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A hotter, drier Middle East climate could threaten stability

- July 3, 2014

Syrian refugees collect water at the Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, last month. (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)
In the United States, the question of whether the Earth’s climate is changing continues to be hotly debated in mainstream and popular media. However, a growing body of scientific research demonstrates that certain areas of the globe are experiencing significantly lower levels of precipitation, higher temperatures and more frequent droughts than in centuries past. One of these regions is the Middle East. According to a recent study by scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) the Mediterranean basin has been experiencing significantly drier conditions since the 1970s. Moreover, current climatological research predicts that the Levant region of the Middle East will be one of the areas most negatively affected by rising air temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns during the 21st century.
What implications does a drier and hotter Middle East hold for politics in the region? Does climate change have the potential to transform political dynamics in this geo-strategic area of the world? To find answers to these questions, I have spent the past several years exploring the political implications of increasing water scarcity in the Middle East and have recently published a set of preliminary findings in the journal Middle East Policy. In short, Arab countries face three key challenges in a world of more volatile precipitation events and higher temperatures: enforcing the sustainable use of groundwater, satisfying growing urban demand for water and an increased potential for social and political instability.
Arab governments have manipulated water resources for political ends since the achievement of independence. For example, Jordan’s government actively promoted rural development during the 1950s and 1960s to secure political loyalty and support from rural residents, particularly tribal leaders. A key part of this strategy was providing subsidized diesel fuel to power pumps extracting water from wells. Low energy costs, along with official efforts to promote local demand for domestically grown crops, led Jordanian farmers to maximize crop yields by pumping huge amounts of water from the ground. By the 1980s, growing demand for and dwindling supplies of water led the Jordanian government to impose rationing on urban residents, limiting the delivery of water to one or two days a week. Despite these efforts to promote conservation, the extraction of groundwater for both agricultural and municipal use continued to grow. In 2010, the average rate of abstraction from renewable aquifers was 155 percent of the natural recharge rate.
One dramatic effect of groundwater over-abstraction was the destruction of the Azraq wetlands in eastern Jordan. The wetlands had served as an oasis for humans and animals for centuries before the unsustainable extraction of groundwater caused the springs feeding the wetlands to dry up in the early 1990s. Today the wetlands are only 0.04 percent of their original size, and groundwater from the Azraq aquifer continues to be pumped to satisfy the needs of Jordan’s northern cities. One relatively positive development for the wetlands —and for Jordan’s water security in general — is the recent completion of the Disi Water Conveyance Project. This project is provides nearly 100 million cubic meters of fossil groundwater annually to the capital. Amman, and this has lessened the need to pump water from Azraq to Amman for municipal use. However, the Disi project is not without its own challenges as the water from Disi is naturally radioactive and must be mixed with other sources of freshwater to make it safe for consumption. In addition, the cost of pumping the Disi water to Amman – about 400 miles away – has greatly increased the budget deficit of the Water Authority of Jordan and is putting pressure on the government to raise water prices for consumers.
The destruction of the Azraq oasis is an apt illustration of the potential consequences of meeting growing urban demand for water. Currently, the Jordanian agricultural sector uses nearly two-thirds of the kingdom’s renewable water resources, but the country’s population is growing at more than 2 percent a year – with most of this growth occurring in urban areas. Furthermore, the influx of refugees from Iraq and Syria over the past decade has put even greater pressure on Jordan’s scarce water resources. Faced with increasing levels of urban population growth and the agriculture sector’s decreasing contributions to the national economy and employment, the government faces the difficult task of curtailing water use by key political constituencies — farmers and several large tribes — to provide adequate supplies of water for the urban-based service and industrial sectors, both of which make greater contributions to national employment and economic growth than agriculture.
The third critical challenge that Jordan and other Arab countries face if predicted changes in the region’s climate occur is the potential for increasing water scarcity to create conditions conducive to sociopolitical instability. The best example of this potential is Syria. Before the outbreak of widespread protests in Syria in 2011, a four-year drought ravaged the country’s north and northeast. The drought had devastating effects on the agricultural sector and displaced over a million rural residents to Syria’s main urban centers. According to some analysts, the migration of thousands of farmers and rural residents to cities already suffering from high levels of unemployment and poverty created the conditions that led to the outbreak of the popular rebellion against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. However, a close look at the available evidence indicates that water scarcity and the effects of the drought played only an indirect role in the outbreak of the rebellion. Instead of being inspired by the drought’s effects, rural migrants who participated in urban protests were primarily motivated to do so by the government’s failure to assist them and other rural Syrians whose livelihoods were destroyed by the drought. Thus, it was the government’s inaction and unwillingness to help communities harmed by the drought that proved to be the real trigger for the rural migrants who joined the popular protests.
In Jordan and other Arab countries facing a hotter and drier future, governments will need to respond decisively and effectively to droughts and become more successful at promoting water conservation. Failure to do so may exacerbate already volatile sociopolitical conditions in some Arab countries and contribute to domestic and/or regional political instability. At the same time, scholars and analysts must be extremely careful to avoid making spurious connections between extreme meteorological events and political developments in the Middle East. As the case of Syria clearly demonstrates, the connections between drought and political instability are at best indirect and merit very careful analysis to avoid equating correlation with causation.
Scott Greenwood is an associate professor of political science and global studies and associate dean of instruction and academic programs at the California State University at San Marcos.