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Education and Climate Change in the Middle East and North Africa

Simon Thacker's picture
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With newspaper headlines focused on violence and  political upheavals across the Middle East and North Africa region, it is easy  to forget that an annual beginning is also underway. Children from the Mashreq  to the Maghreb have started going back to school. Parents are buying school  supplies for little ones and millions of teenagers are going down a path that  may shape their future careers. This week, Voices and Views presents Back to  School 2013 - a series focused on the challenges that both teachers and students  face in the region, and the policies and programs that can change a generation.  We look forward to your comments.

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The impact of climate change on education


The Middle East and North Africa region is on the front lines of climate change.  According to the World Bank report Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4 ͦ C Warmer World Must be Avoided (WB, 2012), the region is steadily getting hotter and drier. Of the 19 countries that set new national temperature highs in 2010, the warmest year globally since records were first kept in the 1800s, five were Arab states.

Education and Climate Change in the Middle East  and North AfricaThese rising temperatures will increase the occurrence of extreme weather events.   The Maghreb has been subject to droughts, while Cyclone Phet, the second strongest on record, hit Oman in June, 2010, killing 44 and causing $700 million in damages. Longer term effects of climate change will be less dramatic but equally severe. In a region with the lowest freshwater endowment in the world, it is estimated that 80-100 million people will be exposed to water stress by 2025, as groundwater is used up faster than changing precipitation patterns can replenish it. While more and more people will be affected by climate change, a range of recent studies have focused on its potential impact on a key early stage of human development; namely, education.

Reports from Save the Children (2008) and UNICEF (2008) reveal the impact will likely be seen most immediately in disruptions to education provision. This is already the case in the region: Periods of excessive heat already prevent students from attending school, as do increasingly more common sandstorms, like those seen in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. In certain areas, where drought-parched grounds are unable to absorb rains, flash floods can make roads impassable, preventing students from reaching schools. The floods of June 2009 in Yemen are an example of this. Disruptions to electricity, a potential side effect, can force schools to suspend activity, while in extreme cases, severe weather can actually damage infrastructure. While the cumulative effect of these disturbances on students' education performance is not well known, it is certain that interruptions in attendance can only have detrimental consequences for learning outcomes.

Over the longer term, it is forecast that climate change, along with other confounding factors such as the high poverty rate in the region, will combine to create environmental degradation, a subsequent deterioration in livelihoods, and put pressure on populations to migrate. Research suggests that in all instances such effects are likely to disproportionately affect children, their well-being and care, and their ability to participate in good quality, equitable education.

Climate change will also impact education in other indirect ways. A warmer climate alters the geographic range of disease vectors, such as mosquitoes, thus exposing new human populations to diseases, such as malaria and dengue, for which they are unprepared. Outbreaks of three different diseases, Rift Valley Fever in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, aseptic meningitis in Djibouti, and Vibrio Vulnificus infections in the Gaza Strip, have all been attributed to either unseasonably warm winter temperatures generated by new and exceptional El Niňo weather patterns or by heat waves. Disruptions to existing agricultural practices, another secondary effect of climate change, will lead to more widespread malnutrition because of higher food prices. Together, these have a combined impact on children that is particularly troublesome from an educational point of view:

... there is strong evidence to suggest that school-aged children who suffer from protein-energy malnutrition, hunger, or who lack certain micronutrients in their diet (particularly iron, iodine, or vitamin A) or who carry a burden of diseases such as malaria, diarrhea or worms do not have the same potential for learning as healthy and well-nourished children and that they are more likely to repeat grades, drop out early and fail to learn adequately due to poor attention, low motivation and poor cognitive function. (CREATE, 2008)

Addressing the challenges facing education 


The immediate response needed entails a better general understanding of the concept of climate change, as well as an awareness of its impact at a regional and local level, both of which will allow policy-makers to better climate-proof education systems and will help school communities be better prepared in the event of weather-related disasters.

What 'climate-proofing education' means in practical terms includes, for instance, reviewing existing infrastructure to ensure that it is safe should serious weather hit and having a school disaster risk management plan in place.  For new schools, it means carrying out better risk assessments when making decisions about school location and selecting more suitable infrastructure, designed to withstand severe weather events. At the same time, it would  also be possible to incorporate features that are more adapted to the evolving climate of the region, with buildings that are more energy efficient, that rely on the abundant regional potential of solar power for example, that capture rainwater for reuse, and so on. In these ways, the physical infrastructure of education systems would become more climate-resilient.

Education is also part of the solution


While building up the resilience of education systems, it will be critical to focus on the role education itself plays in adapting to climate change. Indeed, Article 6 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, called the New Delhi work program (2002-2012), proposes that education, training and public awareness are integral to climate change responses. This call was renewed in 2012 with the Doha work program on Article 6. For the moment, climate change -- if it is taught in schools in the region at all -- is usually only a part of science classes in middle and high schools. This is the norm throughout the world, although Australia has launched the first notable attempts to mainstream the subject by incorporating units related to climate change in all relevant subjects. This is a move in the right direction but a more widespread and fundamental shift in attitude is required.

There is currently a rich and evolving debate about what role education should actually play to encourage sustainable development and combat climate change. The question in this context is whether the aim of educational programs should be to teach people to adopt appropriate behaviors, like recycling, conserving energy, or reducing one's carbon footprint, or to encourage them to develop the skills to confront and overcome rapid change and uncertainty, through critical thinking and problem-solving, or to promote certain values, such as respect for self, for others and for the environment. In all likelihood, a combination of all of these will be required to confront the multiple challenges associated with climate change:

...the longer and more challenging task is to develop education systems that equip learners with the requisite skills, knowledge and attributes to deal with future challenges. In many ways [this] is nothing new, but is at the heart of the very purpose of both education and development agendas. What has changed, however, is the nature and urgency of the challenges faced -- locally, nationally, and globally. (Bangay and Blum, 2009)

What is interesting is that these needed competencies overlap in many significant ways with the ‘21st Century Skills’ touted by many specialists as being essential for Arab world youth to be prepared for the labor market and for life. The World Bank through its country and regional initiatives has been promoting these skills for at least twenty years in the larger context of improving education quality.

Societies in the Middle East and North Africa region have successfully adapted to climate change for thousands of years, and with the right skills and strategies will do so once again.

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