Climate Change and Civil War: How the Middle East (and the MENA region) is Really Impacted by the Changing Climate

Climate Change and Civil War: How the Middle East (and the MENA region) is Really Impacted by the Changing Climate

     Conventional familiarity with the Middle East comes as a result of apparent violence, civil unrest, dysfunctional governments and the overall appearance of instability, but what many fail to consider when imagining the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region is how drastically it is affected by climate change.  Though most understand that  climate change is a global issue, it’s staggering to realize that the climate crisis is complicit in not only worsening national conflicts, but even catalyzing regional problems.  


     The MENA climate is known for its heat, dryness, water scarcity and arid feel.  It’s no secret that this region of the world has been hit hard by climate change and warming global temperatures, but what makes this warming even more catastrophic is the fact that the Middle East is not a temperate region.  In most other regions of the world, the warming effect can counteract itself, bringing greater evaporation which leads to more rainfall and thus more opportunities for remoisturizing soil, and the earth cooling back down.  However, the MENA region lacks in sufficient cloud cover for this phenomenon to functions as it does in other parts of the globe, meaning there is less opportunity to successfully grow vegetation and greenery, less soil moisture, and lower-than-average rainfall, leaving the entire region vulnerable to some of the worst consequences of climate change.

     The Middle East has been sinking below the water poverty line, as established by the United Nations.  Rainfall across the region is even calculated to decline by 20% to 40% in a global climate increasing by 2 degrees C, and up to 60% with temperature increases of 4 degrees C.  This will mean that the region will not be able to supply its population with sustainable amounts of potable, and even non-potable, water, leaving the poorest parts of the region virtually inhabitable in the near future.  It’s also predicted that “… by 2050 [less than 30 years away], 80 to 90 million people will be exposed to water stress”.  According to the “Turn Down the Heat: Confronting the New Climate Normal” report by the World Bank, the most important water sources of the MENA region, notably the Tigris, Euphrates and Jordan rivers are experiencing increasing evaporation, leading to a 30% decline of crop yields in countries including Egypt, Jordan and Libya.  It’s agricultural production being nearly 70% reliant on rainfall, the Middle East is extremely sensitive to temperature fluctuations and changes in precipitation, which are directly worsening due to climate change.  Sea-level rise, also directly correlated with warming global temperatures, is gradually eroding vital riverbanks and deltas, and is hastily drowning some of the region’s richest agricultural lands: though rising waters may sound like a positive effect, salt water intrusion does little good for soil and growing initiatives.  With over 35% of the MENA population employed in agriculture, which as an industry provides nearly 13% of the region’s GDP (compared to the 3.2% global average), both the lack of water and rising sea levels will soon become irreversibly detrimental to the Middle East’s ability to sustain enough agricultural yields to support an increasingly desperate and growing population.  

     Most of the Western world also associates the Middle East with violence, terrorism and corrupt government systems, which is often blamed on Middle Easterners themselves instead of their unfortunate geological location; there is in fact a parallel between the region’s seemingly chronic unrest and its position on the globe.  The gradual increase in regional droughts has been linked to the Syrian civil war.  As explained by Johannes Lelieveld,  professor at the University of Mainz, member of the Max Planck Society and director of the Atmospheric Chemistry Department at the Max Planck Institute of Chemistry, “…we have seen an example in Syria, where the rural population could not cope with the extended drought period since the end of the 1990s. By suppressing the protests and the demands for help in 2011, combined with the so-called “Arab spring”, the violence escalated”.  Furthermore, extreme climate-oriented migration, specifically in Iraq and Syria, has heavily influenced the movement and expansion of the infamous ISIS terrorist coalition.  The group has been able to leverage the devastating effects of climate change by taking control of dams which provide swaths of the region with clean drinking water, irrigation, and electricity to millions of dependents along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  This has quickly grown into a lucrative recruitment tactic, as many thousands of desperate and already water-starved Iraqis and Syrians have had to choose between alliance with ISIS or life without water.  Some ISIS recruitment teams even dangle offers of food, money and other necessities in front of those most effected by the loss of clean water and usable land, blackmailing innocent farmers and rural agricultures into the ranks of the jihadist organization.  Fighting over basic necessities such as clean water and food has also increased overall civilian violence across the Middle East.  As climate change increasingly limits access to essential resources, and continues to entice terrorist groups such as ISIS to capitalize on withholding the region’s available necessities, it’s clear that the climate crisis and regional instability are inextricably intertwined.


     Water sources also have a history of sparking, or at least intensifying, conflicts between dependent countries.  Such examples as the Renaissance Dam project, which highlighted the altercation between developmental needs in Ethiopia and Egyptian concern about water poverty and the destructive repercussions of climate change.  While Egyptian conflict with Sudan has also increased since the Renaissance Dam project began, the overall conflicts remain relatively the same;  after Ethiopia began construction of the dam in the Nile River basin, Egypt threatened to declare war, citing that the dam could potentially limit Egyptian water supply, which would in turn put millions of dependents at risk.  The Sudanese government, who was once equally opposed to the construction of the dam, now views it as potentially beneficial for internal developments, though still considers it a threat to the management of its own national improvements.  Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi even publicly expressed that the Renaissance Dam project was “a matter of life or death”, proving its undying consequences.  These contrasting reliances are only intensified by the fact that each country’s needs (and fears) are heightened tenfold due to the growing climate crisis, which has proven itself to be a flame on spilled oil.


     To make the climate crisis even more paradoxical in the Middle East, the region is globally recognized for its economic and political reliance on oil.  Though we continue to harm the planet’s natural state in the most destructive ways imaginable, countries around the world do recognize the importance of the climate emergency and have taken recent steps to try to alleviate some climactic pressure.  Many nations across the globe have integrated natural energies, such as wind, water and solar power, into mainstream life.  Though this is a positive step in the right direction, it also means that the MENA region, which still relies heavily on exports as a source of national and regional income and employment, is in fact suffering from decreasing interest in the oil industry.  The move towards clean energy has caused energy prices to fall, with Russian president Vladimir Putin even saying that “$70 suits us completely,” when referring to the price Russia was willing to pay for oil imports from the Middle East.  The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), of which many are located in the MENA region, are also notably facing more intense competition from renewable energy sources and shale products from the United States.  To give further inequality to the situation, it is once again the most dependent countries who are the most strongly impacted.  MENA countries such as Saudi Arabia, who are already largely developed oil producers, will not have to worry about crumbling markets, as oil will continue to be essential for several generations to come.  Instead, smaller exporters like Iraq and Libya are likely to suffer dramatically from declining interest in oil as they require higher prices to sustain their smaller budgets and infrastructures.  The complexity of the global climate crisis leads the Middle East to suffer economically at the hands of global warming even though the rest of the world seems to be waking up to the alarm bells and utilizing the planet’s other energy resources.

     Because of above listed chronic cyclical strife, economic tensions in the Middle East are on the rise.  Because less countries are majorly reliant on oil, Middle Eastern countries who rely politically and economically on exports and relations with other nations are currently hurting financially, many finding it nearly impossible to support their civilians with sufficient funding.  Because of the resulting heightened economic stress, militias in Libya have been “… fighting to control oil infrastructure… [and] it is hard to imagine the country funding its own reconstruction… unless oil returns to a higher price.”  If currently dependent countries soon find less need for oil, then the Middle Eastern economy would likely be devastated.  Furthermore, the agricultural crisis is also forcing rural populations to move to urban areas and into large cities such as Demascus and Aleppo.  Severe droughts in Syria have led to the death of 85% of livestock, and nation-wide crop failure, as well as the mass-migration of nearly 800,000 people to urban locations between 2002 and 2010, pushing millions more into food insecurity.  This relocation also sparked economic problems, as the agricultural sector weakened and city jobs became more competitive.  Large-scale political unrest soon ensued and has yet to subside enough for the country to move forward.  As similar issues have been propagated throughout the MENA region because of similar climate conditions, regional governments, many formed on unstable bases to begin with, are finding themselves struggling to control the outreaching and intensifying crisis that comes along with the climate breakdown.


     Preoccupation with civil unrest and international conflicts has distracted many MENA governments from addressing climate change at all; political focus has been all but torn away from efficient waste management systems, concentration on clean water sources and general environmental education and the propagation of public awareness.  Professor Lelieveld adds that political trouble and the climate crisis create a “toxic mixture for society,” and cited the need for increased international support and for the understanding that ignoring climate change will in fact make it worse over time.  Lelieveld also notes that “The [MENA] region has lots of sunlight… which can be used to desalinate seawater and generate the energy needed to cool down in summer. Solar energy can be used to generate hydrogen, which could become the energy carrier of the future,” insighting that there is still hope for regional repair.  Middle Eastern governments must be pushed to listen to their people and actively find solutions to solve their cyclical and spreading issues intensified by climate change.

     The western world can be a help in this regard.  The United Nations’ Green Climate Fund could further develop its projects in the Middle East which focus on protecting water resources, coastal fortitude and ‘arid-proof’ agricultural practices.  International donors and donor countries (such as the United States) could increase funding towards global initiatives like the World Bank’s Global Environmental Facility and continue to support “sustainability projects and resource management” where it is most needed.  Outside political support and global acknowledgement of the social and ecological toll of climate change can drastically increase the assurance of all of our futures, as climate change affects our global communities.  Political action now can help determine the fate of the Middle East and ensure the survival of the tens of millions of people most strongly affected by the entire scope of the blazing climate crisis; a better future is still possible.


Works Cited

          El-Geressi, Yasmine. “Climate Change, Water Woes, and Conflict Concerns in the Middle East: A Toxic Mix.”, 8 Sept. 2020, Accessed 27 Dec. 2020.

          Mbaku, John Mukum. “The Controversy over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.” Brookings, Brookings Institution, 5 Aug. 2020, Accessed 28 Dec. 2020.

          Saha, Sagatom. “How Climate Change Could Exacerbate Conflict in the Middle East.” Atlantic Council, 14 May 2019, Accessed 27 Dec. 2020.

          Youness, Mohamed Abdallah. “How Climate Change Contributed to the Conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa.” World Bank Blogs, World Bank, 10 Dec. 2015, Accessed 27 Dec. 2020.