Edition 34 Volume 8 - September 03, 2024

Strategic implications of climate change

Water, desertification and weather -   Theodore Karasik and Sabahat Khan

Recent events like the tsunami and Katrina provide glimpses of challenges that states must prepare for.

Water as a weapon - an interview with   Abdel Rahman Tamimi

Some countries are using the water card to pressure other countries.

Conflict ahead -   Aharon Zohar

Countering the consequences demands coordination on a regional level, which is not likely.

Water, desertification and weather
 Theodore Karasik and Sabahat Khan

The strategic implications of climate change in the Middle East focus on a few key issues--fresh water resources, increasing desertification and shifting weather patterns. In the past, these issues were divisive on the regional level. With climate change, their strategic implications become more prominent.

One of the most divisive issues contributing to conflict in the Middle East is water scarcity. Thomas Homer-Dixon, a leading scholar in the field of environmental scarcity, has written that violent conflicts in the developing world will be induced or aggravated by scarcity. Fresh water has become an increasingly scarce resource that may not directly cause intra- and inter-state conflict but can encourage it--particularly in areas where it is a declining resource such as the parched Middle East.

One of the less discussed considerations of the Israel-Palestine conflict has been access to fresh water. Two of the three primary fresh-water aquifers in Israel and Palestine lie under the West Bank: the Eastern Basin and the Northeastern Basin. Israel also shares a coastal aquifer with the Gaza Strip. Israel cannot relinquish control over those aquifers without severely compromising its national security. Clearly, no lasting solution can be found without addressing access to fresh water, but this has been a secondary issue with respect to ongoing negotiations between the two sides.

Among the many maladies plaguing Iraq, the absence of fresh water has assumed new importance given that some of the country's other issues are in the process of being addressed. Iraq's two main sources of fresh water, the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, are drying up. Several years of drought and the construction of dams in upstream Turkey and Syria have exacerbated Iraq's water insecurity. There are five major dams on the Euphrates in Turkey and three in Syria. What is striking is how narrow the Euphrates becomes as it winds through Turkey and Syria into Iraq. This demonstrates the disparity in water distribution. Wheat and barley production in Iraq's north are down 95 percent, and palm and citrus orchards in the country's east face a similar fate.

Iraq remains at the mercy of Turkey and Syria for its fresh water resources. Part of Iraq's problem is that there is no international law that obligates Turkey or Syria to share their water. Even if there were, water is a highly politicized commodity and can only become more so in the future. There seems little doubt that wars will be fought over access to water, while economic nationalism will increase the likelihood that countries with adequate water supplies will use them as political and economic weapons.

The long-term impact of developments around the region is another story. It has been suggested that rising water levels in the Gulf, for example, are a result of global warming, but this effect depends on the extent to which sea level rises outside the Gulf. The Gulf is like a pond--at its deepest it is only 35 meters deep off the UAE's coast--as evidenced by water circulatory patterns. If more water comes into the Gulf from the Indian Ocean via the Strait of Hormuz because of global warming, this may test how resilient ongoing land-reclamation projects are. Even a huge storm, such as Cyclone Gonu in Oman in June 2024, which caused a massive sea swell, might very well put these colossal projects under undue strain. But what may be a bigger problem is a change in rainfall, as Gonu demonstrated when there was considerable damage caused by rain run-off flows over land.

The thick dust clouds that engulfed the region a few weeks ago may be evidence of increased desertification combined with industrial pollution and six years of troop and vehicle movements in and around the region; they were not predicted despite all of the research and analysis conducted to date. Thus health security, as a direct result of climate change, is a strategic problem that will likely raise new challenges. This phenomenon also raises important questions regarding understanding the environment in a broader sense.

Overall, perhaps it is a lack of historical data to make comparisons about the climate over the ages--necessary to gauge what is happening to the global environment today--that makes current projections inevitably dependent on largely unproven models, both scientific and non-scientific. This fact is even more pronounced in the Middle East. The result is ambiguity around understanding core issues related to the environment. Furthermore, because projections often anticipate broad changes forward by as much as a century or a half century ahead, states understandably, though not necessarily rightly, remain focused on the more immediate security challenges confronting them in the short term (around five years ahead) and midterm (around 15 years).

Recent events like the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, however, have provided glimpses of challenges that states must prepare themselves for, not in the long term but rather with immediate effect. These events also showed the acute need for horizontal integration within states to enable efficient and rapid coordination between government and non-government bodies to mobilize resources in support of humanitarian and disaster relief and for rebuilding affected areas in the aftermath. Given the transnational nature of environmental disasters and their broader potential impacts, there is also growing recognition of the need for regional mechanisms that integrate resources vertically among states and enhance regional response capabilities to mitigate impacts across wider areas. These are largely challenges the Middle East has yet to embark on.- Published 3/9/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Theodore Karasik is director of research and development and Sabahat Khan an analyst at INEGMA, Dubai.

Water as a weapon
an interview with  Abdel Rahman Tamimi

BI: How serious a threat is climate change to this region?

Tamimi: There are two clear indicators of climate change in this region. The first is a shift of the rainy season from September-October to November. The second is that we've seen a drop in average precipitation by about ten percent over the past 20 years.

BI: So essentially the biggest issue is water scarcity?

Tamimi: Yes, and this also affects human security and can lead to an increase in conflicts among the different parts of the Mediterranean where overall the capacity to manage water scarcity is becoming less.

The danger arises from several factors. First, there is less accessible water available to all the peoples of the region. Secondly, with population growth there is increased demand for this water. This, combined with changes in standards of living and an increase in tourism to the area, has rapidly increased demand for water to such an extent that the area cannot provide enough to meet these demands.

BI: So there is less water and more people. Are the states of the region aware of these problems and what are they doing to address them?

Tamimi: There are steps taken by individual countries, but there is no collective effort to address climate change or water security. Individual states are taking three steps. First, they are trying to come up with a coping strategy to minimize the damage of climate change. Second, some of the states of the region are effecting a more efficient water management strategy. Finally, there is a shift in reallocation policy, from water being allocated to agriculture to water allocated for human purposes. But all these steps will not make a difference if each country is acting to take the largest slice of the cake.

BI: So it has to be a regional effort?

Tamimi: Yes, but regional efforts on an equal footing, not between rich and powerful countries versus weak countries. I think some countries, like Israel and Turkey, are using the water card to pressure other countries.

BI: So water is being used as a weapon?

Tamimi: Yes, sometimes water scarcity is used to achieve non-water goals or interests.

BI: You mentioned that water was being allocated away from agriculture. But some of the countries of the region are largely agricultural. This must pose a big problem to them?

Tamimi: Yes it does, because reallocating water away from agriculture may endanger food security in some of these states. This will increase conflicts and instability in those countries.

BI: So, in order to really address this, states need a comprehensive socio-economic strategy?

Tamimi: Actually, that is the issue. Water is the entry point for socio-economic development for many countries of the region, especially those, like Palestine, that have a single working sector. In Palestine, agriculture is the single largest working sector, and when you allocate water away from agriculture you threaten the stability of the whole nation.

BI: And this will lead to rising levels of unemployment and poverty?

Tamimi: Yes, which will lead to violence.

BI: Do you also see dangers of large-scale migration?

Tamimi: It's difficult to say, but it's likely. Look at what is happening in Tulkarm and Qalqiliya. Because of the lack of water and the area's reliance on agriculture, there is a scarcity of jobs. Hence, there is migration from these places to Ramallah.

BI: In the Palestine/Israel context, the issue of water is not just about scarcity or management, it's also political.

Tamimi: Of course. Water in the entire Middle East is about politics with a capital P. First it is used as a means to pressure some countries. Second, in the case of Palestine, should it suddenly become rich in water, its economy would no longer be dependent on Israel's. Israel has long pursued a strategy of controlling Palestinian water, that way ensuring a market for its own agricultural products.

BI: So, water is an economic weapon as well?

Tamimi: Yes it is. And if you take projects like the Red-Dead Canal, the intention behind this is to integrate the Israeli economy into the regional economy.

BI: But isn't that necessary in order to reach an integrated regional approach to managing water scarcity?

Tamimi: There is a need for an integrated approach, but what we are witnessing is not such an approach, but simply an acknowledgment that Israel will be a water superpower.

BI: Do you think political conflicts in the region can be solved without reference to water?

Tamimi: No. The water issue is completely political. Take the Jordan River. The Jordan River should be a future political border for the Palestinian state. But it's a water resource, and if there is no solution to the political border issue then there is no formal solution to the issue of access to the water of the Jordan.

Take Jerusalem. Until the legal status of Jerusalem is solved, there is no way for the Palestinian side to provide water for Palestinians in Jerusalem. The return of refugees will cause further water shortage. These are all political issues that, lacking resolution, will hamper efforts to manage water. The issue of water is inextricably interconnected with every single final status issue.- Published 3/9/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Abdel Rahman Tamimi is the director of the Palestinian Hydrology Group for Water and Environment Resources Development.

Conflict ahead
 Aharon Zohar

Climate change adds yet another element of uncertainty to the demographic, economic and technological changes that affect the availability of water in the Middle East. In this regard, there can be no doubt about the destructive ramifications of global warming. The facts speak for themselves: 11 of the last 12 years were the hottest in the region since global temperature monitoring began in 1850; large areas have turned arid, with critical damage to ecological systems, and droughts have become longer and harder.

The Middle East is characterized by one of the lowest rates of water availability in the world. Water demand is growing while supply is decreasing. One cause of dropping supply is deterioration of water quality as a consequence of a variety of human activities. Even in Lebanon, which is known for abundant water, resources have been reduced significantly.

Reduced water supplies for agriculture and higher water prices are causing an appreciable reduction in agricultural output and rising food prices. In view of the rapid growth of the Middle East population, this poses the specter of widespread famine.

Rising sea levels are causing growing salinity in aquifers like the Israel-Gaza Strip Coastal Aquifer, along with damage to marine and tourism infrastructure. In Egypt, it is estimated that around one-fifth of the agricultural lands in the Nile Delta will be flooded, along with economic and population centers, thereby rendering some four million Egyptians homeless and unemployed.

Climate change threatens the health of millions by increasing the ranks of the undernourished, disseminating disease and through the effect of heat waves (in 2024, 20,000 died in Europe due to a heat wave). Rising temperatures cause the emergence of new pests or reemergence of known pests and diseases like malaria and cholera.

Global warming is likely to exacerbate security problems in the Middle East and affect stability. Internal weakening and the spread of domestic conflicts, e.g., between urban and rural populations, are more likely than inter-state conflicts, though the latter would focus on scarce energy and water resources. Even military conflicts in the region that do not focus on energy and water could exacerbate the situation by reducing time available to prepare for the absence of these strategic assets and to combat global warming. Energy is critical in this regard as a necessary resource for desalinating water and, as temperatures rise, due to growing demand for air conditioning.

These issues will affect stability mainly in countries and societies that are already destabilized due to ethno-religious conflict, weak economies and environmental decline. One expression of this could be violence between countries rich in water and energy resources and those without, particularly where they share drainage basins of international rivers: Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt over the Nile; Turkey, Syria and Iraq over the Euphrates; and Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel over the Jordan and its tributaries. Another instance could involve internal destabilization of moderate states like Egypt and Jordan due to water shortages. Yet another touches on migration from areas where water resources have been exhausted, such as Darfur, which constitutes a large-scale example of the devastation involved.

Readiness to counter the consequences of global warming in the Middle East demands coordination and problem-solving on a broad regional level. Yet in view of the hostility and tension that characterize regional inter-state relations, this option appears less likely than specific ad-hoc cooperation between specific countries.

A number of parallel actions must be invoked to deal with extreme scenarios. These include transport of water from water-rich to water-poor regions, protection of water resources from salination and contamination, expanding waste-water treatment, expanding desalination of brackish and sea water using renewable energy resources where possible, and enlarging existing reservoirs for storm runoff and setting aside land for future reservoirs.

With specific regard to agriculture, parallel actions should include development of drought- and salinity-resistant varieties, consideration of climate change when developing marginal farmland, preparations for combating new pests and diseases, development of more efficient irrigation systems, and improvement of soil conservation and seed-cycle systems. At a broader level, new improvements should be adopted for protecting the environment against damages caused by desertification, changes in the ecological balance, rising of sea levels and erosion of coastlines.

To sum up, unless the countries of the Middle East cooperate to deal with dwindling resources caused by global warming, the area is liable to experience inter- and intra-state conflict related directly to this phenomenon.- Published 3/9/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Aharon Zohar specializes in integrated regional and environmental planning and water- and energy-related issues.

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