During our research for a report on climate change in the Arab world which will be released in Doha next week, I travelled the region extensively. I met a number of people struggling bravely against higher temperatures and sporadic rainfall, but it is really the children who tell the most eloquent stories about the negative impacts of climate, now and in the future.
Consider Mohamed, a Syrian boy growing up in a rural family that lost almost everything they relied on for survival as a result of the recent prolonged drought – and now, on top of their destitution, they contend with a civil war. Let me also introduce you to Samia, a Yemeni girl, who has been taken out of school to help her mother in the ever more difficult task of fetching water. As sources of water grow scarcer, Samia spends her days trudging to a well 3 hours away from home, rather than studying like other children her age.
For thousands of years, the people in Arab countries have coped with the challenges of climate variability by adapting their survival strategies to changes in rainfall and temperature. But over the next century this variability will increase and the climate of Arab countries will experience unprecedented extremes. Temperatures will reach new highs, and in most places there will be even less rainfall. The current rate of climate change has already outstripped many traditional coping mechanisms. The stories above are only two of the myriad ways in which climate change is affecting the Arab world.
The people that depend on natural resources for their livelihood and wellbeing are especially vulnerable. This means the rural population, which accounts for almost half of the region’s total population. Many hundreds of thousands of people have depleted all their assets and have been forced to move in order to find new livelihoods. They usually end up in cities, often in a low wage, informal job – if they are lucky enough to find one. Crowded cities get even more crowded, with increased health risks and more pressure on urban water supplies. This cycle will only grow more intense under the influence of climate change as traditional forms of rural subsistence become unsustainable.
Higher temperatures and extreme events such as drought and flash floods have become the new norm in the Arab world. The year 2010 was globally the warmest since records began in the late 1800s, with 19 countries setting new national temperature highs. Five of these were Arab countries. Many Arab countries now regularly measure temperatures around 50°C in the summer months.
Our report, Adaptation to a Changing Climate in the Arab Countries, to be launched at the UN climate conference in Doha, Qatar, provides an assessment of the effects of climate change on the Arab region and outlines what steps need to be taken before it is too late. Over the course of preparing the report, I also met a great many regional experts. I had the privilege to work with a large number of world-class regional researchers who are all experts in different areas affected by climate change. Everything I learned from these experts has been collected in the report and I am indebted for all they taught me. The group of natural and social scientists worked very closely together and drafted chapters and notes. Leaders from regional NGOs and institutions provided input along the way. One and a half years of commitment, engagement and incredible hard work went into this report and the final product is largely a regional effort. It provides guidance to Arab policy makers as to what actions are needed in rural and urban settings to build resilience to climate change in key areas such as agriculture, gender, health, tourism, and water. Anticipating climate change across all activities can be the catalyst for improving interventions, galvanizing support, and preparing for future developments.
As the stories of Mohamed and Samia show, the lives of Arab children, women, and men have already been negatively affected by climate variability and change. This calls for a comprehensive climate adaptation approach to reduce the vulnerability of people and increase the countries’ resilience to climate change. Adaptation to a Changing Climate in the Arab Countries outlines measures that would not only reduce the region’s vulnerability, but also contribute to greater long-term development. The report offers a series of proposals on how to implement adaptation strategies and activities and how to manage them over the long term. Adaptation is an organic process, with the need for constant adjustment to keep pace with the changing climate. This will require governance and the integration of climate risks and opportunities into all activities. The main messages of the report are that in order to build up resilience in the face of a changing climate, countries as much as households will need to diversify their production and income generation, and factor adaptation into all decisions; whether they are at the regional, national or local level. Strong leadership will also be essential, without which adaptation efforts are unlikely to achieve the necessary commitment to be successful.
There is a lot at stake, and the future is uncertain, but much can be done to adapt. With the right strategies and actions, the Arab world will be prepared for another thousand years. The key is to start preparing now.