Effects of Climate Change on the Middle East

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15th Dec 2017 Environmental Studies Reference this


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The Effects of Climate Change on the Middle East

The Middle East is going to experience a very tough patch in the coming years, with Climate Change threatening basic life, political tensions dividing countries and the economy relying on depleting oil reserves. Of course this is not true for the whole region but mealy a vague overview and this is what this essay aims to look at in more depth.

Global climate change is predicted to have many effects across the face of the earth, some of which can be seen right now. The Middle East is one of the most water scarce places on Earth. A person living in this region only has access to “1,200 cubic meters of water per year, compared with the average of about 7,000 cubic meters worldwide”. As temperatures rise due to anthropogenic climate change, evaporation rates will also rise, leading to reduced output from any surface water storages (reservoirs and rivers). The first effect will be water shortages hitting agriculture as there will be lack of water to feed crops, then ordinary lower class civilians with basic jobs will also feel the impact of water shortages. The result would cause crop failure and lead to starvation as basic local food becomes scarce (Saudi Arabia is nearly self sufficient in wheat but without water crops will be lost). Food prices will rocket as they have to import more to meet the demand. This has already been seen as two recent droughts in Iraq 1999/00 and 2000/01 caused non-irrigated wheat production to decrease by 90%. Exports of agricultural products will cease and over sea revenue will dwindle excluding the oil industry. This will lead to increased poverty across the region. Lack of available jobs and poverty mixed together with food and water scarcity may push people to extreme political groups as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, thus making stable regions ticking time bombs.

The lack of available drinking water would embark on people finding other sources which could distort their health increasing cholera and other water born diseases, as countries in the Middle East do not have well developed sewerage systems outside of main cities and that people relieve themselves where ever possible⁴. This pressure puts immense strain on services such as the health service, but also on the government as citizens will be demanding action, raising political tensions. The government could respond by importing more water at a financial cost but also an environmental one. By importing water you require transport. Pipe lines are expensive and time consuming to build, so short term solutions will include the transportation of water by either lorry or ship, into the country either from Asia or Europe. This method releases even more CO₂ and acts as a positive feedback towards climate change, so is not a suitable method as it leads to even greater water scarcity.

Aquifer sources are already under serious depletion in this region⁸ and as the demand increases it will require more to be abstracted, which means improvements in technology will be made so that more water can be pumped to the surface at a faster rate. However it will have devastating consequences such as subsidence or saline water intrusion which will be just as serious. Subsidence is already occurring in western Saudi Arabia due to over abstraction of groundwaterand that the majority of the water supplies are retrieved from non-renewable water with only a small percentage coming from internally renewable sources. The West Bank and Gaza are in a much more comfortable situation compared to Saudi as they have much more internally renewable water but that does not exempt them from a water crisis. Of Gaza’s available sources of water, only 5-10% is potable due to contamination.

The diagram above shows that the Middle East (especially Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria) has a very high stress for water availability. Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in desalination plants with money from the oil industry but is still struggling to cope with demand. The country is now abstracting from “underground supplies in its east province reducing the agriculture and water availability of Qatar and Bahrain”⁸ and the annual recharge rate is a mere 0-5mm⁵. This climate in Saudi Arabia is predominantly arid and semi arid but temperature extremes can be found at the Najd high Plateau with very hot summers and bitter cold winters. The coastal region experiences a slightly less harsh climate due to the Red Sea. The mean annual rainfall for this region is very worrying already (see diagram below) without the predicted impacts of climate change.

The diagram also highlights that large areas are unable to cultivate crops without heavy irrigation which leads back to the political tensions arising over abstraction of underground water supplies and reduced output of crops. As you can see Turkey and the North West of Iran have much wetter climates but this could all change.

Precipitation is expected to shift in the negative direction around the Middle East as shown in diagram from the IPCC Technical Paper leading to a decline in soil moisture content which increases daytime temperatures⁴. Countries on the northern side, for example Turkey, are expected to bit hit hard due to their reliance on rivers and surface water storages. Turkey’s average annual rainfall fluctuates depending on the area. Coastal regions experience 668mm per year, but central regions can get as low as 382mm per year. Large drops in annual rainfall could cause serious droughts as rivers and surface storages dry up leading to consequences highlighted earlier in this essay. Precipitation extremes will become more frequent due to climate change in this area, which would vastly increase the chances of flooding around the Jordan River as well as leading to serious soil erosion by rain splash. The sheer volume of precipitation will cause channels

Climate Change and Water

and gullies to form, washing the soil and sediments into water bodies. In turn it could reduce potable water even more so due to contamination as synthetic fertilisers and nutrients are washed out of soilsas well as having the effect of increasing turbidity. Predicted increases of runoff in the northern region of the Middle East will not help matters. Eutrophication is a major consequence leading to a decline in aquatic life as the excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous) enter a water body and cause an algae bloom. This blocks sunlight from reaching bottom dwelling photosynthesising organisms which results in them dying. Zooplankton which feed on algae also live and hide amongst the lower photosynthesising organisms so their population will decline rapidly promoting algae growth to increase further (predator prey relationship). The algae have a high turnover rate (high growth and high death rates) and the dead algae are decomposed by respiring organisms which uses the oxygen up. This has been noted in the Keban Dam in eastern Anatolia. Pollutants like those leaked from the oil industry would have detrimental effects on the surrounding plant and wildlife with increased runoff, ultimately leading to decreasing biodiversity and the loss of environmentally sensitive areas along the Red Sea coast line.

Coastal regions are also becoming under immense stress and are extremely vulnerable to increases in sea level. The table taken from The Impact of Sea Level indicates the overall effects of increases in 1m sea level changes across the Middle East and North Africa. A 1m increase would cause 24,000 sq km to be impacted which is a huge amount but the only country to be largely affected by this is Qatar. Around 13% is predicted to be impacted with a 5m increase²². This will cause mass displacement of people, forcing migration of people living close to the coast. Their quality of life will be directly affected as would the standard of living unless governments intervened and relocated them in permanent locations. If not, refugee camps will be a large regional problem.

A Comparative Analysis

5% of UAE’s population will experience the consequences of a 1m rise but 10-15% will be exposed to further increases. Qatar’s GDP will suffer greatly (10%) leading to further money deficit problems, and unable to counter the consequences of climate change and increased sea level²². The country will fall to outside help but whether it receives it is another matter. The population and economy are not the only victims of climate change. Precious wetlands will be lost in the Middle East around coastal countries like Qatar, Kuwait and UAE. With a 1m rise in sea level over 20% of Qatar’s wetlands will be affected which is alarming as they are essential for bird and invertebrate diversity. Populations are very small and are very vulnerable to slight changes.

The red sea is home to a large variety of coral reefs. The increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is not only causing increasing temperatures and sea levels, but also the sea to become more acidic. These three effects are having direct impacts of precious coral reefs around the world. Coral structures are being weakened by carbonic acids reacting with their skeletons due to the acidification of the sea, making them more prone to damage. What is more alarming is corals chose a habitat with a very limited tidal range. With increasing sea levels

There will be catastrophic social and economic consequences due to anthropogenic climate change. The social classes are already distorted in the third world oil exporting countries. The poor do not benefit from the oil revenues directly and it often has the effect of bringing about authoritarian and repressive regimes. Saudi Arabia owns 20% of the world’s oil reserves and is also the main producer of crude oil, with an estimated production of 10.72 million barrels a day. This is a huge over sea revenue generator and without it Middle Eastern countries like Saudi, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates would find it very difficult to develop as huge investments in infrastructure are needed.

With increasing worry about serious climate change, many things are bound to happen in the near future. The first prediction is that MEDCs stop buying oil completely due to worldwide cooperation against climate change (which is extremely unlikely as no main alternative for the transport sector has been fully developed and applied on a large scale⁴ let alone countries committing to such ‘risky’ deals). Alternatively large CO₂ cuts may be sanctioned and oil will fall to this. The UK has agreed to 80% emission cuts by 2050. The hypothetical reason behind this is that as climate change becomes more rooted in politics, more action will be taken. Eventually oil will run out anyway and some governments in the coming century may take the first leap for their countries and find ways to live entirely on renewable resources. This would be devastating for Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates as oil exports are their biggest revenue generator. Saudi Arabia’s economy revolves around oil, “the petroleum sector accounts for roughly 80% of budget revenues, 45% of GDP, and 90% of export earnings. About 40% of GDP comes from the private sector. Roughly 6.4 million foreign workers play an important role in the Saudi economy, particularly in the oil and service sectors”, the countries with their biggest reliance on oil in their economy is highlighted in the diagram above, and out of the top five, four of them are situated in the Middle East with nearly 97% related to oil. If countries stop buying this oil, then the demand will dramatically drop leading to a vast decrease in the price of a barrel of oil (simple supply and demand economics), a decrease in $1 per barrel would lose $3.4billion in revenue. This will lead to decreased public spending on projects like motorways, airports and hospitals, but the whole crude oil industry could be vulnerable to total collapse if a worldwide embargo was set to stop the use of crude oil. Saudi citizens benefit from not paying taxes due to the shear flow of capital from the oil industry but without it, life will become much harder. It would have direct effects on employment; although oil exporting countries are trying to diversify their economy before it is too late, showing that there is a concern over the coming future. As the public spending dwindles, development will start to cease. The infrastructure will not improve as large amounts of revenue needed cannot be found and unemployment rates will sky rocket, even though unemployment rates are the highest in the world already at 13.2%. Standard of life will drop significantly as well as quality of living. This is where the most social consequences will be seen as education will be in jeopardy as will health and well being. If schools cannot be built then children are denied of learning which vastly decreases the chances of a higher skilled job and lowers literacy rates. As road building slows down, trade will be limited as it requires vast networks which are not fully installed in the more rural areas. In result foreign investors will be put off, and agricultural trade will be limited to local markets⁴.

Tourism will be greatly affected by the changing climate, political tensions and rising concerns over food and water security. “The Middle East totalled 46 million international tourist arrivals and continues to be one of the tourism success stories of the decade so far, despite ongoing tensions and threats” in 2007. This is leading to a vast increase in pressure but is also fuelling the diversification of the economy. Hotels are struggling to cope with numbersand the indication of extreme events does not seem to be slowing the average annual growth of 9.3%³⁴. The tourism industry will be ruined by any such event mentioned previously due to the reputation of the area; but does deeply depend on how the governments handle the situations. If the countries in this region act now by carefully managing scare non-renewable water supplies as well as energy usage and keeping cooperation between countries going they stand a good chance of adapting to the effects of anthropogenic climate change. Investing in the local economy would benefit the region as a whole, by providing more jobs and help areas to develop which would otherwise be left on their own to cope with the changes.

In conclusion it is clear that climate change will have enormous effects on this region of the world, ranging from the social distortion from dwindling unemployment rates to the increase in precipitation extremes leading to soil desertification. Economies are diversifying away from the old crude oil industry into new sectors such as tourism; but even those are being put under threat as water availability decreases causing a whole sequence of underlying social and economic problems.

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