Deluge and Drought: Water Challenges in the Middle East

The Future of a Region on the Front-line of Climate Change

In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), climate change is an especially urgent issue, particularly as it has already triggered devastating weather events, including prolonged droughts, flash floods, and rising sea levels. Evidence abounds it will be the MENA that climate change will hit hardest as temperatures across the region are expected to increase more than twice the global average. Governments and their international partners have done little to integrate climate change into their strategies to mitigate instability. But without urgent action to curb global emissions, according to research by Nature Research, cities in the region may become uninhabitable before 2100.


The Middle East and North Africa is the world’s most water scares region and has been experiencing almost continuous drought since 1998 - the most severe dry spell in 900 years according to NASA – and it is seemingly endless.  According to estimates by the World Bank, 80-90 million people will be exposed to water stress by 2025. The organization, which is spending $1.5 billion to fight climate change, says that the region is home to 6 percent of the world’s population, but only 1 percent of the world’s freshwater resources, with 17 countries in the region falling below the water poverty line set by the United Nations.

Temperature records have been repeatedly broken in the MENA region in recent years. The highest recorded temperature in the region to date was 54°C in Kuwait in 2016. In the same week, Basra in Iraq recorded 53.9 °C. By 2050, temperatures in the region will be 4 °C higher, according to Max Planck Institute. With rainfall projected to decline 20 to 40 percent in a 2°C hotter world, and up to 60 percent in a 4°C hotter world, the region’s ability to provide water to its people and economies will be severely tested.
A lack of water in a country or region is destabilizing. Several countries are experiencing instability connected to climate change-linked drought and the UN have said that swelling populations and food demands, combined with even scarcer water and land resources, could lead to a doubling of food prices as local crops will become depleted and farmers’ livelihoods blighted - triggering civil unrest in some developing countries.

An example of climate change’s damaging power is the war in Syria where climate change caused the generational drought that preceded the ongoing conflict there. The prolonged dry spell led to the death of 85 percent of livestock in eastern Syria and widespread crop failure, pushing 800,000 people into food insecurity and triggering mass migration from rural to urban areas with farmers moving into urban centers like Damascus and Aleppo. From 2002 to 2010, the country’s total urban population increased by 50 percent, priming the populace for concentrated, large-scale political unrest.

Climate-induced economic despair and migration worked to grow the influence of ISIS in Syria. When ISIS controlled large swathes of territory across Iraq and Syria, it wrested control of dams that provided drinking water, electricity, and irrigation to millions along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. A report by the German foreign office in 2017, said that “ISIS tried to gain and retain legitimacy by providing water and other services to garner support from local populations” during the prolonged drought. ISIS also offered money and food to rural inhabitants with no means to sustain themselves through agriculture to lure them into joining the terrorist group.
Protests linked to water have also broken out in Iraq and Jordan.

In Iraq, the implications of not having access to water were highlighted when at least a dozen people were killed in protests that broke out in the oil-rich southern province of Barsa last year after 102,000 people fell ill due to unclean water supply. Rainfall has decreased in the south and western parts of the country in the past seven decades. Hassan Janabi, a former Iraqi minister of water resources, told NBC News that inflows through the Tigris and Euphrates river systems — the area known as the "cradle of civilization" — have dropped by 60 percent since the 1970s. That has taken a toll on agriculture, which supports one-third of the country's 32 million people living in rural communities.
Across Iraq’s border in Jordan, one of the world’s most resource-poor states, many houses only get up to 24 hours of water a week. Protests broke out in the summer of 2018, the largest in recent years, over severe water shortages and food which led to the resignation of Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki.


Across the world, 800 million people are living in more than 570 coastal cities that are vulnerable to a 50 cm rise by 2050, according to the World Economic Forum.  The World Bank declared in 2016 that the MENA region is among the most vulnerable places on earth to rising sea levels which is expected to affect 43 port cities – 25 in the Middle East and 19 in North Africa, risking the safety and standards of living of millions of inhabitants of the Arab world’s coastal cities in the decades to come. Forecasting a 0.5-meter rise by 2099, its report warned that “low-lying coastal areas in Tunisia, Qatar, Libya, UAE, Kuwait and particularly Egypt are at particular risk”.

In case of Alexandria, Egypt’s second city which has survived invasions, fires and earthquakes since its foundation in the 4th century BC, a 0.5 meter rise would leave more than 5 million people displaced, with $35 billion in losses in land, property, and infrastructure, as well as incalculable losses of historic and cultural assets, according the World Bank.

A 2018 study predicted that more than 280 miles of the Nile Delta, the breadbasket of the country and one of the most productive agricultural areas on earth, could be inundated by 2050 and more than 1,000 square miles by the end of the century.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body charged with monitoring the impact of global warming says that “the Alexandria lowlands – on which the city of Alexandria originally developed – are vulnerable to inundation, waterlogging, increased flooding and salinization under accelerated sea-level rise.”

According to the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), if current trends continue, Egypt will be faced with the prospect of a climate catastrophe in Alexandria, which is home to 40 percent of Egypt’s industrial capacity. The AR5 says that Egypt's agricultural sector could decrease by as much as 47 percent by 2060 as a result of groundwater being inundated by saltwater and “hundreds of billions of Egyptian pounds, about two to six percent of future gross domestic product (GDP), could be lost from effects on water resources, agriculture, coastal resources, and tourism,” as per the United Nations report.

Residents living in low-lying areas of the port city are already coping with the consequences. A severe storm in 2015, during which the city was drenched with more than eight inches of rain in just two days, flooded large parts of the city, causing at least six deaths and the collapse of some two dozen homes, exposing weaknesses in the local infrastructure. High waters are also already flooding basements of buildings near Alexandria’s waterfront Corniche, leading to fatal collapses.

Rising sea levels are also a particularly important problem in the Arabian Sea and Gulf region, where most capitals are coastal cities and where several of the fastest-growing cities — such as Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Dubai — are located on low-lying coastal zones or islands and are concerned about their ambitious development projects being reclaimed by the sea. r. Bahrain, in particular, is endangered by rising sea levels which could submerge between 27 and 56 percent of Bahrain—already the smallest country in the Middle East—by 2100. The loss of that land would devastate the island country’s economy, water supply, and the natural environment. In addition to the more obvious problem of coastal erosion, rising sea levels will likely contribute to water scarcity in Bahrain. A research paper presented at the Twelfth Gulf Water Conference in Bahrain in 2017 notes the dangers of seawater contaminating the aquifers on which many Bahrainis depend for their water.


With rising global temperatures due to increased heat-trapping emissions, more water evaporates from the land and oceans and a warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapor. This means that when it rains, there is a higher potential for heavy rainfall and therefore rainfall patterns are shifting. This has caused more frequent and intense storms and some of the driest parts of the MENA have suffered sudden, unprecedented storms.

In 2014, cyclone Nilofar caused-flash floods in north-east Oman, killing four people. A year later, two rare tropical cyclones - Cyclone Megh and Cyclone Chapala – with winds as strong as hurricanes, made landfall in Yemen, killing 26 people and displacing tens of thousands. World Meteorological Organisation spokeswoman Clare Nullis said that tropical cyclones are extremely rare over the Arabian Peninsula, and two back-to-back was "an absolutely extraordinary event".

An image grab taken from an AFPTV video shows people walking through flood water as they evacuate a flooded area during a cyclone in the Yemeni island of Socotra. (Getty)

These events puzzled Hiroyuki Murakami at Princeton University in New Jersey who used a sophisticated climate model to compare conditions in 2015 to conditions in 1860 when humanity’s carbon footprint was much smaller. Murakami and his colleagues found that, in 2015, 64 percent of the increased hurricane risk in the Arabian Sea was down to climate change.

In November 2018, a deadly storm swept across the Arabian Peninsula dumping almost a year's worth of showers on the emirate in one day, killing 30 people before it reached Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia. Almost 4,000 residents were evacuated from their homes. The previous month, three people died when Tropical Cyclone Luban struck Oman and Yemen.

Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, has suffered almost annual floods since the late 1960s. Research by the King Abdel Aziz University found that the city’s rapid expansion in recent years has made the situation worse, as routes through which water used to escape have been built over.