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4 Factors Causing Middle Eastern Countries to Become Uninhabitable

by Jangira Lewis Middle East Oct 18th 202111 mins
4 Factors Causing Middle Eastern Countries to Become Uninhabitable

Middle Eastern countries will be among the first in the world to be deemed unfit for human life, with studies showing that we could see the possibility of cities being completely wiped out by 2050. Despite temperatures set to reach 50°C, climate change is not the only major factor causing the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to be uninhabitable. Redundant policies, ineffective governments, war and civil unrest are the three other factors driving this once prosperous water-rich region to a state of inhabitability. 


Ample evidence has been published indicating that Middle Eastern countries will be the region that climate change will hit the hardest. Currently known as the most water-stressed region in the world, water scarcity is having an alarming impact on the region and unless swift action is taken, it is likely the region will be unfit for human life within the next few decades. 

The MENA region is a sensitive region due to a wide range of factors. Not only does its hot-dry climate leave it in a bad position from a global warming perspective, but corruption, redundant policies, government mismanagement, civil unrest and war are other issues severely affecting the living populations of these regions. 

A study by Climate Central’s Scott Kulp and Benjamin Strauss, published in Nature Communications, found that Middle Eastern countries are estimated to completely lose major coastal cities due to the rising sea levels. It found that Basra, the second-largest city in Iraq, could be mostly underwater by 2050. John Castellaw, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general who was chief of staff for United States Central Command during the Iraq War believes that if this were to happen, then the effects could be felt well beyond Iraq’s borders. Surrounding countries and their further political conflict and civil unrest are factors that need to be seriously taken into consideration. Further loss of land to rising waters there “threatens to drive further social and political instability in the region, which could reignite armed conflict and increase the likelihood of terrorism,” said General Castellaw. “So this is far more than an environmental problem. It’s a humanitarian, security and possibly military problem too.”

Climate Change

Due to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the East, and the River Nile in the West, the Middle Eastern countries and regions in North Africa are geographically in a water-rich region. Despite this however, water scarcity is a pressing issue here. The large rivers, such as the Tigris river and Lake Urmia, running throughout the countries within the Middle East are gradually losing more of their annual flow. The lack of rainfall, high temperatures and evaporation-rates due to climate change are causing the shrinking of these important rivers. 

We see this process happening to Lake Urmia, one of the Middle East’s biggest lakes, which demise over the past few years has been increasing due to the detrimental effects of global warming. This once prosperous lake where people would bathe, has now halved in size. According to the Department of Environmental Protection of West Azerbaijan, the lake’s size has decreased from 5,400 square kilometres (2,085 square miles) in the 1990s to just 2,500 square kilometres (965 square miles) today. They have expressed concerns that this lake that once provided this province with a local thriving tourist economy will disappear entirely.

This is also the case for the Sirwan river in Iraq. This once abundant river beginning in Iran and running along the border of Iraq and Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region is now dotted with measuring poles showing where water once reached.

Droughts have also become a serious issue within the Middle Eastern countries and Africa. As the UN warned in 2017, severe droughts have contributed to the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two. They can have severe effects on populations inhabiting the region, as they will be deprived of drinking and agricultural water. On the other side of the spectrum, climate change can also cause extreme rainfall. This can be detrimental, as such severe rainfall can be the cause of floods like those seen in China, Germany and Belgium this year.  

Water scarcity can have a ripple-effect and cause other types of issues for the populations, such as disrupting the flow of electricity. Regions suffering from no water-flow dams would have essential infrastructures in local communities severely impacted, such as with the running of health facilities. 

Intense evaporation-rates caused by the heating of the oceans have also caused lakes to become hypersaline. A lake becoming hypersaline occurs when the salt concentration increases due to the water content from the river evaporating. This can cause many problems for farmers, as their crops can be damaged if the water from the river is being used for irrigation purposes. 

The future of the Middle East is looking bleak. Scientists from the UN Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change have published projections predicting that the winters in Middle Eastern countries will gradually get dryer the more the world’s surface warms. While the summers will be wetter, the heat is expected to offset its water gains. 

Need for Modern Policies 

Regardless of the impacts of climate change, there is clear mismanagement through the policies established by the governments within the region. Another huge contributing factor causing the water scarcity that is making regions uninhabitable is the lack of modern policies regarding water security. 

A stark example of this are the policies enacted through the three unilateral dam initiatives from Turkey, Ethiopia, and Israel. To solve their own water crises, Turkey, Ethiopia, and Israel have built dams for their domestic, industry, and irrigation purposes. However, by doing so, it has severely cut off the water supply to the neighbouring countries of Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, and Sudan, who depend on the rivers to provide them with their own water supplies. 

According to a report compiled by a group of international organisations, including the Danish Refugee Council, the Norwegian Refugee Council, CARE, Action Against Hunger, and Mercy Corps, among others, the main culprit behind the shortage of running water in Iraq and Syria was the cutting off of water flows from the Tigris and Euphrates by Turkey. 

These dam initiatives are not something new to Middle Eastern countries’ politics. The British think tank, Chatham House, released a report addressing the issues that a failure to modernise policies in Iraq could cause. The report argues that the Iraqi PM’s office must prioritise the water problem, as successive governments largely contributed to its severity. According to Chatham House, Iraq lost its good position regarding water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers up until 1970. After that year, 40% of the country’s water was lost due to policies from neighbouring countries, Turkey in particular. They believe that to break this vicious cycle, Iraq “needs a group of professional and able actors outside of government to work with willing elements of the state bureaucracy as a taskforce to pressure for action and accountability”. 

Unfortunately, these dam initiatives have been said to be a frequent feature of Middle Eastern politics, is something that policy makers should have been considering for a long time, and has been the subject of critics all throughout the region. An independent energy policy analyst, Sagatom Saha, brought attention to this issue in 2019 where he stated: “Nearly every country in the Middle East from Morocco to Iran share water resources with a neighbour, and some have little freshwater of their own. What has played out between Egypt and Sudan and between Turkey and Syria could become a frequent feature of Middle Eastern politics as water becomes even more scarce…. More affordable desalination and less water-intensive agricultural practices can help divorce food and health outcomes from warming. Climate change will take place over decades, but policies adopted today will determine what role it will play in the Middle East. Policy makers need not leave it to fate.”

Looking to the future, policymakers need to take into consideration the geographical location of themselves and their water supplies. As most Middle East countries share at least one water supply with their neighbours, it would be wise for governmental officials and policy makers to attempt to work with each other to rectify the issues. The Director of the Elmoustkbal Organization for Strategic Studies, Amro Selim, pointed out that: “Most countries in the Middle East region share at least one underground water reservoir with their neighbours, which highlights the importance of cooperative management of shared water resources. This also indicates that control of water resources and access to water will be the principal cause of the conflicts and disputes that the region will likely experience in the near future.”

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 proven 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.”

You might also like: Saudi Vision 2030: What are Saudi Arabia’s Plans for the Future?

Ineffective Governments 

Corruption, inaction, and incompetence is not something new in governments, and there have been links established between poor governance, environmental mismanagement, and urban unrest in communities poorly served with water, air conditioning, and other basic amenities. The actions of the elite predominantly are what has brought the world to the environmental critical point we are at, and unfortunately they are also the ones who have the most influence. 

Ineffective governments and their environmental mismanagement has led to the creation of dilapidated energy infrastructures and deep-rooted structural deficiencies that block the creation and promotion of technological innovation in renewable energy and environmental sustainability. Many of the government’s responses to the water crises have been inherently weak, with limited options. Domestic problems can also have an impact on the government’s focus and attention of devising strategies to address these issues. An illustration of this is the way in which Iraq has been lagging behind other regions in their agricultural sector due to its failure to modernise its irrigation methods. The Iraqi government have been preoccupied with fighting terrorism and dealing with strong militias allied with Iran that it has neglected other issues that need to also be of a priority. 

Corruption has a constant presence in the governments of Middle East countries, and the officials are not being held accountable. A clear example of this would be what happens in Iraq. On an occasion, international organisations provided large sums of money to individuals who were claiming to be working in the water industry in Iraq. It later transpired that they were corrupt individuals and were involved with money laundering. The Iraqi government knew who they were, but little action was taken to bring justice against these corrupt individuals and to hold them accountable. 

Furthermore, the governments in the region have been known for having ineffectively tackled issues related to climate change. According to this year’s Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI), we see Saudi Arabia ranked as 60th, Iran ranked at 59th, and Turkey ranked at 42nd

War and Civil Unrest

Middle Eastern countries are riddled with war, violence, and civil unrest. As amenities such as drinking water are becoming scarce, analysts are worried that there may be more conflict and civil unrest to come. 

Currently, there is social disorder over the lack of basic amenities, such as water and electricity. Iran has had protests against water shortages in the southwest of the country where temperatures close to 50°C still saw people protesting against the severe water shortages that the government in Tehran has failed to tackle. Protests have also been staged in other Middle Eastern countries, such as in Iraq

It is undeniable that policies regarding water management can have an effect on other aspects of politics within the region. Some analysts see Israel’s water diversion schemes as a precipitating factor leading to 1967’s Arab-Israeli War, whereas others have even debated a possible connection between climate change and the revolutions and wars of the Arab Spring. There are clear and unarguable linkages between ineffective governance, environmental mismanagement, urbanisation, and urban unrest in communities poorly served with water, air conditioning, and other amenities. “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,” stated Jos Lelieveld, an expert on the climate of the Middle East and Mediterranean, of the Max Planck Institute.

“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,” stated associate senior fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Johan Schaar. 

Terrorism can have an adverse effect on the availability of drinking water for populations within the region, as water infrastructure systems are primary targets they seek to disrupt. For example, terrorist organisation ISIS are known to target oil pipelines, irrigation projects and dams and have blown up water stores in the past. In 2014, ISIS were reported to have flooded nine villages in the Shirwain region of Iraq by diverting the water of nearby rivers. They managed to submerge 200 acres of farmland. Additionally, in ISIS-occupied areas, they are able to take control of the dams in the area, giving them the power to ruin the local community selectively and strategically. 

The cost of war is something that also cannot be ignored. As with all wars, not only will there be a cost to human life and monetary expenses, but there will always be a huge environmental cost. The Cost of War Project have stated that “the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan have had a serious impact on the natural environments of these countries” and further found that “along with the degradation of the natural resources in these countries and a radical destruction of forest cover, the animal and bird populations have also been adversely affected.”

Additionally, the refugee crisis that has arisen from wars and civil unrest is something that must not be overlooked. Not only does the influx of refugees put a large amount of strain on the resources of a country, but other issues can arise; such as paving the social environment for civil strife and extremism that could ultimately erupt into mass protests.

What Can We Do For The Future?

Although it may seem like we are a long way from coming close to rectifying the environmental issues that are deemed to occur in the foreseeable future, there are still things that can be done to alleviate the suffering and environmental cost of the issues discussed above. 

Featured image by: Carlos ZGZ


About the Author

Jangira Lewis

Jangira Lewis currently works as a Secondary School English Teacher in Hong Kong. Born and raised in Luton, she graduated with a Masters degree in International Journalism from the University of Leeds. Her interests lie in geo-politics, health and nutrition, humanitarian issues, and animal welfare.

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