Water Scarcity and the Climate Change Multiplier in the Middle East

By: Noureen Ramzy

March 16, 2015

Climate Change, Development, and Catholic Social Thought

The Middle East region faces some of the world’s more persistent and long-term development challenges, and they are not only caused by the political instability and conflict that grabs headlines. As the pace of climate change quickens, the Middle East will experience a brand new host of environmental challenges, with water scarcity topping the list.

It is no secret that the most adverse effects of climate change disproportionately affect developing countries. This pattern, sadly, is likely to continue into the future. The Middle East has the highest levels of water scarcity anywhere in the world, with experts predicting per capita water availability halving by 2050, even without factoring in the effects of climate change. 

The issue of water scarcity poses a specific set of challenges to development in the region. Traditional challenges to development in the region include corruption, weak political will, and lack of reliable data on the region’s most vulnerable groups. With climate change taken into account, there are real concerns about the few projects that are implemented. In short, sustainable and equitable economic development, already elusive globally, becomes especially challenging in the Middle East.   

Food security and forced human migration are two examples of how water scarcity threatens human and economic development in the region. In both cases, knotty problems are exacerbated by climate change and poor governance. First, water scarcity has a direct effect on food prices which are heavily subsidized across the region. Evidence suggests that climate change will produce a spike in food insecurity. The climate change multiplier puts food insecurity at crisis levels in almost every country in the region. Second, with expected rising sea levels in all of the region’s seas—Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea, Black Sea, and the Arabian Sea—forced migration becomes unavoidable. The effects on economic development and on the social fabric are potentially catastrophic.   

The water scarcity and climate change nexus will pose grave additional challenges to a challenged region. A glimmer of hope is that in the Middle East,  peak water scarcity will hit after actors globally have recognized the problem, so technological advances in the field are likely. But, as so often in the past, events in the Middle East will echo globally. The water scarcity-climate change challenge will thus test not just the region but the entire international community.  

This post was originally published on the Global Futures blog.

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