The United Arab Emirates hosted the first-ever Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Climate Week in Dubai from March 28-31. , public health and the economy. All of these environmental problems reveal problems of environmental and social injustice: while high-income countries have the resources to adapt to change, low-income countries do not. Residents of these countries find themselves almost entirely helpless to save themselves. MENA Climate Week (MENACW) is a space for governments across the MENA region to collaborate on action plans and commit to solving the climate crises in their region.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, stressed the need for regional collaboration on this issue. “Last year, regional collaboration emerged as a driver of global progress,” she said. “This year, discussions on these topics should further accelerate action on climate change.”
MENACW offered this opportunity for governments to learn about climate challenges and discuss actions for climate solutions. The most important objective of the week was to make regional governments aware of the urgency with which they must act on these issues and the value of collaboration.
The MENA region is one of the most vulnerable regions in terms of climate change. According to Al Jazeera, temperatures are expected to reach 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit), creating dangerous living conditions. The region is also threatened by desertification, water scarcity, degradation of marine and coastal ecosystems, air pollution and deteriorating air quality, more heat waves, less rainfall (depending on geography) and greater flooding due to sea level rise and intense storms. (especially in coastal cities).
“We are pushing our planetary boundaries at our peril,” Espinosa said, “and some of those boundaries are at breaking point. It’s time for every person, government, and business to make decisions that reflect and respect those boundaries.
Espinosa highlights a key point: the functioning of our societies, especially in the countries of the MENA region, pushes the borders of the Earth beyond their limits. As a region, the MENA region is one of the biggest emitters of fossil fuels and the world’s largest source of oil and gas, according to the Middle East Institute. Additionally, the European Institute of the Mediterranean reported that agricultural practices in the Near East and North Africa use 85% of the total freshwater available.
This way of life is not ecologically sustainable, and the consequences of its continuation are clear. However, the resulting effects are unevenly distributed across countries by income level. High-income countries like Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Malta have enough resources to adapt to climate change. They can afford housing benefits or additional air conditioners, as well as the cost of importing food. Low-income countries, including Algeria, Morocco, Syria and Yemen, have fewer resources and are suffering.
Rural areas are also highly dependent on environmental resources and as such strongly feel the consequences of climate change. Reduced rainfall hits these regions the hardest. Most crops are rainfed, and without enough water, crop productivity declines. The agricultural sphere may produce less food, provide fewer jobs and impose poorer working conditions as the frequency of heat waves increases. Rural regions are also home to predominantly poor groups of people: 70% of poor people in the MENA region live there, according to the European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMed). This is another reason why poor groups will suffer more from these environmental consequences.
Population growth in the MENA region exacerbates the problem of food insecurity. In 2017, according to the IEMed, the MENA region had the second highest growth rate in the world, at 1.7%. The institute further expects the population to double by 2070. As the supply of food decreases, the demand will increase. MENA countries will be forced to import food, which is risky. If global food prices increase, high-income countries may be able to afford higher food prices, but low-income countries will not be able to receive sufficient amounts of food for their populations.
Water scarcity is another problem exacerbated by a systemically unequal distribution of resources. Government policies dictate which areas receive water when supplies are scarce, but high-income countries have greater influence over government, while low-income areas are often overlooked. As a result, wealthier areas will get more fresh water and low-income groups will be forced to cope with scarce amounts of drinking water. Zena Agha, speaking on “Major Environmental Challenges Facing the Middle East” for the Middle East Institute, cites Israel as an example. In the West Bank, 80% of the aquifers are controlled by Israel, which often diverts water from these settlements. As a result, residents of the West Bank experience high levels of water insecurity.
As environmental impacts expose the social inequalities inherent in current systems, governments in the MENA region will be further destabilized, especially weaker ones.
Countries find it harder to function and grow well while experiencing declining food and water security. Climate change “has a multiplier effect and is an aggravating factor for instability, conflict and terrorism,” Espinosa told Al Jazeera, quoting UN Secretary General António Guterres. The field of agriculture, on the other hand, is essential for economic growth, according to the IEMed, so the aforementioned impacts of climate change on agricultural productivity will slow down the economic growth of these countries. This economic instability could lead to greater political instability, the institute predicts, particularly in Sudan and Syria.
Hopefully, MENACW will raise awareness of the real climate change issues and persuade MENA countries to take concrete action. Espinosa urged representatives from the MENA region to take ambitious action, suggesting examples such as reducing the use of hydrocarbons, increasing the presence of renewable energy in infrastructure and exploring innovative ways to move away from climate destruction.
Concrete change cannot happen overnight, but plans can be put into action. Through collaboration, countries in the MENA region can learn what works in their region and scale that solution. Ideally, this climate week will become an annual event, bringing about real change, advancing climate policies and helping countries in the region to come together to find climate solutions.