More than war, climate change is making the region hard to live in
“UNTIL the 1970s Basra’s climate was like southern Europe’s,” recalls Shukri al-Hassan, an ecology professor in the Iraqi port city. Basra, he remembers, had so many canals that Iraqis dubbed it the Venice of the Middle East. Its Shatt al-Arab river watered copious marshlands, and in the 1970s irrigated some 10m palm trees, whose dates were considered the world’s finest. But war, salty water seeping in from the sea because of dams, and oil exploration which has pushed farmers off their land, have taken their toll. Most of the wetlands and orchards are now desert. Iraq now averages a sand or dust-storm once every three days. Last month Basra’s temperature reached 53.9ºC (129°F), a record beaten, fractionally, only by Kuwait and California’s Death Valley—and the latter figure is disputed.
Unlike other parts of the world where climate change has led to milder winters, in the Middle East it has intensified summer extremes, studies show. Daytime highs, notes an academic study published in the Netherlands in April, could rise by 7ºC by the end of the century. Anotherstudy (by the UN) predicted that the number of sandstorms in Iraq would increase from 120 to 300 a year. The UN’s Environmental Programme also estimates that the harsh climate claims 230,000 lives annually in west Asia (the Arabian Peninsula and the Fertile Crescent), making it a bigger killer than war. Things are so bad that even Jabhat al-Nusra, a terrorist group, is preaching the virtues of solar panels.
The region also has fewer coping mechanisms than before. Population increase has reduced the water supply, leaving two-thirds of the countries in the Arabian Peninsula and Fertile Crescent without what the UN considers enough. Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, is set to run out of water in 2019 or perhaps earlier. Some people have air-conditioners, but power cuts—of up to 16 hours a day in southern Iraq—make them nearly useless. Baghdadis blister their fingers on door-knobs.
And they are the lucky ones. The Middle East is home to 39% of the world’s refugees, more than any other region. Hundreds of thousands live in tent cities. “If the wind blows from the north, it brings the gas from Qurna field,” says a librarian in a village north of Basra. “If it blows from the south, it’s heavy with gas from Majnoon.”
Much of the problem is man-made. Over-irrigation has dried up lakes and turned seas into dustbowls. The Dead Sea is shrinking by a metre a year. Oil has made much of the Gulf fantastically wealthy. But like a modern Midas touch, its atmospheric by-product threatens to choke it. Rising water levels could sink between 5% and 11% of Bahrain by the end of the century, according to projections. War and urbanisation have combined to chase rural people from the land. Desertification and sandstorms lift radioactive war detritus into the air. War stops people from taking counter-measures, such as planting trees.
Richer states can create artificial environments to make life less sweaty. In Kuwait, which recorded highs above Basra’s this week, malls turn the air-conditioning so low that wags joke they offer one of the coolest summers on Earth. Land reclamation may outpace land loss from rising sea-levels. And each summer millions of Gulf citizens migrate north. But for most Arabs, such things lie far out of reach.