA’s risk factors, as well as its potential to overcome them, is the first step in approaching sustainable solutions. 

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