Conflict and Terror in a Warming Middle East

Former World Bank Director Professor Jamal Saghir Speaks to Majalla About the Security Implications of Climate Change in the Region

Climate change, by altering the world’s physical and ecological landscape, is also changing its geopolitical landscape. Recent years have witnessed the outbreak of multiple wars in some of the hottest and driest regions on earth, leading to increasing suggestions that climate change will be an exacerbator of conflict throughout the 21st century. Given a combination of structural fragilities, population growth, war, and its susceptibility to some of the most severe consequences of the climate of global warming, including lethal heat waves, extensive drought and rising sea levels, the Middle East is particularly vulnerable to climate-inducted conflict.


Jamal Saghir, former World Bank director and
currently a professor at McGill University. 

As global temperatures rise, they will rise even faster in MENA and therefore the region will be more heavily impacted by climate change trends than the global average. By 2030, temperatures in the region which is already the hottest and driest on earth could rise by two degrees. With this increase, rainfall in MENA is projected to decline by 20 to 40 percent. Increasing water scarcity will have an economic impact, and is expected to lower growth by 6 to 14 percent by 2050. There are now less than 1,000m3  of renewable water resources per person in MENA, as compared to 4,500m3 in East Asia Pacific countries, and 9,000m3 in the United States. Competing demands among agriculture, population growth and rapid urbanization are putting immense pressure on the region’s scarce water resources.

Jamal Saghir, a former World Bank director and currently professor at McGill University, explained to Majalla that the region is already the world’s most water-scarce, food-import dependent region, and that climate change could trigger a further 20-40% decline in food and water productivity and that this will further exacerbate in the near future, with less precipitation and increased drought frequencies and heat waves. Saghir highlighted that the Nile-Delta is among the most threatened areas, with sea-level rise potentially displacing millions.

“Beyond this, agriculture - a source of income and employment in the Middle East region - will diminish more in the short- to mid-term, climate change will likely decrease agricultural output due to heat stress and reduced available water,” said Saghir.


Changing dynamics will impact the foundational resources that people and nations depend on for survival, security and prosperity, and these impacts are already contributing to increased state fragility and security problems. Militaries around the world, across the Americas, UK, Europe, and the Asia Pacific, have highlighted the “threat multiplier” impact of climate change and extreme weather events.

The Global Military Advisory Council on Climate Change has warned the impact of global warming will drive massive refugee movements of an “unimaginable scale”, and that climate represents “the greatest security threat of the 21st century”.

Saghir explained that from 2007-2017, the region saw one of its most severe drought cycles in the last 1000 years, triggering internal displacement in Syria, famine and poverty in Somalia, and social disruption and instability across the region.

For supporters of the view that climate change will become a ‘threat multiplier’ for instability in the decades ahead, the Syrian civil war has become a common reference point, providing apparently compelling evidence that we are already witnessing such conflict effects today. The devastating civil war that began in Syria in March 2011 is the result of interrelated factors and the triggers include a broad set of religious and sociopolitical factors but some experts believe that the challenges associated with human-induced climate change played a direct role in the conflict.

Saghir explained that the economic struggles stemming from drought vulnerability, loss of agricultural land and displacement were a contributing factor in the deterioration of Syria’s social economic conditions and widespread dissatisfaction with the government, which ultimately lead to political unrest.

“The drought in Syria, which began in 2006 with a period of extreme hot and dry weather, caused the devastation of agricultural land on which at least 800,000 people depended in eastern Syria, and resulted in the death of at least 85% of their livestock. Crop yields fell by one-half to two-thirds, pushing the 800,000 Syrians into food insecurity and prompting 1.5 million of the rural population to migrate to cities, where violence first erupted,” said Saghir.

“In fact, it was observed that displaced inhabitants of rural areas who went to seek employment in Syria’s larger cities, a large portion of which were already overpopulated, formed disenfranchised belts of disparate communities surrounding Hamah, Homs, and Daraa. This was another factor contributing ultimately to extreme political unrest outbreak of conflict in Syria, and followed by President Bashir al Assad use of his armed forces against them.”

While the relationship between climate change and human security is not casual, climate change alone will not directly generate conflict. Conflict is a culmination of several interconnected factors that develop steadily over decades and therefore caution must be applied when discussing climate change in this context.

“The connection between climate change impacts and conflict outcomes is highly place and time-specific and is the product of many different, intersecting factors. Hence, climate change is not the only important parameter of future violence and security considerations. Other factors such as human development, effective institutions, and governance also affect the likelihood of violent conflict. It must be acknowledged that these conflicts have extremely complex historical, political, social and economic foundations, meaning that climate change should only be considered an exacerbating factor – rather than a direct driver – of conflict in the Middle East,” explained Saghir.


Countries ravaged by drought, food and water shortages, near-economic collapse and weak governments can spur or exacerbate terrorist organisations by providing them with a ripe recruiting ground and an environment where they can thrive.

In 2011, much of the Iraqi countryside was in desperate financial straits. According to the World Bank, some 39 percent of people in rural areas were living in poverty, two and a half times the country’s urban rate. Almost half lacked safe drinking water. The problems were so devastating in 2012-13 that tens of thousands of villagers ditched their fields altogether, preferring to try their luck in the slum districts of nearby cities instead. These circumstances played into ISIS’s hands.

Saghir explains that in Iraq, ISIS used money, food and water as weapons of war to expertly exploit the most environmentally damaged Sunni Arab villages which emerged as the organisation’s foremost recruiting grounds.

“ISIS capitalize on the devastation wrought by climate change to attract new members as it happened in several agricultural villages in Iraq, many of which were successfully taken by ISIS via their recruitment tactics that were created to entice impoverished farmers who had their lives and incomes devastated by a series of natural disasters, such as drought and harsh winds,” Saghir explained

“These ISIS recruiters even offered money, food, and other riches to rural Iraqis to allure them into joining the ranks of the jihadist group.”

Broke and unable to deal with their fast-changing environment which blasted their lands and livelihood, Saghir explained that many farmers ate it up.

“With no means to sustain themselves through agricultural means, many farmers and other rural Iraqis accepted ISIS’s bribes for both monetary and moral support.”

Saghir highlighted that water was a potent force used by the militant group in Iraq and Syria. “The importance resources hold for terrorist organizations is emphasized by the efforts of ISIS, to capture the Mosul and Fallujah dams in Iraq, as well as the Iraqi regions of Zumar, Sinjar, and Rabiah, in order to gain control of the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers as well as water sources in Syria, and fertile regions suitable for agriculture in both countries.”

Saghir highlighted there were similar occurrences in Sudan and Nigeria where water shortages were exploited to fuel acts of terrorism and strengthen recruiting efforts by terrorist groups.

In Darfur, in western Sudan, “rainfall had declined by 30% and agricultural production had fallen by 70%, while the average annual temperature rose by 1.5 degrees, contributing to the conflict between pastoral and agricultural tribes over the use of land for grazing livestock or growing crops.”

The emergence of Boko Haram in Nigeria can be also be traced to environmental developments and climate change. The founding of Boko Haram can be linked “to the proliferation of victims of environmental crises in Nigeria, who lacked food, shelter, and other basic necessities of life. Boko Haram’s ranks then swelled after the migration of Chadian farmers as a result of droughts and desertification in Chad," Saghir explained.


As the Middle East is a top hot spot for climate change, conflict and fatalities, the challenges are enormous and confronting them will require changes across all segments of society. Saghir explains that the immediate priority for the region is to accelerate the investment in climate-resilient infrastructure.

“It is imperative to invest in resilient infrastructure, including water management (irrigation, hydropower, water supply, and flood control), roads, bridges, energy, and other transport infrastructure. All countries will have to invest significant public and private resources in infrastructure, both to upgrade existing systems and build new networks,” explains Saghir.

Therefore, the climate change challenge for the Middle East is primarily about adaptation and making development climate-resilient which requires leadership and commitment from individual countries, resources, innovation and the adoption of effective practices from around the world.

“This requires the improvement of our knowledge of climate impacts and effective technologies, techniques, and products (e.g. climate-smart agricultural practices and drought-resistant crop varieties) and their application; integration of climate considerations into development policies and plans (e.g. siting and building standards of large infrastructure projects, city design, land use planning); and building local capacity for improved preparedness and adaptation,” Saghir explains.

Saghir says that “transformative” policies are needed in the Middle East to confront the new global climate reality and that in pursuing such policies, special attention needs to be given to “preventative measures that anticipate and mitigate exacerbated risks to avoid insecurity driven by food, water, and energy scarcities."

“The transition to a more energy and water secure and more diversified region, I think, is one of the most important ways that we can invest and seek advantages. Rather than focusing on the threats of climate change, this is an opportunity to use our climate awareness and our ability to innovate,” he added.