The vulnerability of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to the disruptive consequences of the climate change has been increasingly visible this summer. Heatwaves and wildfires have been particularly frequent in the Maghreb, causing many victims and wreaking havoc in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia; while other countries such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the UAE were hit by severe dust and sandstorms, whose frequency has multiplied in recent years, as a result of rising temperatures.
Water scarcity, droughts and desertification are usually associated with this phenomenon, which, alongside uncovering the remains of a 3.400 years-old city such as Zakhiku from the Mittani Empire, also causes fatalities and long-term respiratory diseases. The unprecedented number of dust and sandstorms this year has pushed neighbouring states to work together to mitigate their pervasive and nefarious effects: in late May the Foreign Ministers of Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and Syria spoke together on the need to collectively address the issue, possibly bringing Saudi Arabia into the group.
For Teheran, climate change represent a formidable threat to the stability of its regime, as it drives popular mobilisation and protests across the country. In late August hundreds of people took the streets in Hamadan, western Iran, to protest over the lack of drinking water and the authority’s inaction to solve the problem. In the past few months thousands of people have also protested over the drying up of rivers and lakes, including Lake Urmia, in north-western Iran.
Once the largest lake in Iran, covering 5.000 square km, its water levels have been steadily declining due to a combination of reduced rainfall, over-farming and rising temperatures. Despite efforts to save it, including the launch of a UNDP programme funded by Japan, Lake Urmia is at risk of disappearing over the next few years, unless further actions are taken.
The same fate seems awaiting Lake Sawa in southern Iraq, once a popular touristic destination that shrank in size in recent years. The lake has completely dried up and its loss, due to a combination of factors that include climate change and illegal irrigation systems, has been recently mourned by Iraqi President Barham Salim.
Water scarcity, exacerbated by the building of dams in upstream Iran and Turkey, is a potential driver of instability for Iraq, already shaken by its worst outburst of political violence in recent years. Climate migration is emerging as a divisive factor as many families abandon villages and move to urban centres such as Basra, which however is struggling with rising temperatures that approached 53° Celsius this summer. At the same time climate displacement could easily represent an incubator for terrorism, offering a recruitment pool to militants eager to exploit the surge of refugees caused by the climate crisis.
These and other climate challenges are quickly emerging as existential threats to many countries in a MENA region that, not accidentally, will host the next UN climate change conference (COP 27) in Egypt in November. President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has pledged to make the conference a turning point in international efforts to protect the environment, but it remains to be seen if oil-producing countries in the region will voluntarily agree relinquish the formidable leverage regained over their Western partners desperate to diversify energy supplies in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region