A region with big climate vulnerability and bigger distractions

The third in a series. Click here to read the first story and here for the second in the series.

Climate change may be the last thing that leaders of revolution-riddled countries in the Middle East want to deal with now. But before long, experts say, the problems caused by rising global temperatures could disfigure the land they are fighting over.

From disappearing snow in Lebanon to rising seas threatening Bahrain to flooding in Tunisia and Egypt, climate change already is giving the Middle East and North Africa a good deal to worry about. And those who work in the region note that governments -- struggling to maintain power and in some cases engaging in all-out warfare with their citizens -- are losing valuable time needed to adapt.

"Climate change and the environmental agenda is not anywhere in the top priorities of our governments, and wasn't on the agenda since even before the revolution," said Wael Hmaidan, executive director of the League of Independent Activists in Beirut.

Curiously, many governments are embracing renewable energy development even as they ignore adaptation needs. Egypt, Morocco and Jordan all are making serious strides, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has long been a regional leader in clean energy, and now even other oil producers like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are signaling their interest in solar and other low-carbon energy sources.

Hmaidan and others blame the disconnect on the suppression of free expression and the media. While some governments, like that of the UAE, have shown a sincere desire to address climate change, he said, for others, it's hard to tell if the interest is part of a real move to a low-carbon strategy or a mere jump on the renewables bandwagon for a short-term economic infusion. In the meantime, few countries are taking steps to build resilience or adapt to weather-related climate change impacts.

"You need civil society and free media in order to really change the priorities of the governments," Hmaidan said. "It has to become part of their core economic strategy."

Water stress for 100M people

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the water-scarce and thirsty Middle East is considered one of the regions of the world most vulnerable to climate change impacts. If temperatures increase up to 4 degrees Celsius by 2050, the result could be a 20 to 30 percent water drop-off in countries spanning North Africa and the Mediterranean.

According the World Bank, that could mean as many as 100 million people exposed to water stress. Meanwhile, in urban parts of North Africa, researchers predict that a temperature increase of up to 3 degrees could expose up to 25 million people to flooding.

A recent study on climate change vulnerability rankings from the Center for Global Development found that five Middle Eastern and North African countries ranked in the top 20 at risk from sea level rise by 2050. They are: Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates.

Yet the body of scientific work examining the Middle East and North Africa remains thin, particularly compared to vast studies that have been done in South Asia and Africa. Some chalk up the disparity to the fact that the Middle East is literally betwixt and between. Partially in Asia and partially in Africa, countries in the region are often divided in official U.N. research and not given attention as a whole.

But the other reality, said Josh Busby, an assistant professor at the University of Texas, Austin's Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs who has studied climate and conflict in North Africa, is that many governments in the region don't have the government and scientific apparatus to support climate research. That's particularly true now as countries like Egypt and Tunisia try to find their balance post-revolution and protests continue to be met with state violence in places like Yemen and Syria.

A region with attention deficit

"They just can't pay attention to climate change if they're dealing with transitions to a new regime and have broader political instability," Busby said. "That could just be a short hiccup, but I think at the end of the day, a country like Egypt -- barring a major political cataclysm -- I think they're going to have to have more of the scientific expertise to come to grips with the climate issue."


Scientists in the region agree. In a paper last year for the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED), Egyptian scientist Ibrahim Abdel Gelil warned, "If Arab scientists want to play a role in climate change policy in the Arab world, then they desperately need to offer better-informed science.

"The need to bridge the gap between science and public policy in the Arab region is obvious," he wrote. "The environmental and climate policy is no exception. In a region with a long history of autocratic political systems and under funding of research and development (R&D), the scientific community is lacking both the independence and the resources it needs to drive the public-policy process."

The tide is slowly turning in the Middle East, noted Mohamed El-Ashry, a senior fellow at the U.N. Foundation and a member of the board of trustees of AFED. Slowly but steadily, countries are starting to do their own research to better understand what climate impacts will mean nationally and locally.

In Lebanon, for example, scientists have found that climate change is threatening two of the country's most treasured symbols: its snow and its cedars. If temperatures rise 1 degree Celsius on the coast and 2 degrees inland by 2040 as researchers expect, the tall evergreen cedars might not get the snow they need to thrive. Hmaidan said the losses would be physically and psychologically devastating.

"The cedar is in our flag and the snow is in our flag, so these are part of the Lebanese identity," he said. "As Lebanese, we cannot imagine ourselves without our snow, without our cedar trees. It's as if we're losing our country, just like the small island states."

Wanted: a more immediate timeline

Meanwhile, the World Bank is also starting to tackle climate change in the Middle East in a serious way. Earlier this year, a major study by the bank and the League of Arab States found that climate change could lead to the loss of more than 70,000 square miles of rain-fed agricultural land across the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

It's a topic on which Arab leaders increasingly are demanding more information, bank officials said. But even then, there remains a persistent message from leaders in the region that the most immediate needs are the most important.

In a recent study of how climate change and natural disasters will affect North African coastal cities, World Bank Urban Cultural Heritage Coordinator Anthony Gad Bigio said researchers purposely both broadened and narrowed their scope. It was important, he said, to study more immediate natural disasters in addition to long-term climate impacts, and the researchers made a conscious decision to keep the focus of the study on coastal impacts by 2030. According to the IPCC, most serious climate impacts are expected to reveal themselves by midcentury.

In doing so, he said, the World Bank was able to learn that cities like Alexandria, Egypt; Tunis, Tunisia; and Casablanca, Morocco, face far more immediate threats from natural disasters than from climate change. That's something that city leaders can wrap their arms around and get re-elected fixing. Yet flood control measures, upgrading drainage structures and developing flood early-warning systems are precisely the kinds of things that can help lessen the long-term impacts of climate change.

"There's a real continuum between natural disasters and climate change," Bagio said. But, he noted, "We would really make a mistake if we approached these cities only talking about climate change.

"If you go in and only look at climate change, you would be looking at a timeline that is probably further out than the one we looked at. Engaging policymakers ... it's going to be very difficult to get their attention. Ignoring challenges they've got on their table right now is probably not very conducive."

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