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Climate Change: Challenge of Tomorrow, Solution for Today

by Najib Saab, issue 138, September 2009


Is it true that combating climate change hampers efforts to tackle pressing issues in the Arab world such as poverty, hunger, water scarcity and pollution? Some people bring this question up for debate, based on the assumption that the issue of climate change is a form of luxury that developing countries, including Arab states, do not have the capacity nor the resources to deal with. Moreover, some claim that combating climate change is a conspiracy against the development and modernization of such countries.

What facts reveal is just the opposite. If the efforts of developed countries in combating climate change are considered as a long term investment, the benefits to be reaped by the Arab world are instant. Developed countries do not currently face urgent problems in freshwater supplies and food production. Most of them have adopted efficient measures for water management, air and soil pollution. As for Arab countries, all those problems are considered as existing challenges they face today. However, their impacts can be reduced by measures to combat climate change, which can make participation in global action in this regard a win-win situation.

Scientific evidence confirms that the major impacts of climate change would be in the increase of drought and reduction in freshwater supplies. The Arab countries are located within the areas most affected. Regardless of climate change, the Arab world is currently in a state of acute water poverty that will reach the state of acute scarcity by 2025. A report published last year in Japan has warned that what is known as the Fertile Crescent will lose any traces of fertility before the end of the century, with the deterioration of water supply from the Euphrates and the Tigris. Man-made problems, mainly the widespread construction of dams and unsustainable irrigation practices, coupled with the creeping effects of climate change, are accelerating deterioration. If this is the case of the Fertile Crescent, how will be the situation in the already arid Arab countries? Water management is therefore an urgent issue, including the need to improve efficiency, implementation of sustainable practices and the development of new resources.

It will suffice to recall that 80% of freshwater resources in the Arab world are used for irrigation, mostly by old methods that cause the wastage of more than half of that amount, and that the water consumption per capita in some countries which depend on desalination is above all international rates. This is in addition to water that is wasted to the sea in a country like Lebanon, one of the very few Arab countries rich with water resources, albeit wasted. About half of the total agricultural land in the Arab world has deteriorated in the past few decades and the continuation of this trend, with or without climate change, will exacerbate the pressures on food production in the region.

Air quality in Arab cities is rapidly deteriorating, as pollution levels reach up to six times the accepted limits, with all associated health and environmental consequences. The World Bank has estimated the cost of health problems resulting from air pollution from the transport sector alone in Arab countries to exceed US$5 billion annually, notwithstanding air pollution from industry and electricity generation. Although greenhouse gases that cause global warming, mainly carbon dioxide, do not cause immediate health threats for humans, the reduction of their emissions will simultaneously result in the reduction of other emissions that cause direct health hazards. Regardless of climate change, Arab countries are obliged to adopt programmes for enhancing the efficiency of conventional energy and opening up to the era of renewable energy, mainly from the sun.

As 43 countries, that were driven by nature and human development factors to be built on small islands, have established The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) to defend their common interests in the face of climate change, we see artificial islands being built in some of the countries in the region and others being planned. Is the aim here to increase the number of members of the AOSIS coalition states, that will be the first to be swallowed by the rising sea level due to their small size and low elevation? Haven't those behind such projects heard that the President of the Maldives is establishing an emergency fund to buy new land to move his country's population?

The climate is definitely changing. Mitigation and adaptation measures are not necessarily obstacles, but can rather be turned into opportunities. They carry direct benefits to Arab countries, from programmes to manage scarce natural resources and develop renewable energy, to the integrated management of coastal areas and the prevention of air and water pollution and, including efficient use of water and energy and sustainable food production.

While the developed world stands today against climate change because it is wary of its future impact, Arab countries can reap immediate benefits. The fight against climate change will help Arabs solve current challenges, including poverty, water and food scarcity and pollution.

The annual assembly of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED), which convenes in Beirut next November, will debate a comprehensive report that attempts to highlight the impact of climate change on Arab countries and suggest mitigation and adaptation measures. It will try to prove that fighting the challenges of tomorrow will also help alleviate immediate threats of today.


Arab Environment in 10 Years
ARAB ENVIRONMENT IN 10 YEARS crowns a decade of the series of annual reports produced by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) on the state of Arab environment. It tracks and analyzes changes focusing on policies and governance, including level of response and engagement in international environmental treaties. It also highlights developments in six selected priority areas, namely water, energy, air, food, green economy and environmental scientific research.
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