Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Middle East Is Becoming Literally Uninhabitable

One of the regions hardest hit by climate change is also one least equipped to deal with it.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
A wildfire which engulfing a Mediterranean resort region on Turkey's southern coast near the town of Manavgat, on July 30, 2021.
A wildfire which engulfing a Mediterranean resort region on Turkey's southern coast near the town of Manavgat, on July 30, 2021. AFP via Getty Images

This summer, several picturesque countries in the Middle East became tinderboxes. As extreme temperatures and severe droughts ravaged the region, forests burned, and cities became islands of unbearable heat. In June, Kuwait recorded a temperature of 53.2 degrees Celsius (127.76 degrees Fahrenheit), while Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia all recorded over 50 degrees (122 degrees). A month later, temperatures in Iraq spiked to 51.5 degrees (124.7 degrees), and Iran recorded a close 51 degrees (123.8 degrees).

Worst of all, this is just the start of a trend. The Middle East is warming at twice the global average and by 2050 will be 4 degrees Celsius warmer as compared with the 1.5 degree mark that scientists have prescribed to save humanity. The World Bank says extreme climatic conditions will become routine and the region could face four months of scorching sun every year. According to Germany’s Max Planck Institute, many cities in the Middle East may literally become uninhabitable before the end of the century. And the region, ravaged by war and mired in sectarianism, may be singularly ill-prepared to face the challenges that threaten its collective existence.

Since the region is split between haves and have-nots, it is the poorer cousins of the oil-rich countries that have been the first to face social disorder over the lack of basic amenities, such as water and electricity, that people desperately need to survive the extreme heat. These countries are ruled by ineffective governments, autocrats, or clerics and have dilapidated energy infrastructure and deep-rooted structural deficiencies that block the promotion of and technological innovation in renewable energy. Experts say political and economic reforms that strengthen institutions and promote businesses to think freely are essential to reduce carbon emissions and ensure a shift to clean energy in the Middle East.

This summer, several picturesque countries in the Middle East became tinderboxes. As extreme temperatures and severe droughts ravaged the region, forests burned, and cities became islands of unbearable heat. In June, Kuwait recorded a temperature of 53.2 degrees Celsius (127.76 degrees Fahrenheit), while Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia all recorded over 50 degrees (122 degrees). A month later, temperatures in Iraq spiked to 51.5 degrees (124.7 degrees), and Iran recorded a close 51 degrees (123.8 degrees).

Worst of all, this is just the start of a trend. The Middle East is warming at twice the global average and by 2050 will be 4 degrees Celsius warmer as compared with the 1.5 degree mark that scientists have prescribed to save humanity. The World Bank says extreme climatic conditions will become routine and the region could face four months of scorching sun every year. According to Germany’s Max Planck Institute, many cities in the Middle East may literally become uninhabitable before the end of the century. And the region, ravaged by war and mired in sectarianism, may be singularly ill-prepared to face the challenges that threaten its collective existence.

Since the region is split between haves and have-nots, it is the poorer cousins of the oil-rich countries that have been the first to face social disorder over the lack of basic amenities, such as water and electricity, that people desperately need to survive the extreme heat. These countries are ruled by ineffective governments, autocrats, or clerics and have dilapidated energy infrastructure and deep-rooted structural deficiencies that block the promotion of and technological innovation in renewable energy. Experts say political and economic reforms that strengthen institutions and promote businesses to think freely are essential to reduce carbon emissions and ensure a shift to clean energy in the Middle East.

Greenhouse gas emissions have more than tripled in the region over the last three decades and caused concern among experts that a steep rise in temperatures on the one hand and lack of basic services on the other are making the region a more desperate and dangerous place.

Jos Lelieveld, an expert on the climate of the Middle East and Mediterranean at the Max Planck Institute, said the Middle East has overtaken the European Union in greenhouse gas emissions even though it is “particularly strongly affected” by climate change. “In several cities in the Middle East, temperatures have been soaring well in excess of 50 degrees Celsius,” Lelieveld said. “If nothing changes, cities may experience temperatures of 60 degrees Celsius in the future, which will be dangerous for those who do not have access to air conditioning.”

Air conditioners have become a luxury even for the relatively wealthy in countries such as Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. These countries are encumbered by war, Western sanctions, or a self-serving ruling elite and have witnessed large protests against a lack of basic services as temperatures rise and droughts parch the fields. The scenes of social unrest have offered a glimpse into the future of the region that most acutely feels the impact of a changing climate.

In Iraq, record-breaking heat last month pushed people onto the streets. They blocked roads, burned tires, and in anger surrounded power plants that had to be secured by armed forces. Ironically, oil-rich Basra in southern Iraq faces among the longest power outages and has been the epicenter of demonstrations in which at least three Iraqis have been killed. According to experts, political instability is the leading cause behind Iraq’s electricity crisis.

In Lebanon, a similar scenario unfolded this month. The Lebanese are already grappling with myriad crises and are frustrated at the inaction of the political elite. As fuel supply dwindled, scenes of chaos emerged from across the country. Some people looted fuel tankers, others ransacked power plants, and yet more carried firearms to fuel stations to get ahead of hundreds in line. Power outages lasting three hours had been routine in Lebanon since the civil war ended in 1990. But as the economy collapsed in 2019, blackouts became longer and generators louder, roaring through the country. On Aug. 12, the central bank lifted subsidies on fuel, and generators ran dry. Lights went off, and even those in affluent neighborhoods—used to air conditioners—had to cope with the sweltering heat. The local press reported nearly daily skirmishes between people at gas stations that necessitated the presence of the Lebanese army to watch over the distribution and keep peace. In one incident, a confiscated fuel tanker exploded and killed nearly 30 people as the Lebanese army was distributing gasoline. Doctors said the bodies were charred beyond recognition.

The political class in Lebanon has clung to power and refused to usher in reforms to revamp the highly subsidized but loss-making electricity sector. Experts say Lebanon has massive potential to not only make the enterprise profitable but also deploy those profits to diversify the energy mix and capitalize on ample wind and sun energy. A coherent policy would not only bring respite in piping hot months but also reduce carbon emissions and hence overall global warming.

In 2017, Iran recorded the hottest official temperature in the region of 54 degrees Celsius (129.2 degrees Fahrenheit) and crossed 50 degrees (122 degrees) last month. But recurrent droughts have made the country’s hydroelectricity plants redundant and in turn caused a dip in production at a time when demand for electricity is rising. In July, different cities in Iran erupted in protests, with some demonstrators chanting “Death to the dictator” and “Death to Khamenei,” in reference to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader and the most powerful man in the country.

In Khuzestan province in southwestern Iran, people blocked roads and burned tires to protest water scarcity. At least three protesters were killed allegedly in firing by the state security forces, while human rights activists claim the number to be higher. Human Rights Watch said “videos shared on social media show security officials using firearms and teargas and shooting toward protesters” and called for the deaths to be investigated.

Droughts between 2006 and 2011 in Syria deepened a socioeconomic divide between rural and urban areas and are believed to have been one of the reasons that led to the Syrian civil war. In Yemen, a protracted war seems to have worsened the water crisis. Yemen’s freshwater underground sources are fast drying, leaving the country parched. Its annual per capita share of water is just 120 cubic meters, compared with the global per capital share of 7,500 cubic meters. Before the war, Yemen’s water ministry had imposed conditions on the drilling of wells, but during the conflict, it was impossible to monitor. Over the last decade, Yemen has fast depleted its already meager freshwater resources.

Johan Schaar, an associate senior fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, argues that regional cooperation could mitigate the water crisis and reduce the region’s carbon footprint. “Most important in terms of regional cooperation is to agree on the use and management of shared water resources that will become more scarce and more variable due to extreme weather events, both rivers and groundwater,” said Schaar, who has an expertise in climate change. “There are few bilateral transboundary agreements on water and no basinwide agreements for rivers shared by several countries. The water ministers’ council under the Arab League drafted a regional convention on shared water resources a few years ago, but it was never ratified.”

Instead of cooperating on the use of common resources, the region is caught up in conflicts. “None of them have invested more than marginally in reducing [greenhouse gas] emissions,” Schaar said. “In addition, conflict, instability, and sanctions have consequences for their need and ability to adapt. Conflict leads to displacement and impoverishment of populations, making them more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Instability shrinks resources and policy space for the long-term planning and investments required for adaptation.”

The connection between climate change and the revolutions and wars of the Arab Spring is hotly debated. But there are clear and unarguable linkages between poor governance, environmental mismanagement, urbanization, and urban unrest in communities poorly served with water, air conditioning, and other amenities. The thought of what will happen in these cities as climate change worsens living conditions, if the standards of governance remain the same, is a frightening one. “Climate change and the consequent increase in weather extremes add to the challenges imposed by regional conflicts, leading to additional incentives for people to migrate, for example,” Lelieveld said.

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.