Climate change affects the Middle East: Water is growing scarce, making agriculture impossible in many places, and entire areas are becoming uninhabitable. The consequences are rural exodus and a growing risk of violent conflict. This, in turn, accelerates climate change. We take a look at three places where this vicious circle is palpable – and outline solutions.
The City Mall in the Jordanian capital of Amman is a shopping center like any other around the world: Brand-name stores and fast-food restaurants, air conditioning and artificial lighting. But in summer, the area is not only home to shopping enthusiasts with big bags, but also to people with scythes and sickles. In the western suburbs of Amman, the agricultural collective Al-Barakeh Wheat has been growing wheat on urban fallow land since 2019. Hundreds of people have already learned how to sow, harvest, and process wheat here; and many families can now secure their supply of flour for an entire year.
Grain cultivation was invented in this region, the Fertile Crescent between the Levant and southern Iraq. As recently as the 1960s, Jordan was exporting wheat all over the world; today, the country imports over 90 percent of its grain and therefore suffers from global price increases and conflicts, such as the war against Ukraine. The situation is similar in neighboring countries. According to the World Food Programme, the price of wheat jumped by nearly 50 percent in Lebanon in spring 2022. "Nowadays, there are always protests against inflation and arguments in waiting queues," says Sarine Karajerjian, head of environmental policy at the Arab Reform Initiative think tank. "People in our region are unfortunately used to conflict and unrest, and that's likely to continue in the coming years."
Rising temperatures have been shown to have a negative impact on wheat production. According to the “Arab Climate Futures” report by the European Union Institute for Security Studies think tank, eight percent of all farmland in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria will be lost in the coming years. Climate change is causing food production to decline and prices to rise. Already, 53 percent of Jordanians are threatened by food insecurity – a figure that is even higher in countries like Yemen that are suffering from war and violence. 80 percent of the Yemeni population is currently dependent on aid. As a result, millions of people could migrate within the region – and some of them possibly to Europe.
In Sarine Karajerjian’s view, the solution lies not only in international aid or compensation payments from the Climate Fund for Loss and Damage that was announced at the World Climate Conference in November 2022. For her, improving the region's food sovereignty is key. For that, she says, a fundamental shift in thinking is needed – in addition to agricultural reforms, such as government subsidies, or technologies, such as more efficient irrigation systems. "When I drive through Lebanon," she tells us, "I see many plantations where the harvests are only destined for European supermarkets." Many people in the MENA region wonder why they have so many resources and yet are so poor.
So one solution could be exports "from the Global South to the Global South", Sarine Karajerjian says. And that applies not only to the trade in resources, but also to ideas, she adds: "We live far too much in our regional silos and don't learn from each other about agriculture or water management."
Cities are the final refuge for many people, which is precisely why they end up being trapped there. In 2021, there were a million internally displaced persons in Iraq, which is home to around 41 million people. The fighting with the Islamic State was largely over, but there was still no peace for the people. "Climate change is the main driver of rural flight and intercommunity tensions in Iraq today," says Shivan Fazil, who works at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and studies, among other things, the causes of violence in the MENA region. The reasons why people flee can be precisely named: Lack of water, desertification, sandstorms, death of livestock, crop failure. The region around Basra in the southeast of the country is the hardest hit. "It's always the same pattern," Shivan Fazil explains. "For years, crop yields go down. At a certain point, the stress among the population is so great that disputes break out over the remaining scarce resources." Old tribal rivalries flare up again and a silent civil war continues, unnoticed by the wider world. People are fleeing, and there is only one destination for them – cities.
In the years between 2010 and 2020, Baghdad's population grew by 1.4 million to a current 7.5 million. Mosul and Basra display similar dynamics. "This growth is almost exclusively horizontal," Shivan Fazil says. The cities are sprawling into the surrounding countryside. How much, no one can say, since most of the expansion is poorly planned without access to adequate municipal services. "Authorities simply cannot keep up with building the required infrastructure," he says. This means that most of these settlements have neither roads nor sewage systems. At the same time, competition for jobs in the informal economy is rife, as people can only earn money illegally on the black market. "Every year, about a million jobseekers enter the labor market," he adds. "Only a fraction of them find regular employment. And all those who don't have contacts have no chance of getting a job."
People are fleeing into the cities to escape the effects of climate change. But even there, the conditions are hostile. "When temperatures exceed 50°, you can't leave the house," he explains. But at the same time, people need to get out to fend for themselves. The to-do list for urban planners and governments is correspondingly long. "Houses need to be insulated so they remain habitable in the heat and cold without using enormous amounts of energy," he points out. "We need roads, sewers, and water and electricity networks. Governments must at long last build mass public transportation networks."
In 2008, 98 percent of the Syrian population still had safe and reliable access to drinking water. By 2021, after long years of drought and violence, it was only 50 percent, says the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. A functioning water tap went from being a mundane everyday object to one essential for survival. And access to water, according to U.S. political scientist Marcus D. King, has become a strategic and tactical weapon that parties in conflict use to fight each other or force their opponents into capitulating.
In the Syrian civil war, Marcus D. King and other researchers documented a total of 44 "major examples of the use of water as a weapon" between 2012 and 2016. In more than 50 percent of the cases, the Islamic State terrorist organization was responsible – either indirectly when IS levied a water tax in Rakka to buy new weapons, or directly when a dam was opened to halt the progress of opposing forces.
12 of the 17 states most at risk of water shortages are in the MENA region. Although water is rarely openly used as a weapon outside of war zones such as Syria or Yemen, states in the region do compete for what is known as "hydro-hegemony”. In 2018, for example, Turkey commissioned the Ilisu Dam, which impounds the Tigris River at its headwaters. This reservoir stores more than a billion cubic meters of water and the effects are being felt in regions downstream. The National, a news portal, reported that a farmer in northern Iraq who was cultivating 125 hectares of fertile land in the fall of 2021 was only able to harvest 47 hectares about half a year later due to lack of water.
Similar distribution struggles exist between Ethiopia and Egypt. As water becomes a scarce commodity, covetousness grows. Dam projects at the headwaters of rivers cannot be prevented by neighboring nations. At the same time, increasing dam construction is both a cause and a consequence of water scarcity. In addition, the entire region is becoming drier year after year due to climate change. In the 1970s, the Tigris was still transporting around 80 billion cubic meters of water a year; today, it is less than 50 billion. Regions where agriculture is no longer possible are turning into unused wasteland. And in cities, drought leads to violence. The peace research institute SIPRI discovered that virtually all the riots in Iraqi cities in 2020 and 2021 were directly related to water stress.
That's why, as Shivan Fazil says, more efficient water management is the most important starting point for mitigating or, in the best case, avoiding conflicts. "For this, you need a smart system in which several measures interlock," he explains. For example, agriculture, which consumes much of Iraq's water, should resort to gray water – but not toxically contaminated water – for irrigation. At the same time, he says, there is a need for smart irrigation systems and the use of more drought-resistant, water efficient crop varieties. "We have to adapt to the conditions of climate change," he points out. "Business as usual is no longer an option."