Climate Change and the Risk of Conflict in the Middle East

A new report developed by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), commissioned by The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and launched this week in the Middle East, has found that climate change may hold serious implications for peace and security in the Levant. (Levant, made up of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and the occupied Palestinian territory).

 In a region already considered the world’s most waterscarce and where, in many places, demand for water already outstrips supply, climate models are predicting a hotter, drier and less predictable climate. Higher temperatures and less rainfall will reduce the flow of rivers and streams, slow the rate at which aquifers recharge, progressively raise sea levels and make the entire region more arid.

These climate changes will have a series of effects, particularly for agriculture and water management. For example, some analysts anticipate that the Euphrates Rives could shrink by 30% and Jordan River by 80% by the end of the century. They could also hold serious implications for peace in the region.

More specific the reports argues that climate change present a security threat in six distinct ways:

Threat 1Climate change may increase competition for scarce water resources, complicating peace agreements and be a factor in national instability.

Threat 2Climate change could further decrease local agricultural productivity and intensify food insecurity, thereby raising the stakes for the return or retention of occupied land.

Threat 3 Climate change may hinder economic growth, thereby worsening unemployment, poverty and social instability. In turn, potentially this could create the conditions for extremism of all kinds, increased crime and social breakdown.

Threat 4Climate change may lead to destabilizing forced migration and increased tensions over existing refugee populations.

Threat 5Perceptions of resources shrinking as a result of climate change could increase the militarization of strategic natural resources.

Threat 6 Inaction (if the international community is unable to come to a deal in Copenhagen) on climate change may lead to growing resentment and distrust of the West (and Israel) by Arab nations.

The report points out there is much that national governments and authorities, civil society and the international community can do address the challenge of climate change, and in so doing, address some of the threats it may pose to regional peace and security. They can foster a culture of conservation in the region, help communities and countries adapt to the impacts of climate change, work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and foster greater cooperation on their shared resources.

Update 2016: Before civil war broke out in Syria, the country suffered from a drought which was said to have been the worst ever recorded. The frequency and the intensity of dust storms has been increased significantly – about 1.5 million people were internally displaced as a result. The rural farming town of Dara’a was the focal point for protests in the early stages of the opposition movement last year – a place that was especially hard hit by five years of drought and water scarcity, with little assistance from the al-Assad regime. Drought did not cause the civil war, of course, but it was one of the reasons for the horror that followed.

Sources and further reading

Climatology of dust distribution over West Asia from homogenized remote sensing data

Understanding Syria: From Pre-Civil War to Post-Assad – The Atlantic, 10 December, 2013.

Syria: Climate Change, Drought and Social Unrest – The center for Climate and Security