The MENA Region Is Headed for More Insecurity Due to Climate Change. Can This Be Mitigated?

Iraqis displaced by conflict collect water at al-Takia refugee camp in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, July 30, 2015. Scorching temperatures are normal for that time of year, but an unprecedented heat wave prompted Iraqi authorities to declare a mandatory four-day holiday beginning Thursday. (AP Photo/ Khalid Mohammed)

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, home to widely diverse cultures and a population of  about 500 million, is highly exposed to the impacts of climate change. While high temperatures are common there, nearly half of the population could be annually exposed to anomalous super and ultra-extreme heatwaves—up to 56 °C and higher during several weeks—by the end of the century. Recent climate science predicts an average temperature increase of up to 4 °C by 2050 for the region in a business-as-usual scenario. The region has also undergone rapid environmental degradation during the past few decades. Over 82 percent of its terrain is desert, and rising temperatures are poised to accelerate desertification rates in dry-land areas.

It is also the the world’s most water-scarce region, and is home to 13 of the 20 most water-stressed countries. Water rationing and the restriction of water supplies have become a stark reality in parts of Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, and Jordan. It is estimated that up to 17.8 million people lack access to safe water and adequate sanitation services in Yemen.

MENA countries with low adaptive capacity find themselves particularly vulnerable to climate change’s adverse effects. At the same time, violent conflicts have erupted in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Turkey, and most recently in Gaza, fundamentally weakening their capacities and even threatening their integrity. These conflict-affected areas face additional challenges in effectively mitigating climate risks. This challenge is not only due to the lack of climate financing but also the impact of political repression and violence on undermining people’s agency and depleting resources necessary for climate adaptation.

Addressing climate-related security risks is crucial for advancing peace and human security in the MENA region, a task that should also consider the environment of peace. With a comprehensive security approach, climate security encompasses human, societal, state and international security and insecurity from climate change. Such an approach allows consideration of various dimensions of security that are relevant for multifaceted risks derived from climate change.

The first step toward achieving climate security hinges on understanding the complex linkages between climate change and violent conflict. We fully acknowledge that violent conflict is one of many forms of climate insecurity manifested in societies. Violent conflict poses a direct threat to security at various scales, and reducing the risk of violence is a policy priority. This relationship is neither simple nor generalizable; it is highly context-dependent. Factors such as when, where, by and for whom, and how climate change leads to social outcomes associated with violent conflicts play a pivotal role in shaping this connection.

In a paper recently published in International Studies Review, we conducted a systematic review of 41 peer-reviewed publications, assessing the evidence linking climate change and violent conflict in the MENA region. Our aim was to connect existing evidence to comprehend the climate-conflict pathways as a larger phenomenon. The following is what we found.

How Government Decisions Impact Resilience

The relationship between climate change and violent conflict is primarily indirect and varied, cautioning against generalized assumptions. Weather shocks and droughts are not the main driver of violence either at the community or national levels, but they can contribute to instability in a larger context. Existing political grievances and social tensions also contribute to escalating conflict risk in the region amid weather shocks.

The impact of climate shocks on livelihoods is often mediated or exacerbated by water governance decisions and a lack of enforcement mechanisms. This means that climate change may not be the main driver of livelihood deterioration, rather a contributing factor. Insufficient natural resource governance policies and corruption have been the primary sources of vulnerability within the region’s livelihood systems, which rely on land and water.

A significant example is the 2007-8 drought in the Levant. Despite being affected by similar rainfall deficits during this period, farmers in northern Syria generally experienced far worse consequences in productivity compared to northwest Iraq and southeast Turkey. During the 1990s and 2000s, Turkey invested substantially in water infrastructure and implemented policies for better water management. This seems to have reduced farmers’ vulnerability to droughts in Turkey by providing extra water storage. Some argued that these upstream dams on the Euphrates and Tigris River in Turkey significantly contributed to the drought conditions in downstream Syria, which has been refuted by others. If the downstream countries—Syria, Iraq, and Iran—see their domestic water problems as caused by the upstream dams in Turkey, transboundary rivers can be a source of inter-state tension—although it is unlikely to develop into a full-scale armed conflict.

Meanwhile, the Syrian regime’s agricultural expansion scheme, unsustainable groundwater use, and ill-advised economic policy have exacerbated the population’s drought vulnerability by depleting groundwater resources. Agricultural expansion schemes in Syria led to an unsustainable growth in the irrigated area from 650,000 ha in 1985 to 1.4 million in 2005. In the expansion policy, groundwater limitations were not fully considered, and Syria found itself facing a multi-year drought without groundwater. Similar observations have been made in Yemen, with unsustainable groundwater use a major contributor to the increased vulnerability of farmers.

Life Circumstances, Gender, Social Groups All Affect Vulnerability

People experience climate impacts differently, and certain factors can increase vulnerability. Structural gender inequality restricts women’s economic opportunities and wealth accumulation in rural communities in Syria, and gendered labor division put extra burden on women under climate stress in Iran. Vulnerability to climate change varies between communities and countries, and intersectional identities of the affected people influence their adaptive capacity. The findings on differing vulnerability and gendered impacts on livelihoods are based on a handful of studies, and this calls for intersectional approaches in future research to advance our understanding of the gendered impacts of climate change in the MENA region.

State resource allocation policies prior to climate-induced disasters shape different social groups’ vulnerability to climate change. For instance, in the northern Negev region in Israel, the state’s land appropriation disproportionately affected agri-pastoralist Bedouin tribes during the early 1900s, leading to higher vulnerability during droughts later on. A similar pattern is found in Hasakah in northern Syria, where the state turned open range lands into farmlands, depriving pastoralists of their livelihoods.

Migration Causes: Political Instability, Not Climate (Yet?)

There is limited evidence showing climate change is currently a major push factor for migration. This is one of the main flashpoints in the much-debated Syrian civil war case. Debunking this once popular narrative has involved a series of empirical studies on migration demonstrating that the displacement due to the 2007-8 drought did not interact with urban uprising in key areas.

Climate shocks and precipitation deficits are so far not linked to the out-migration from the MENA region to Europe. Political instability and violence, on the other hand, seem to have a direct impact on the refugee flow from the region. Migration is a complex phenomenon and extremely dynamic, thus we cannot predict the future migration patterns from or within the MENA region solely based on the observations from the past.

There are several risk factors that indicate the increase of migration flows due to climate change is a possibility. However, this should not be a reason to securitize climate-induced migration from the MENA region, or view it as an inevitable threat. Such framing has shaped the narrative of migration politics within the European Union and led to discriminatory immigration policies.

Navigating Tenuous Stability and Vulnerability

Many countries in the MENA region are ill-prepared to adapt to the changing climate. Their adaptive capacity varies, depending (mostly) on hydrocarbon wealth. Adaptation policies undertaken by Gulf countries involve resource-intensive methods such as desalination, missing substantial considerations on sustainability and resource conservation. Nevertheless, many other countries, frequently characterized as fragile and conflict-affected, exhibit low adaptative capacity scores, primarily due to insufficient financial resources and the absence of water conservation enforcement or policies. Agricultural policies, frequently in form of rain-fed crops, have not sufficiently addressed the vulnerability to climate change, and in many cases contributed to further water scarcity, as is the case with qat production in Yemen.

Growing water scarcity amid climate change has become an incentivizing factor for state and non-state armed actors to use water to incur damage to the local population and to gain legitimacy and control in contested territories. Attacks on water pipes, sanitation and desalination plants, water treatment, pumping and distribution facilities, and dams have frequently occurred in armed conflicts in the MENA region. Climate-related factors seem to have been considered by armed groups and influenced their strategic wartime decisions on when and where they would deploy violence. Changing conflict dynamics due to climate change may further exacerbate the humanitarian consequences of violent conflict and hamper conflict resolution.

As many MENA countries are dependent on food imports, the reduced agriculture yields due to climate change can be potentially destabilizing. Higher levels of imported grain dependency not only exacerbate the vulnerability to global food price volatility, but also heighten the region’s susceptibility to external economic shocks, posing significant challenges to food security and overall political stability. The cases of Egypt and Lebanon during the Arab Spring stand as prime examples of this dynamic.

Way Forward: Nuanced and Evidence-based Interventions 

How we talk about climate change matters for not only our understanding but also our search for the way forward. Marwa Daoudy and colleagues pointed out that the narrative about climate change and violent conflict in the MENA region is shaped by both scientific inputs and a “long history of colonial and postcolonial scholarship invoking environmental determinism as an explanation for underdevelopment.” This underscores the need for more open and critical approaches to researching the climate-conflict nexus in the region. An enhanced and nuanced understanding can empower relevant stakeholders to more effectively anticipate, prevent, and respond to the intricate web of risks entwining climate change and violent conflict, while simultaneously bolstering resilience-building efforts.

States in the MENA region bear much of the responsibility for reducing the risk of climate change for peace and security. Evidence-based climate change adaptation policies and programming are much needed in the region. Discriminatory policies and unequal aid distribution amid climate-related disasters can increase tensions and grievances. Conversely, active state intervention during climate disasters can play a positive role in reducing the risk of conflict amid climate-related natural disasters. Investing in enhancing climate adaptation capacity is crucial for the region, as it not only enhances the governance of critical natural resources, such as water, but also serves—given its intricate link to other complex challenges—as a peacebuilding effort for building further trust and resilience.

As climate change becomes a more politically salient topic, there will be more interest in the integration of climate adaptation and mitigation strategies as a fundamental approach to enhance the resilience of vulnerable countries. Local communities hold valuable traditional knowledge, practices and insights into their specific challenges related to climate impacts. Communal institutions can be utilized for planning and implementing transformative adaptation for changing climate, for instance by consolidating local governance arrangements. Collaboration with local communities and stakeholders remains essential for development of effective policies, ultimately improving the prospects of peace, political stability and climate resilient development.  

Kyungmee Kim is a researcher at Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s Climate Change and Risk program. Tània Ferré Garcia is a consultant in the field of climate security and project assistant at Escade’s Center for Public Governance.