The Middle East is literally becoming uninhabitable

This summer, several picturesque countries in the Middle East have become powder kegs. As extreme temperatures and severe droughts ravaged the region, forests burned down and cities became islands of unbearable heat. In June, Kuwait recorded a temperature of 53.2 degrees Celsius (127.76 degrees Fahrenheit), while Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia all recorded more than 50 degrees (122 degrees). A month later, temperatures in Iraq reached 51.5 degrees (124.7 degrees) and Iran recorded nearly 51 degrees (123.8 degrees).

Worse yet, this is just the start of a trend. The Middle East is warming twice as much as the global average and by 2050 it will be 4 degrees Celsius higher than the 1.5 degree mark scientists have prescribed to save humanity. The World Bank says extreme weather conditions will become common and the region could face four months of scorching sun each year. According to the German Max Planck Institute, many cities in the Middle East could become literally uninhabitable before the turn of the century. And the region, ravaged by war and mired in sectarianism, can be singularly ill-prepared to face the challenges that threaten its collective existence.

As the region is divided between the haves and have-nots, it was the poorer cousins ​​of oil-rich countries who were the first to face social unrest due to the lack of basic amenities, such as than water and electricity, which people desperately need to survive the extreme heat. These countries are ruled by inefficient governments, autocrats or clerics and have dilapidated energy infrastructure and deep-rooted structural deficiencies that block the promotion and technological innovation in renewable energy. Experts say political and economic reforms that strengthen institutions and encourage businesses to think freely are key to reducing carbon emissions and ensuring a transition to clean energy in the Middle East.

Greenhouse gas emissions have more than tripled in the region over the past three decades and have raised concerns among experts that a sharp rise in temperatures on the one hand and a lack of basic services on the other makes the most desperate and dangerous region.

Jos Lelieveld, Middle East and Mediterranean climate expert at the Max Planck Institute, said the Middle East has overtaken the European Union in greenhouse gas emissions even though it is “particularly strongly affected ”by climate change. “In several cities in the Middle East, temperatures have climbed well above 50 degrees Celsius,” Lelieveld said. “If nothing changes, cities could experience temperatures of 60 degrees Celsius in the future, which will be dangerous for those without access to air conditioning.”

Air conditioners have become a luxury even for relatively wealthy people in countries like Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. These countries are plagued by war, Western sanctions or a selfish ruling elite and have witnessed large protests against the lack of basic services as temperatures rise and droughts dry up fields. The scenes of social unrest offered a glimpse into the future of the region which is most strongly feeling the impact of climate change.

In Iraq, the record heat of the past month pushed people onto the streets. They blocked roads, burned tires and in anger surrounded power stations that had to be secured by the armed forces. Ironically, the oil-rich Basra in southern Iraq faces one of the longest blackouts and has been the epicenter of protests in which at least three Iraqis have been killed. According to experts, political instability is the main cause of the electricity crisis in Iraq.

In Lebanon, a similar scenario unfolded this month. The Lebanese are already grappling with a myriad of crises and are frustrated by the inaction of the political elite. As the fuel supply dwindled, scenes of chaos emerged across the country. Some people looted tank trucks, others ransacked power plants, and even more transported guns to gas stations to get ahead of hundreds. Three-hour power outages had been common in Lebanon since the end of the civil war in 1990. But as the economy collapsed in 2019, blackouts grew longer and generators roared louder, roaring. Across the country. On August 12, the central bank lifted fuel subsidies and generators ran dry. The lights went out, and even those in affluent neighborhoods – accustomed to air conditioners – had to contend with the sweltering heat. The local press reported almost daily skirmishes between people at gas stations which required the presence of the Lebanese army to monitor distribution and keep the peace. In one incident, a confiscated fuel tanker exploded and killed nearly 30 people as the Lebanese army distributed gasoline. Doctors said the bodies were charred in unrecognizable ways.

The political class in Lebanon clung to power and refused to initiate reforms to reorganize the heavily subsidized but loss-making electricity sector. Experts say Lebanon has huge potential not only to make the business profitable, but also to deploy those profits to diversify the energy mix and capitalize on a large amount of wind and solar power. A coherent policy would not only provide respite during the warmer months, but also reduce carbon emissions and therefore global warming.

In 2017, Iran recorded the highest official temperature in the region of 54 degrees Celsius (129.2 degrees Fahrenheit) and crossed 50 degrees (122 degrees) last month. But recurring droughts have made the country’s hydropower plants redundant and in turn caused production to drop at a time when demand for electricity is on the rise. In July, various cities in Iran erupted into protests, with some protesters chanting “Death to the Dictator” and “Death to Khamenei”, in reference to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader and most man. mighty power of the country.

In southwest Iran’s Khuzestan province, residents blocked roads and burned tires to protest the water shortage. At least three protesters were reportedly killed by gunfire from state security forces, while human rights activists say the number is higher. Human Rights Watch said that “videos shared on social media show security officials using guns and tear gas and shooting at protesters” and called for an investigation into the deaths.

The droughts between 2006 and 2011 in Syria widened the socio-economic divide between rural and urban areas and were said to have been one of the reasons that led to the Syrian civil war. In Yemen, a protracted war appears to have worsened the water crisis. Yemen’s underground freshwater sources are drying up quickly, leaving the country parched. Its annual per capita share of water is only 120 cubic meters, compared to a global per capita share of 7,500 cubic meters. Before the war, the Yemeni water ministry had imposed conditions on the drilling of wells, but during the conflict it was impossible to monitor. Over the past decade, Yemen has rapidly depleted its already scarce freshwater resources.

Johan Schaar, senior associate researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, says regional cooperation could alleviate the water crisis and reduce the region’s carbon footprint. “Most important in terms of regional cooperation is to agree on the use and management of shared water resources which will become scarcer and more variable due to extreme weather events, both rivers and groundwater. “said Schaar, who has expertise in climate change. . “There are few bilateral cross-border water agreements and no basin-wide agreements for rivers shared by several countries. The Arab League Council of Water Ministers drew up a regional convention on shared water resources a few years ago, but it has never been ratified.

Instead of cooperating on the use of common resources, the region is caught up in conflict. “None of them invested more than marginally in the reduction [greenhouse gas] emissions, ”Schaar said. “In addition, conflicts, instability and sanctions affect their need and capacity to adapt. Conflicts lead to displacement and impoverishment of populations, making them more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Instability reduces resources and policy space for long-term planning and investments needed for adaptation.

The link between climate change and the Arab Spring revolutions and wars is hotly debated. But there are clear and indisputable links between bad governance, mismanagement of the environment, urbanization and urban unrest in communities underserved with water, air conditioning and other amenities. The thought of what will happen in these cities when climate change worsens living conditions, if governance standards remain the same, is frightening. “Climate change and the consequent increase in extreme weather events add to the challenges imposed by regional conflicts, resulting in additional incentives for people to migrate, for example,” said Lelieveld.


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