Climate Change in the Arab World (2) – A Call for Action

Terrace farming in Yemen dating back to the 3rd Millennium BC

Terrace farming in Yemen dating back to the 3rd Millennium BC

Part 2 of our article on Climate Change in the Arab World highlights solutions and urgent actions needed to start adapting to climate change in the region.


Arab countries are located in a very arid region with the lowest freshwater resource endowment in the world. Fast demographic growth and climate change will dramatically increase the already severe water gap of the MENA region.

In spite of this situation, water squandering, pollution and mismanagement are pervasive throughout the area. Water losses in Beirut, Jericho, Sana’a and Damascus reach up to 60% of total distributed water due to leaks, illegal pumping, and bad metering. Other countries have irreversibly damaged their precious underground aquifer (Jordan, Saudi Arabia). Finally, most Maghreb and Mashrek countries have bad or non-existing water treatment systems, leading to massive and dangerous pollution of surface and ground water. Sometimes, these “dark waters” are used for agricultural purposes.

What is needed is, in order of priority:

–          Fight pollution: whatever is left of this precious resource should be protected as a matter of national security.

–          Establish an aggressive water demand management policy to reduce waste. This means setting up a progressive taxation for household water consumption, support the reuse of treated water in agriculture and phasing out wrong agricultural incentives with direct cash transfers. Certain absurd habits, such as watering parking twice a week or using water-shoot to sweep the floor should be prohibited and fined.

–          Increase water storage capacity, in particular natural underground storage to avoid evaporation. The Abu Dhabi rehabilitation project of natural aquifer is an excellent model that should be replicated.

–          In general, each country should rethink its water allocation to get the highest return. The real value of water and its competing uses should lead to new trade-off calculations (cf. below).


In the face of more arid climate, systematic soil moisture conservation techniques should be developed and applied as a priority. Solutions are cheap and return is very high. The first, common-sense solution is rainwater harvesting which could boost agricultural yields by 2/3. This decentralized solution does not require much investment and should become a general reflex. Also, substituting drip irrigation to current wasteful systems could increase irrigation efficiency by 80%. The traditional terrace farming is also a good solution to maximize arable land area and to reduce soil erosion and water loss.

Another urgent way to adapt to CC is to adjust the agricultural mix in two directions:

  • Prioritize adaptable varieties, such as more resistant native Arab plants or develop drought- and salt-tolerant types (cf. research on “ biosaline agriculture”).
  • Climb the added value ladder by shifting from cheap crops to more sophisticated products with growing demand (fruits, vegetables, flowers and dairy products). In some cases, calculations should lead to simply phase out agriculture in favor of Industry and Services.

Other solutions are more institutional. Land and water collaborative management is superior to individual capture and predation behaviors. At the local level, this could imply going back to traditional collective property rights and management. At the international level, it means negotiating better international trade agreements to secure future supply (“forward contracting”) and urgently develop collaborative river basin management to avoid a lose-lose situation resulting from a prisoner’s dilemma[1].


In 2050, 75% of the Arab population will be living in cities, most of which are located in coastal areas. A conservative 1-meter sea level rise would affect 37 M people (10% of the total population). If you factor in the higher frequency of extreme weather events, disasters with a very high human cost should not come as a surprise.

Despite this “certain risk”, very little is being done at the national or at the local level. Urgent action is needed including the following priorities:

 Urban Greening

Urban Greening (UG) can be used in a cynical manner, as a marketing, window-dressing tool. This is what is currently happening in Beirut, due to the lack of a proper legal and certification framework. Or it can be taken seriously and yield many different types of substantial benefits:

  • It reduces the “heat island effect” (built up areas retain heat, leading to significantly higher temperature than nearby rural areas)
  • UG absorbs part of the air pollution
  • Green soils capture rainfall excesses, thus reducing flood impacts
  • It stabilizes hills, preventing deadly landslides
  • UG helps filtering water before it reaches underground aquifers
  • When combined with the planting of native species, drip irrigation techniques and the use of treated water, UG becomes an optimal solution.

It is also urgent to move away from the high glass tower model which is probably the least fit for MENA climate and the most energy consuming solution (A.C.). Reviving traditional Arab material and architecture (wind towers and corridors, adobe, shade orientation…) enhanced with new technologies (home automation) could lead to an attractive new real-estate market segment more in tune with local needs, environment and aspirations.

Disaster Prevention

Water drainage systems in the Arab world cannot cope with massive floods and short term measures such as mobile pump units are no solution. Specific water evacuation paths separated from the ordinary network need to be incorporated into urban planning and infrastructure as a matter of national security and hygiene.

Chaotic urbanization results in underprivileged population occupying natural plains and humid zones (wadis). These flood-prone areas should be made “no-go zones” and alternative housing should be provided in less vulnerable urban spaces. In this context, encroaching on the see to extend urban space (polders) might not be a wise thing to do (cf. the new Corniche in Beirut).

Finally, early detection capacities of extreme weather events (cyclones, tsunamis…) should be developed such as smart buoys. Ideally a regional system of smart buoys and other observation tools should be established to allow for optimal detection and timely reaction.


While reading this import report, we identified three ideas that deserve to be explored more in-depth by local actors:

–          In general, it would be worth working on exposing the cost of inaction and using it as a local tool to raise awareness and political accountability. The cost of inaction should include the cost of maladaptation, which could be very important in the case of the Arab world (ex: the growing use of untreated “black water” for agricultural purposes in case of drought).

–          We loved the reference to local history, traditional agricultural heritage and the need to go back to growing local species. Much more is needed on ways and means to revive, in each country, ancestral rural and architectural practices as key adaptation solutions in the face of climate change (inventory of local plants, practical guides on traditional architecture…).

–          Ecosystem valuation has been a very dynamic field of research in Economics over the past 20 years. Literature is abundant and many pilots are proving that it is possible to internalize the value of nature services (cf. the Yasuni initiative in Ecuador). We were a bit disappointed that this essential and complex topic was not developed further in the report.

Finally, we identified two elements that were not taken into account in the report:

–          Environment and water in particular have a special status within Islam (cf. our previous post on Islam and Environment, 12 July 2012). This religious and cultural aspect could be a precious tool to raise awareness in the region.

–          Chapter 7 of the report deals with a “gender-responsive climate change adaptation” but fails to consider one important social actor, in particular in urban areas: domestic workers. They are those who actually deal with water, energy and cleaning products in the houses and should be targeted in any campaign aiming at changing behaviors and consumption patterns.


[1] Each part suspects the others to be willing to get a grip on the limited resource. They all have incentives to deplete the water resource as fast as possible, harming themselves and the others.

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