As the world experiences climate change, countries in the Middle East face a looming issue that offers no perfect solution: water scarcity.
“The Middle East faces numerous climate problems, but none is more troubling than the scarcity of freshwater,” said Geoffrey Kemp, senior director of Regional Security Programs at the Center for National Interest and former security advisor to President Ronald Reagan. “Water is more valuable than oil, and has never been more relevant than it is today.”
Kemp will be joined by Ambassador (ret.) Barbara Bodine, director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University for a discussion on climate change and water scarcity in the Middle East at 10:45 a.m. EDT Friday, July 3, on CHQ Assembly for the annual Middle East Update. The presentation will be followed by a Q-and-A session where viewers can share their inquiries.
Bodine plans to share her first-hand experience of life in the Persian Gulf region to illustrate this issue for an American audience. Bodine served as the United States ambassador to Yemen from 1997 to 2001. She knows first-hand the role that water plays in not just daily chores, but in culture.
“(Water) has always had a particular venerate in Middle East culture,” Bodine siad. “It is a gift from God. A lot of the Quran talks about the water given to man by God. They also consider it a common good: Water belongs to no person.”
Most Middle East countries lack a freshwater source. Countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have turned to their Persian Gulf access to extract salt from seawater in a process called desalinization as a substitute for freshwater. However, Bodine said that this process is not sustainable in the long run.
“They are on a vicious cycle, because the thing about desalination plans that people don’t think about is when you have to desalinate water, what do you do with the salt? What they do is they dump it right back into the Gulf,” Bodine said. “They turn around and desalinate that water, and they dump salt back in.”
Some countries turn to freshwater aquifers in underground pockets. But, much like fossil fuels, these water supplies will one day run dry. Additionally, Bodine said the cost of oil to run the machinery to access the water begins to add up.
Yemen is uniquely impacted by this water crisis. Since the beginning of a civil war in 2014, much of the country’s infrastructure has been reduced to rubble by airstrikes and armed conflict. A reported 80% of the population is highly vulnerable to the effects of war such as waterborne illness, famine, and most recently the spread of COVID-19.
Since the conflict began, the Yemeni people have struggled with access to clean water. In recent years, unclean water led to the largest outbreak of cholera in recorded history. This, among other factors, has led to the UN declaring the societal state of Yemen the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world.
Bodine pointed out that the country’s population is more concentrated in the mountain highlands as opposed to the coastline, in contrast to Saudi Arabia and UAE that have major urban centers on the Gulf. The process of desalinating Gulf water is, therefore, not cost effective for this nation. Bodine said that unlike their neighbors, Yemen does not have the seemingly endless pool of resources to carry out aquifer water production.
“Yemen is a totally different case (than other Gulf states) with a large population, no natural water — apart from aquifers — and a civil war,” Kemp said. “Yemenis have to keep digging down into the ground to get water from historic aquifers. It comes to the surface, and much of it is used for agriculture. The deeper they go, the more expensive it is for the oil they have to import to manage these wells. And at some point, they will run out (of water).”
While Middle Eastern countries lack access to freshwater, climate change presents the risk of sea levels rising and destroying much of these countries’ assets. Much of this land is at sea level, leaving it susceptible.
“If you look at all the major cities like Jeddah, Kuwait City, on and on — they are all right smack dab on the coast,” Bodine said. “(Their location has) an advantage for desalination, and a marked disadvantage if sea levels rise.”
Bodine said that as salt water rises, it contaminates the soil around it — so even as it retreats, the soil is too salty for agriculture. If the gulf waters rise too far, it will infiltrate major urban centers and the institutions that define these countries: financial centers, industrial centers, and locations of dense populations.
“Just to compound it further, as climate changes, rain changes. Rain patterns, weather patterns, cyclone patterns, drought patterns — this can all have an impact elsewhere, which will reverberate back to the Middle East,” Bodine said.
With pressures on basic needs, Middle East nations risk conflict with each other, or within. Take the Arab Spring, Bodine said.
“There were many root causes to the Arab Spring, but one of them was that there had been some significant droughts around the world. The cost of food, particularly basic foodstuffs like wheat and rice, shot up dramatically,” Bodine said. “You do a significant change in the cost of food, and you have political instability.
Many Middle Eastern people flee their homes because of food scarcity and the insecurity of basic need, and Bodine said that is why many seek refuge in places like Europe.
“Just as our folks during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl — what did they do? They picked up and moved,” Bodine said. “It’s not different any place else in the world that water becomes a driver of instability, of migration, of political conflict.”
Kemp noted that the issue of climate change and water scarcity is present, but not immediately dire.
“No country, not even Yemen, faces an imminent depletion of fresh water to the point where people won’t have it. It’s a long-term problem,” Kemp said. “But, the longer the problem remains unaddressed, the more expensive it will be to fix, particularly in a crisis, as climate change gets worse.”
Both Kemp and Bodine hope to further the audience’s understanding of the Middle East through this year’s MEU. They hope to give a nuanced look at issues inflicting the region, as opposed to the views Bodine said many Americans have.
“We tend to reduce the various components of the Middle East to very simple, almost cartoonish ideas of who they are and what they are and how they are connected to us, and how we are connected to them,” Bodine said. “To come away with a better appreciation of how it’s all interwoven would be the message I hope people would come away from the talk having heard.”
This program is made possible by Beverly and Bruce Conner Endowment for Education & The Ethel Paris and Theodore Albert Viehe Lectureship.