Gulf countries should collaborate on climate change

Lightning flickered in the skies over the UAE, tunnels were flooded and daredevils water­skied down submerged roads last week. Too much water is an unusual problem for the Gulf, and climate change threatens more extreme weather in the wider region. The Gulf countries have to deal with the consequences for themselves, and they also have to be prepared for the impact on their neighbours.

This is an issue that affects and is affected by the region’s reliance on fossil fuels and heavy overall energy consumption, although it is an issue that also supersedes the business world.

It cannot be said that any one episode of extreme weather was caused by human-driven climate change. But damaging climatic episodes, whether storms, heatwaves, dry spells or floods, are expected to become more common worldwide. The Gulf countries can deal with many of these threats through further investment in infrastructure and emergency preparedness. A recent paper apparently predicting that summers in the Gulf could become too hot for human survival in 30 years – though worrying – was widely misreported.

Dealings with water, both in excess and shortage, can be aided by vegetation to soak up floods, improved emergency drainage, water-saving and reuse, renewable desalination and strategic water storage. High temperatures can be managed through better urban design to enhance natural cooling and passively cooled buildings.

A seamless network of public transport, cycle paths and cooled tunnels connecting buildings would reduce the reliance on cars and make Gulf cities more liveable.

For longer-term planning, the GCC needs more fine-scale climate models of its neighbourhood over the next few decades, showing a range of outcomes for temperatures, rainfall and sea-level rise. The Gulf countries also need the buy-in of both citizens and their large expatriate populations, in the sensible use of resources and confidence in the long-term viability of their environment.

The wider regional picture is more worrying. Many climate models predict deep droughts over the eastern Mediterranean, which have become a reality in recent years. Some countries manage to cope, with approaches such as using desalination and drip agriculture, while others struggle.

Many electrons have been consumed debating whether the war in Syria was “caused” by climate change. It should be obvi­ous that such complex events have numerous causes. Equally, brutal and inept regimes can be pushed over the edge by clim­atic stresses and their inability to protect their people from extreme weather.

“Water wars” have often been predicted over the great rivers of the arid Middle East – the Nile, Euphrates, Tigris and Jordan. These have not come to pass, but Iraq, Syria and Turkey have mobilised troops at various times in 1975, 1989 and 1990 in response to water tensions, particularly the Turkish construction of upstream dams. Meanwhile, Egyptian-­Ethiopian disputes have flared over Addis Ababa’s construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam.

Weak states such as Lebanon and Yemen cannot manage their water adequately, with Lebanese dams empty and water supply further compromised by contamination from the continuing rubbish crisis.

An open or covert military conflict caused or inspired by regional water is unlikely but could be catastrophic. More likely is a slow degradation of regional economies and agriculture, continuing migration to urban slums, the weakening and discrediting of states in their peoples’ eyes and the creation of havens for extremists and insurgents.

Policymakers need to think about what follows the current conflicts in Yemen, Libya, Syria and Iraq – how can these countries’ resilience to climatic disasters be rebuilt? At the same time, other regional states such as Egypt, Pakistan, Lebanon and Jordan need help to deal with drought and desertification.

This is not primarily a technical problem – the solutions required are well understood. At a regional level, the problem is one of diplomacy, in conflict resolution and collaboration on water. At the national level, too many regional states lack institutions that can attract investment and actually see the right policies through to completion.

Although the UAE should be able to cope with such extreme weather, other Middle Eastern countries might come to recall, and regret, King Louis XV’s dictum, “Après moi, le déluge.”

Robin Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis.

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