An aerial view of the Giza Pyramids, Egypt. Dario Morandotti, Unsplash

How the world’s driest region is adapting to the climate crisis

The state of the climate in the Middle East and North Africa ahead of COP28

Turn on the tap, and water flows out: it’s something most of us take for granted. But for many people, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), precious H2O is growing scarce as the climate crisis deepens.

In fact, a report by the World Resources Institute (WRI) estimates that MENA is home to 13 of the 15 most water-stressed countries in the world, with 83 percent of the region’s population experiencing extreme water stress.

“For the Middle East and North Africa, this means 100% of the population will live with extremely high water stress by 2050,” the authors say. “That’s a problem not just for consumers and water-reliant industries, but for political stability.”

The region’s demand for water has more than doubled since 1960 – and as the thermometer rises, the situation is growing direr.

According to the U.K. Met Office’s latest climate risk report for the region, higher temperatures and more variable rainfall will lead to an even greater risk of harvest failures by the 2050s. Some areas will become increasingly exposed to extreme heat, with temperatures pushing the limits of human tolerance.

This temperature increase will lead to more frequent drought, which will in turn cause higher prices and greater dependence on food imports – not to mention threatening economic output. What’s more, rural communities will bear the brunt of the burden.

“Farming communities are affected the most by water stress, especially women, who face increased pressure to maintain food security for their families,” says Fidaa F. Haddad, a forestry officer at the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Drought not only affects crops and livestock but also electricity production, public health and even political stability. “In the Middle East, it can be even worse due to the high risk of drought, which is exacerbated by conflicts and migration – putting even more pressure on local resources,” she adds.

Argan trees
Argan trees in Agadir, Morocco. Tigmi Moiz, Unsplash

Ancestral wisdom to the rescue

Haddad points to the wisdom of local communities, which she says must be at the core of any solution. “These communities have traditional knowledge that can contribute to fire and land management,” she says.

But, she adds, farmers will also need to adapt to the effects of the climate crisis. They will need to learn how to implement best practices from agroforestry, which combines agricultural and forestry technologies to create more sustainable land use systems.

“We need to support local farmers with techniques to improve livestock grazing, agricultural management, planting trees in dry areas and using agroforestry techniques to restore forests,” says Haddad. “We really need to build their capacity.”

One example of successful community farming, she notes, is Morocco’s booming argan oil industry. The oil has become a must-have ingredient in everything from skin creams to shampoos and salad dressings.

Camels
Camel herding in Taif, Saudi Arabia. Aidil Zakky, Unsplash

Natural climate solutions

Nature can play a major part in helping communities cope with the climate crisis, even as human activity is stripping it bare.

Ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) covers a comprehensive set of approaches to adapt to the climate crisis through restoration, conservation and ecosystem management. It includes techniques like mixed farming methods to maintain soil fertility and conserve water, which can be cost-effective and build the resilience of water resources.

These approaches can especially benefit herders in the region, who practice pastoralism to graze domestic livestock. These herders have been seriously impacted by the recent lack of rainfall, even though they tend to use drier land unsuitable for most agriculture – such as the 303 million hectares of total rangelands across the MENA region.

“Pastoral systems that adapt and work in harmony with forests and grasslands and activities that allow for synergy and crop production along with digital technologies can work in the drier lands in the region,” Haddad explains.

Gali Sherana
Gali Sherana, Iraqi Kurdistan. Milo Rossi, Unsplash

Investing in the future of water

At the other end of the spectrum, more international cooperation is needed to overhaul poor water use policies and invest in sustainable water management techniques.

“We need to define and invest in good value chains, and for that, you need inclusive investment at different levels that will produce better climate adaptation,” says Haddad. “We also need effective policies, especially where there isn’t synergy.”

To offset the impact of the region’s large oil and gas industries, Haddad suggests initiatives such as tree planting and water recycling.

“On a positive note, we are beginning to see these changes in some countries like Iraq and Jordan, which are planting millions of trees,” she adds.

The WRI report shows that it would cost just 1 percent of global GDP to solve global water challenges. But, as it also acknowledges, “the world needs the political will and financial backing to make these cost-effective solutions a reality.”

In other words, humanity must drastically improve water management if we are to effectively adapt to the climate crisis and prevent water stress from becoming even more widespread.

“We have the roadmap,” concludes Haddad. “We need to move forward – highlight successful initiatives, expand pastoralism and agroforestry and use innovative tools.”

Article tags

adaptationclimate changedroughtdrylandsrangelandswater

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