New Scientific Evidence that Middle East may become Uninhabitable

By Baher Kamal | (Inter Press Service) | – –

ROME (IPS) – New evidence is deepening scientific fears, advanced few years ago, that the Middle East and North Africa risk becoming uninhabitable in a few decades, as accessible fresh water has fallen by two-thirds over the past 40 years.

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The water table is falling in Egypt’s desert oases, raising questions of sustainability. Credit: Cam McGrath/IPS

This sharp water scarcity simply not only affects the already precarious provision of drinking water for most of the region’s 22 countries, home to nearly 400 million inhabitants, but also the availability of water for agriculture and food production for a fast growing population.
“Looming water scarcity in the North Africa and Middle East region is a huge challenge requiring an urgent and massive response” – Graziano da Silva.

The new facts are stark: per capita availability of fresh water in the region is now 10 times less than the world average. Moreover, higher temperatures may shorten growing seasons in the region by 18 days and reduce agricultural yields a further 27 per cent to 55 per cent less by the end of this century.

Add to this that the region’s fresh water resources are among the lowest in the world, and are expected to fall over 50 per cent by 2050, according to the United Nations leading agency in the field of food and agriculture.

Moreover, 90 per cent of the total land in the region lies within arid, semi/arid and dry sub/humid areas, while 45 per cent of the total agricultural area is exposed to salinity, soil nutrient depletion and wind water erosion, adds the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Meanwhile, agriculture in the region uses around 85 per cent of the total available freshwater, it reports, adding that over 60 per cent of water resources in the region flows from outside national and regional boundaries.

This alarming situation has prompted FAO’s director general to call for urgent action. On his recent visit to Cairo, Jose Graziano da Silva said that access to water is a “fundamental need for food security, human health and agriculture”, and its looming scarcity in the North Africa and Middle East region is a huge challenge requiring an “urgent and massive response”.

Meantime, the rising sea level in the Nile Delta –which hosts the most fertile lands in Egypt– is exposing the region’s most inhabited country (almost 100 million people) to the danger of losing substantial parts of the most productive agriculture land due to salinisation.

“Competition between water-usage sectors will only intensify in the future between agriculture, energy, industrial production and household needs,” on March 9 warned Graziano da Silva.

FAO’s chief attended in Cairo a high-level meeting on the Rome-based organisation’s collaboration with Egypt on the “1.5 million feddan initiative” {1 feddan is equivalent to 0.42 hectares, or 1.038 acres}, the Egyptian government’s plan to reclaim eventually up to two million hectares of desert land for agricultural and other uses.

What to Do?

Egypt’s future agenda is particularly tough as the country “needs to look seriously into the choice of crops and the patterns of consumption,” Graziano da Silva also warned, pointing to potential water waste in cultivating wheat in the country.

“Urgent actions supporting it include measures aimed at reducing food loss and waste and bolstering the resilience of smallholders and family farmers, that require implementing a mix of social protection interventions, investments and technology transfers.”

Specialty crops such as fruit and vegetables, here on sale at a Cairo market, have a key role in Egypt’s future. Credit: FAO

Specialty crops such as fruit and vegetables, here on sale at a Cairo market, have a key role in Egypt’s future. Credit: FAO
The UN specialised agency leads a Near East and North Africa Water Scarcity Initiative that provides both policy advice and best practice ideas on the governance of irrigation schemes. The Initiative is now backed by a network of more than 30 national and international organisations.

The Big Risk

Several scientific studies about ongoing climate change impact on the Middle East region, particularly in the Gulf area, had already sounded loud warning drums.

“Within this century, parts of the Persian Gulf region could be hit with unprecedented events of deadly heat as a result of climate change, according to a study of high-resolution climate models,” a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) research said.

The research–titled “Persian Gulf could experience deadly heat”, reveals details of a business-as-usual scenario for greenhouse gas emissions, but also shows that curbing emissions could forestall these “deadly temperature extremes.”

The study, which was published in detail ahead of the Paris climate summit in the journal Nature Climate Change, was conducted by Elfatih Eltahir, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT, and Jeremy Pal of Loyola Marymount University.

The authors conclude that conditions in the Persian Gulf region, including its shallow water and intense sun, make it “a specific regional hotspot where climate change, in absence of significant mitigation, is likely to severely impact human habitability in the future.”

Running high-resolution versions of standard climate models, Eltahir and Pal found that many major cities in the region could exceed a tipping point for human survival, even in shaded and well-ventilated spaces. Eltahir says this threshold “has, as far as we know … never been reported for any location on Earth.”

For its part, the IPCC – Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change latest assessment warns that the climate is predicted to become even hotter and drier in most of the Middle East and North of Africa region.

Higher temperatures and reduced precipitation will increase the occurrence of droughts, an effect that is already materializing in the Maghreb,” said the World Bank while citing the IPCC assessment.

4 Responses

  1. “New Scientific Evidence that Middle East may become Uninhabitable” especially if the new POTUS can try out his new nuclear toys on the IS.

  2. Linda K. Brown

    Some one wrote an article about the impact of climate/environmental change on political stability in the Middle East some time ago. What many have failed to realized is that climate change is going to have a similar effect in many parts of the world–not to mention that some island nations and people will be wiped out. No one cars because they are not white and/or not Christian.

    • One report was from the CIA and the US military intelligence.

      The USA intelligence services and the USA military are well aware of the dangers of climate change, but they are unable to convince the people they work for, since the people they work for would have to admit publicly they have lied all these years.

      Basically the political leadership only wants to increase their personal wealth and bail out before the brown stuff hits the fan, except they don’t realize that by the time the brown stuff hits the fan, the rich will have no safe place.

  3. A few important things to remember about this.

    (1) The paper is not “new.” It was received by Nature Climate Change on 30 Sept 2014, published online 26 October 2015, and in the Feb 2016 issue.

    (2) It uses the worst case of the 4 scenarios in the IPCC’s AR5 report: RCP8.5.

    (3) Neither the papers describing RCP8.5 or the IPCC’s AR5 describe RCP8.5 as a “business as usual” scenario. It’s a useful worst case scenario, showing what happens if things go wrong.

    Most importantly, it assumes population growth is faster than current projections assume (e.g., fertility in Africa does not drop, as it as almost everywhere else) and technological progress slows or stop (e.g., it assumes coal is the fuel of the last half of the 21st C, as it was in the last half of the 19thC).

    Both of these are substantial changes from current trends — the opposite of “business as usual.” Experts consider neither of them likely. To name one obvious factor, renewables and natural gas are rapidly replacing coal, whose consumption is declining in every region (with the possible exception of China, whose numbers are unreliable). The cost of solar has reached grid parity in favorable areas, with great potential for more progress. Fusion has begun to attract private venture capital — by smart people who have short time horizons.

    See the paper: “Future temperature in southwest Asia projected to exceed a threshold for human adaptability” by Jeremy S. Pal & Elfatih A. B. Eltahir in Nature Climate Change, Feb 2016.

    Citations available upon request, including links to the paper.

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