Navigating Climate-related Security Risks in the Middle East and North Africa

Navigating Climate-related Security Risks in the Middle East and North Africa

Millions are affected worldwide by climate change, which is responsible for extreme weather, rising sea levels, and biodiversity loss. These incidents exacerbate competition for resources, raise food prices, and threaten livelihoods. Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions fall short of the 1.5°C target established by the Paris Agreement in 2015. While the use of renewable energy increases, a complete transition away from fossil fuels remains difficult. Physical damage costs are exacerbated when predicted phenomena occurs at a faster and more intense rate than expected, such as icecap melting and extreme weather. Extreme weather and altered resource foundations strain households and livelihoods, thereby exacerbating social and economic disparities. Effectively managing change and safeguarding vulnerable populations, particularly in regions prone to conflict, are critical for maintaining societal stability. The adverse effects of climate change are addressed by the United Nations Security Council, Human Rights Council, and General Assembly in recognition of their security implications. Concerning the Lake Chad Basin crisis, Resolution 2349 (2017) emphasized the destabilizing effects of climate change. UNDPPA, UNDP, and UNEP established the Climate Security Mechanism in 2018 with the intention of bolstering the United Nations’ response to climate-related security threats.

Prospects and Obstacles in the MENA Region Regarding Climate Change 

The tangible consequences of climate change are already becoming apparent throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. MENA, a region already marked by arid conditions, is confronted with an imminent reduction in precipitation and a steady ascent in temperatures. For example, the Maghreb region of the Eastern Mediterranean has been beset by years of severe drought, which has exacerbated preexisting water scarcity issues. Moreover, the region is experiencing an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as storms, floods, droughts, and transboundary dust storms. During the winter of 2019-20, numerous MENA countries were struck by unusually intense storms and floods, which caused extensive infrastructure and agricultural land destruction. As an illustration, desertification in Iraq results in the annual loss of around 100 square kilometers of arable land, which underscores the severe environmental ramifications associated with climate change.

Globally, MENA is recognized as the most water-stressed region due to the fact that water withdrawals surpass replenishment rates. Water withdrawal from aquifers in nations such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia exceeds the rates of replenishment by a significant margin, resulting in the depletion of groundwater resources and subsequent environmental degradation. In spite of the urgent requirement for water conservation, the majority of MENA countries promote wasteful water consumption practices through their pricing policies and subsidies. As a result, nations resort to unsustainable approaches to tackle water scarcity issues, including desalination of seawater and deeper well drilling, which further complicates environmental concerns.

In collaboration with regional and international partners, the Regional Initiative for the Assessment of Climate Change Impacts in the Arab Region (RICCAR), which is led by UNESCWA, has undertaken comprehensive research to forecast the future consequences of climate change in the MENA region. In order to comprehensively evaluate the consequences of climate change on the water resources of the Arab region, RICCAR has established a geographic domain specific to the Arab world. This domain takes into consideration transboundary water sources, including the Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile rivers.

An essential element that is not comprehensively examined in RICCAR is the possible ramifications of climate change on human mobility and migration trends within the MENA region. Although definitive causal relationships between climate change and migration have not yet been established through empirical research, it is expected that climate change will have a growing impact on internal migration occurring within nations, especially when extreme weather events are involved. Throughout history, migration and mobility have functioned as adaptive mechanisms in reaction to shifting socioeconomic and environmental circumstances. Nevertheless, due to a multitude of obstacles, vulnerable groups such as the elderly, women-headed households, and the poorest frequently find themselves ensnared in untenable circumstances from which they are unable to escape.

The convergence of conflicts and severe weather phenomena amplifies the complexities associated with displacement, specifically in nations characterized by fragile institutions and security apprehensions. Prolonged displacement exacerbates disparities and susceptibility, as impacted communities are deprived of their customary means of subsistence and encounter barriers when attempting to obtain humanitarian aid and support services. Moreover, climate change impacts disproportionately affect vulnerable populations, including ethnic and religious minorities, impoverished rural families, and urbanites who are marginalized. This exacerbates pre-existing inequalities and discrimination.

In summary, the resolution of the intricate issues brought about by climate change in the MENA region necessitates the implementation of all-encompassing approaches that give precedence to measures that enhance resilience, social fairness, and environmental sustainability. Policy objectives that are effective should be the reduction of forced migration while recognizing migration as a valid adaptation strategy. Furthermore, it is imperative to prioritize endeavors that enhance institutional capabilities and foster social unity in order to alleviate the detrimental consequences of climate change on the most susceptible communities throughout the MENA area.

The Effects of Climate Change on Security and Peace in the Region 

The body of research examining the potential correlation between climate change and the likelihood of violent conflicts has grown substantially over the past few years. The majority of research has been conducted in East Africa, with an emphasis on the effects of extreme weather, specifically drought, on the relationship between pastoralists and sedentary farmers. Although the prevailing consensus holds that climate change has not been a direct cause of conflicts, it is possible for it to intensify pre-existing factors that contribute to conflicts in specific circumstances. The aforementioned factors comprise a region’s historical background of strife, significant dependence on agriculture for sustenance with limited viable alternatives, frail institutional structures, and migration, especially in cases where destitution compels individuals to inhabit regions already populated by others, in the absence of established mediation mechanisms to resolve disputes regarding resource access.

Typically, a confluence of socioeconomic, political, and environmental elements that intersect in a manner that is sensitive to the context gives rise to conflict dynamics. Although certain scholars contend that socioeconomic development levels and recent violent histories have a more direct influence on the initiation of conflicts, it is equally plausible that climate impacts, including extreme weather events, could substantially contribute to the emergence of conflicts in regions already rife with conflict drivers. In contrast to relying solely on statistical probabilities and quantitative data, understanding how climate-related events interact with other drivers requires nuanced, context-specific insights and case studies. The mere presence of conflict-inducing factors does not, however, guarantee conflict.

It is imperative to incorporate climate change and resource allocation concerns into post-conflict planning and mediation procedures. As an illustration, upon their repatriation to Iraq, the estimated 1.9 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) might encounter obstacles such as the occupation of their territory by IDPs from other regions. Akin challenges might be faced by returning refugees or internally displaced persons in Syria, which could potentially escalate tensions. Land and water disputes, as well as water-related conflicts in rural regions, have resulted in tens of thousands of fatalities each year in Yemen. These tensions have the potential to undermine forthcoming political settlements and sustain instability if not resolved. In order to reduce the likelihood of recurrent hostilities, political settlements and mediation endeavors should incorporate provisions for water and land access. This is an aspect that is frequently disregarded in post-conflict recovery strategies.

Climate-induced security threats may also emanate from regions outside of nation-states, with water resources being a particular concern due to their lack of territorial confinement. Due to the fact that the majority of MENA nations consume more water than is replenished, water resource competition is a significant obstacle. Although once a source of concern, the possibility of “water wars” has since been disregarded as states have come to appreciate the advantages of collaboration and shared resource management, which have effectively diminished interstate tensions. Peacebuilding and diplomatic initiatives on a larger scale could be aided by agreements regarding shared resources, thereby fostering regional stability.

Considering the escalating occurrence of climate-related incidents, particularly in the domains of energy and food, the MENA region is confronted with amplified hazards as well as prospects for regional cooperation and confidence-building. Climate change-induced unpredictability on a global scale may give rise to cascading and non-linear phenomena with localized repercussions, thereby potentially heightening the risks of conflicts. Promoting proactive measures, such as conflict prevention strategies and regional cooperation initiatives, is crucial for policymakers and stakeholders to effectively tackle these emerging challenges and cultivate enduring peace and stability in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

The United Nations Regional Landscape in Preventing Conflict: Observations from a Climate Security Perspective 

The United Nations (UN) maintains a multifaceted presence in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region through a variety of funds, programs, agencies (AFPs), and missions mandated by the Security Council. While certain missions have country-specific objectives, others have regional mandates. When conducting our analysis, it is critical to assess the organizations’ mandates and missions in relation to their ability to confront and alleviate the increased risk of conflict that climate change causes.

As situations stabilize and internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees repatriate, it is an expected consequence that they will discover that their residences have been occupied by unauthorized individuals. In order to avert the resurgence of conflict in contexts that remain precarious, frameworks for political settlements must include provisions or perspectives pertaining to land dispute resolution and water management. Significantly, water, land, and environmental concerns were deliberated upon during the National Dialogue and drafting of a new constitution in Yemen from 2013 to 2014. These discussions offered pertinent insights that could inform subsequent political transitions in the aftermath of the conflict.

As revealed through conversations with UN personnel, one does not always fully comprehend the functions and mandates of agencies other than one’s own. This is especially apparent in the case of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), a regional commission operating under the auspices of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). ESCWA’s program modalities occasionally deviate from those of other United Nations entities, placing greater emphasis on policy development and think tank-like functions. The comprehensive research conducted by ESCWA on climate change via the RICCAR initiative and its inventory of shared water resources in West Asia form the analytical underpinnings of our study. It is of the utmost importance to comprehend the connections between climate change and insecurity that ESCWA’s Emerging and Conflict-Related Issues Division (ECRI) is constructing a risk assessment framework for the region. The ESCWA is currently in discussions with the World Bank concerning a joint project involving technical cooperation on shared water resources in the Mashreq region.

Energy, water, and agriculture policies of Member States have been sporadically criticized by ESCWA, as evidenced by the organization’s publications that influence the programming of UN entities such as UNDP. An enhanced collaboration between the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) and the Economic Community of West African States (ESCWA) would be advantageous, considering ESCWA’s pivotal function in conflict prevention via its convening authority, country-specific analyses, and climate change impact projections.

Although UNEP’s field presence in the MENA region is limited, the organization engages in collaborative efforts with governments to formulate environmental policies grounded in scientific principles. UNEP is engaged in regional ecosystem-based adaptation, which encompasses endeavors to support environmental governance and natural resource management as well as enhance climate-resilient watershed management in the Jordan Valley. In addition, UNEP conducts targeted analyses, maintains environmental Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) indicators, and monitors environmental conditions.

Regional UN Development Coordinator Offices (DCOs) and affiliated UN Resident Coordination Offices (RCOs) are critical entities in the reformed United Nations development system. These entities are entrusted with the responsibility of supervising development obstacles, which encompass climate-related tensions and insecurity. With the assistance of Peace and Development Advisors (PDAs), RCOs monitor and assess potential security ramifications of climate change at the national level. They also investigate potential approaches to mitigate these consequences, which may include land tenure disputes, inadequate governance services, and water scarcity.