Middle East is finally grappling with the climate challenge

As temperatures rose to record levels in hot, parched regions of the Middle East and North Africa this summer, the United Nations issued a call for urgent action to safeguard the livelihoods of millions in the Arab states facing extreme risk from climate change.

In July, the same month the United Nations Development Programme sounded that dire warning in a 90-page report on climate change adaptation in the region, an Algerian weather station in the Sahara desert registered 51.3 C, the highest ever officially recorded in Africa.

Meanwhile in June, in Oman’s coastal town of Quriyat, the mercury only fell overnight as far as 42.6 C, the highest one-day low, if you see what I mean, anywhere in the world.

Higher temperatures will cause greater evaporation, putting even greater pressure on the region’s already chronically poor water supply. This year saw a drought in Israel enter its fifth year, and in Iraq a lack of water led the government to ban farmers from planting summer crops.

“Sustainable environmental management can be considered the region’s most serious long-term development challenge,” according to the UNDP. “There has been little investment in maximizing the contribution of the region’s scarce water towards increasing agricultural productivity.”

There are nevertheless examples, some cited in the report, of regional governments starting to take action in co-operation with international donor organisations, the 22-member Arab League and the private sector.

Initiatives include large-scale projects involving desalination and waste water recovery. Less than 20 per cent of the region’s waste water is currently reused. Jordan and Egypt are among countries that have established public-private partnerships to tackle that challenge. But private investors have been reluctant to become involved in the water sector in part because of the low water tariffs that prevail in much of the region.

That too is changing. Since cheap water tends to encourage waste, states in the Gulf Cooperation Council are among those cutting water subsidies reduce consumption and boost funds for water-related investment.

A regional trend towards adoption of solar power technology is also linked to the water issue. Alternative energy sources can be used for desalination and groundwater recovery; they also radically reduce the volume of water needed for traditional fossil fuel power generation. In the UAE, there has been a series of recommendations from the energy ministry and the Emirates Wildlife Society to decouple power generation and water desalination by setting up water production plants powered by renewable energy.

Elsewhere, Morocco is completing work on a vast World Bank-funded solar plant the size of 200 football fields in its southern desert and similar solar projects are under way in Jordan, Dubai and Saudi Arabia.

Aside from such large-scale projects, the region’s international partners, including the UN, are urging governments to back smaller-scale initiatives among agricultural communities in a “bottom-up” approach to tackling climate change.

That involves providing localised technical support and even microfinance to poor farmers to allow them to adopt relatively low-cost technologies to counter the effects of dwindling water supplies. In isolated rural communities, donors have provided small-scale solar projects to help farmers pump groundwater.

Things really are starting to move, although progress may still be stymied by other challenges in the Middle East, including political unrest. The two issues are as ever connected: unrest in Syria is in part down to the prolonged drought that forced country people into the cities and put pressure on urban resources. The Yemen civil war also has water insecurity among its components. The UN has warned that Yemen might become the first Arab country to actually run out of water if urgent action is not taken.

There is a long way to go, but the boiling summer does at least seem to have focused some minds on the problems at hand.