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MENA Watch: Region needs proactive action to combat water scarcity & natural disasters

The MENA area also faces difficulties in properly mitigating and responding to natural disasters

With the last two United Nations Climate Change Conferences held there, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, a crucial epicentre of the climate problem characterised by rising temperatures, a shortage of water, and an increasing frequency of natural disasters, has assumed a central role. However, why does it appear that the Arab world and the Middle East are not doing more to combat climate change?

Consider the scarcity of water. MENA is home to 14 of the 25 nations classified as having “very severe water stress,” and eight of the top 10 most water-stressed nations are also from this region. While it may be simple to attribute this to natural constraints, there are several instances of nations and towns that have overcome these obstacles by making wise investments in water infrastructure.

Singapore is one such example, a tiny, heavily populated island nation with a limited water supply due to natural causes. On the other hand, they have made investments in four water sources, dubbed the “Four National Taps,” which include desalinated seawater, imported water, treated wastewater, and local catchment.

While wealthier and more stable Arab governments have made investments in comparable water infrastructure projects, the less stable and less wealthy countries have not been able to do so on a practical scale. Making sure money comes into these nations, providing them with a variety of water sources, and averting future wars brought on by water scarcity, should be a top goal at every climate meeting.

For example, Egypt gets 90–95% of its renewable freshwater from the Nile. The water then gets used for industrial, agricultural, and drinking purposes. Such a high dependency puts the Nile at risk of reduced flow due to changes in rainfall patterns brought on by climate change.

Initiatives to remove salt from Egypt’s 3000 km of shoreline by desalination have surfaced as a potential solution to the country’s water crisis. Egypt’s water stress can be lessened with more investment in these desalination facilities, especially because the country’s per capita water supply is expected to fall below the UN’s definition of absolute water scarcity by 2025.

It’s also critical to keep in mind that, despite their ambition, large-scale water infrastructure projects are quite doable and have a history in the area. Notable examples are the Jebel Ali desalination plant in the United Arab Emirates and the Great Man-Made River project in Libya.

Public awareness campaigns that emphasise water conservation are a less expensive but no less significant strategy for combating water stress because many Arab individuals are oblivious to the water hazards that their countries confront.

The MENA area also faces difficulties in properly mitigating and responding to natural disasters. The region has seen multiple weather-related disasters in the last 12 months alone, such as the 2023 North Africa wildfires, the 2024 Gulf floods, and Storm Daniel in Libya.

Experts have been reporting on the poorly maintained dams intended to safeguard Derna for almost forty years. Although many people have laid blame everywhere, it’s obvious that the nation’s broken status has made it difficult to maintain infrastructure and, in this case, resulted in numerous avoidable fatalities.

With a “return period” of up to one in 600 years, the downpour that devastated northeastern Libya broke all previous records. However, since this is based on current data, as climate change gets worse, it might become less important.

The exceptionally warm sea surface temperatures in the Mediterranean are responsible for the storm’s strength, according to scientists. However, this is a warning of what can still happen: compared to a 1.2°C colder climate, incidents this extreme are predicted to become up to 50 times more probable and 50% more violent.

Which Arab Nation Is Safe?

Rich nations are not safe either. The floods that occurred in the Gulf in April 2024 serve as evidence that nations need to be aware of how their environment is changing. A swift runoff and overflow of the drainage systems resulted from the low surface permeability, which made the floods worse.

It’s possible that the UAE authorities were unprepared for the country to see its most heavy rainfall in over 75 years. Nature doesn’t give a damn, but we need to build the infrastructure to handle it.

Wildfires are the second devastating event linked to climate change. Arab governments should take note of the wildfires that decimated areas of the Atlas Mountains in the Maghreb in the summer of 2023, namely on the necessity of making investments in early-detection systems.

It’s also important to remember that a sizable fraction of Arabs lack access to financial protection against natural calamities like wildfires. To ensure their protection, leaders might consider encouraging risk-pooling programmes or providing greater access to insurance for the less fortunate members of their community.

Increased evaporation rates brought on by rising temperatures as a result of climate change dry up soil and reduce the amount of water that is accessible. Because of this, it’s possible that even ordinary rainfall levels won’t be sufficient to maintain agricultural output. Changes in rainfall patterns are also possible.

There is a prediction that the region will see increasingly frequent and severe droughts. According to recent estimates, the drought occurring in Syria and Iraq will recur once every ten years, as opposed to the original projection of once every 250 years.

Although it is very difficult to predict exactly how climate change will affect a place, governments still need to take far more action to make sure their nations are prepared. It is true that funding early climate mitigation initiatives can end up being more economical in the long term and could potentially save those people from certain extinction.

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