Are Arab leaders doing enough to combat climate change in MENA?

From renewable energy to desalination, Arab leaders must climate-proof their countries before its too late, writes Moez Abidi [photo credit: Getty Images]

The Middle East and North Africa region, a critical epicentre of the climate crisis marked by water scarcity, rising temperatures, and increasingly frequent natural disasters, has taken centre stage by hosting the last two UN Climate Change Conferences. But why is it that the MENA and Arab region seem to be failing in their climate change response? 

Take water scarcity. Fourteen of the 25 countries facing “extremely high water stress” are in MENA; 8 of the top 10 most water-stressed countries are Arab. And whilst it may be easy to chalk this up to natural limitations, there are many examples of countries and cities that have defied their limitations through the use of intelligent investments in water infrastructure. 

One such example is Singapore, a small densely-populated island nation, which faces natural limitations in its water supply. However, they’ve invested in four water sources which they call the “Four National Taps”, comprising of local catchment, imported water, treated wastewater and desalinated seawater. 

ND-GAIN Readiness scores for Arab countries [source: ND-GAIN]

Whilst wealthier and more stable Arab countries have invested in similar water infrastructure projects, the less affluent and more unstable nations have been unable to do this at any feasible scale. It must be a priority within every climate-centred summit to ensure capital flows into these countries, giving them diversified water sources and preventing potential future conflicts caused by water shortages. 

Egypt, for example, relies on the Nile for 90-95% of the country’s renewable freshwater. This water is used for drinking, irrigation and industrial uses. Such heavy reliance creates vulnerability as changes in rainfall patterns from climate change could reduce the Nile’s flow. 

Renewable internal freshwater resources per capita in Egypt from 1960 to 2020 [source: World Bank]

A solution which has emerged for Egypt’s water crisis lies in desalination projects, removing salt from the seawater that lies on its 3000km of coastline. More investment into these desalination plants can help alleviate Egypt’s water stress, particularly as its per capita water supply is projected to reach the UN threshold for absolute water scarcity by 2025. 

It’s also important to remember that large-scale water infrastructure projects, though ambitious, are entirely feasible and have a history in the region. Notable examples include Libya’s Great Man-Made River project and the UAE’s Jebel Ali desalination plant.

A cheaper, yet equally important, approach to fighting water stress involves public awareness programs to emphasise water conservation: many citizens in Arab countries are simply unaware of the water risks their nations face. 

Freshwater cubic metres per capita by country [source of data used to make map: World Population Review]

Another challenge for the MENA region is how to effectively mitigate and respond to natural disasters. In the past 12 months alone, the region has experienced several weather-related catastrophes, including Storm Daniel in Libya, the 2024 Gulf floods, and the 2023 North Africa wildfires.

If we look at Storm Daniel, it’s clear that the dams meant to protect Derna were inadequately maintained, a fact that had been reported by experts for nearly 40 years. Fingers have been pointed in all directions, however, it’s clear that the country’s fractured state has hindered proper maintenance and, in this case, led to many preventable deaths. 

The rainfall that hit north-eastern Libya was record-breaking, estimated to have a ‘return period’ of up to one in 600 years. But this is using current data, which may become less relevant as climate change worsens.

Scientists attribute the storm’s intensity to unusually warm sea-surface temperatures in the Mediterranean. But this is a warning of what may yet come: events this extreme are expected to become up to 50 times more likely and 50% more intense when compared to a climate that is 1.2°C cooler.

Is any Arab country safe?

Even wealthy countries are not safe. The floods that struck the Gulf in April prove that that countries must pay attention to their changing environment. The low surface permeability exacerbated the flooding, leading to a rapid runoff and an overwhelming of the drainage systems. The UAE authorities likely hadn’t anticipated the most intense rainfall in over 75 years hitting their country. Nature does not care however, the infrastructure must be made to cope.

Time-series plots on average or average maximum temperatures in Arab cities. 12-month moving average to remove seasonal weather effect [source of data used to make plots: NOAA – National Centers for Environmental Information]


The other catastrophic event associated with climate change is wildfires. The wildfires that ravaged parts of the Atlas Mountains in the Maghreb in the summer of 2023 should be a warning to Arab leaders, mainly about the importance of investing in early-detection systems.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that large portions of the Arab population are not financially protected from wildfires and other natural disasters. Leaders must look at promoting risk-pooling schemes or allow for great insurance accessibility for more deprived sections of their population to make sure that they are protected. 

Rising temperatures due to climate change lead to higher evaporation rates, drying out soil and reducing available water resources. This creates a situation where even average rainfall levels might not be enough to sustain agricultural production. Rainfall patterns may also see changes.

It’s anticipated that there will be more frequent and intense droughts hitting the region. In fact, the drought currently witnessed in Syria and Iraq was expected to have a return period of 1 in 250 years, now it is expected to occur once a decade.

The exact impact of climate change on a region is highly uncertain, however governments must do far more to ensure their countries can withstand its effects. Investing in early climate mitigation projects can indeed prove to be more cost-effective in the long run, and may yet save their people from the brink. 

Moez Abeidi is a Libyan writer from Benghazi with a special interest in Middle Eastern and North African politics, particularly the Libyan conflict.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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