By Lee Keath
The Associated Press
CAIRO » Temperatures in the Middle East have risen far faster than the world’s average in the past three decades. Precipitation has been decreasing, and experts predict droughts will come with greater frequency and severity.
The Middle East is one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to the impact of climate change — and already the effects are being seen.
In Iraq, intensified sandstorms repeatedly have smothered cities this year, shutting down commerce and sending thousands to hospitals. Rising soil salinity in Egypt’s Nile Delta is eating away at crucial farmland. In Afghanistan, drought has helped fuel the migration of young people from their villages, searching for jobs. In recent weeks, temperatures in some parts of the region have topped 122 Fahrenheit.
This year’s annual U.N. climate change conference, known as COP27, is being held in Egypt in November, throwing a spotlight on the region.
Governments across the Middle East have awakened to the dangers of climate change, particularly to the damage it is inflicting on their economies.
“We’re literally seeing the effects right in front of us. ... These impacts are not something that will hit us nine or 10 years down the line,” said Lama El Hatow, an environmental climate change consultant who has worked with the World Bank and specializes on the Middle East and North Africa.
“More and more states are starting to understand that it’s necessary” to act, she said.
Egypt, Morocco and other countries in the region have been increasing initiatives for clean energy. But a top priority for them at COP27 is to push for more international funding to help them deal with the dangers they already are facing from climate change.
One reason for the Middle East’s vulnerability is that there is simply no margin to cushion the blow on millions of people as the rise in temperatures accelerates: The region has high temperatures and limited water resources even in normal circumstances.
Middle East governments also have a limited ability to adapt, the International Monetary Fund noted in a report this year.
Economies and infrastructure are weak, and regulations are often unenforced.
Poverty is widespread, making job creation a priority over climate protection. Autocratic governments such as Egypt’s severely restrict civil society, hampering an important tool in engaging the public on environmental and climate issues.
The threats are dire. As the region grows hotter and drier, the United Nations has warned that the Mideast’s crop production could drop 30% by 2025. The region is expected to lose 6%-14% of its GDP by 2050 because of water scarcity, according to the World Bank. In Egypt, precipitation has fallen 22% in the past 30 years, according to the World Bank.
Droughts are expected to become more frequent and severe. The Eastern Mediterranean recently saw its worst drought in 900 years, according to NASA, a heavy blow to countries such as Syria and Lebanon, where agriculture relies on rainfall. Demand for water in Jordan and the Persian Gulf countries is putting unsustainable pressure on underground aquifers.
At the same time, warming waters and air make extreme and often destructive weather events more frequent, including deadly floods that repeatedly have hit Sudan and Afghanistan.
The climate damage has potentially dangerous social repercussions.
Many of those who lose the livelihoods they once made in agriculture or tourism will move to cities in search of jobs, said Karim Elgendy, an associate fellow at Chatham House. That likely will increase urban unemployment, strain social services and could raise social tensions and affect security, said Elgendy, who is also a nonresident scholar with the Middle East Institute.
Adapting infrastructure and economies to weather the damage will be enormously expensive: the equivalent of 3.3% of the region’s GDP every year for the next 10 years, the IMF estimates. The spending needs to go toward projects from creating more efficient water use systems and new agricultural methods to building coastal protections, beefing up social safety nets and improving awareness campaigns.
So one of the top priorities for Mideast and other developing nations at this year’s COP is to press the United States, Europe and other wealthier nations to follow through on longtime promises to provide them with billions in climate financing.