The effects of climate change and water scarcity in the Middle East will only get worse, and there may not be a way out. Here are seven reasons why.
The Middle East is quietly heading towards the largest natural disaster in human history, and there's nothing it can do about it.
1) Ignored warnings
In 2015, a report by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation quietly warned of a bleak, water-scarce future for the Middle East. It highlighted climate change, erratic weather, and the utter lack of water sustainability in the Middle East, made all the more dangerous by "high degrees of reliance on agriculture, and low adaptive capacities."
With only 2 percent of the Middle East covered by water, and 94 percent vulnerable to climate change, its very future is at stake.
Three years later, the situation has only become more bleak, as water increasingly becomes a coveted and politicised resource.
2) War is already in the air
Over the last twenty years, there have already been six conflicts in the Middle East, claiming the lives of millions. Water shortages don't only start a conflict, but also make them worse.
The Pacific Institute, which maintains a global conflict database, reports on 92 conflicts that took place over water in the Middle East since the 1960's.
What is already the norm, may move past a breaking point with drastic climate change already underway. One study predicts a 25 percent decrease in rainfall throughout the Middle East by the end of the century.
Countries already struggling with instability, chronic water shortages, droughts, and insecurity will be the hardest hit.
The Human Development Report forecasted a 50 percent decline in water availability in Syria, not by the end of the century, but in 2025.
The next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics.
3) Water, the new liquid gold, not oil
After Jordan's statement that it would not renew Israel's lease on Jordanian agricultural farmland, Israeli Agriculture Minister, Uri Ariel, was quick to respond with the threat of cutting Jordan's water supply for days.
For Israel, this is nothing new. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon noted that the 'Six Day War' began after the "diversion of the Jordan river," recognising the crippling effect of drought.
In a city with millions, food scarcity is likely to lead to crime and violence. But in the arid, sweltering Middle East, it could conceivably lead to outright war.
Jordan is an outlier, that is quickly becoming the norm. Vulnerable to anything that happens upstream of the Jordan river, it relies mainly on underground aquifers, drawing 200 percent more water than is sustainable - essentially they are drying up their supply.
With the influx of refugees, urban population growth, and reserves running dry, Jordan is confronted with a near-certain prospect of drought.
4) No solutions in sight
Gulf countries, already struggling with water scarcity, have opted for costlier solutions such as desalination, which separates sea salt from water.
70 percent of the world’s desalination centres can be found in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia alone spends over $24 billion dollars to increase its desalination capability.
But even desalination has its limitations.
There is a solid physics barrier to how energy efficient this process can be. As a rule, it will take at least 1 kWh of energy to desalinate 1 cubic meter of energy.
If electricity costs, on average, $0.15 per kWh, it would cost around $150 for 1200 cubic meters of water. That's around half of an Olympic-sized swimming pool. The same amount of water would only cost $4 for a farmer if brought from natural sources.
It doesn’t end there. To make matters worse, the more that Gulf states desalinate water, the more concentrated salt wastewater is pumped back into the sea. As the sea becomes saltier, desalination will only become more expensive, with fewer results.
This energy-intensive approach isn’t without its dangers and environmental impacts. Desalination produces chemical by-products, high carbon dioxide emissions, which accelerate water scarcity.
5) The future will be worse if the past is any indication
Warring for water is nothing new. Somalia is a tragic example of this.
In 2004, Somalia was witness to the infamous ‘War of the Well’, lasting two years and killing 250 people. By the time it ended, Rabadore, the site of the conflict was home to water warlords, water warriors and water widows.
One widow, Fatuma Ali Mahmoodi, recounted the horrific war for water that killed her husband.
“His body was bloodied, swollen, and just lying there… we’d never seen this level of violence. Thirst forces men to this horror of war."
Droughts kill more people than any other natural disaster. A Brookings Institute report found that in more than over 100 hundred years, more than half of all natural disaster-related deaths were because of drought.
During the Somali civil war, the fighting quickly devolved into control over strategic water sources and hoarding of humanitarian supplies, leading to over 300,000 deaths.
South Sudan suffered a similar tragedy, quickly impacting agriculture, giving rise to famine and severe nutritional deficiency.
No longer exceptions and increasingly the norm, water insecurity and exhaustion are only expected to get worse.
6) We've passed the point of no return
The world is already past the point of no return. Even the agreed-upon goals of the 2015 UN Climate Summit will not make a difference.
The majority of the world’s countries are still on the energy and emission intensive path of development, with no sign of slowing down. On the other hand, just three top emitters produce more carbon dioxide than 100 other countries.
The Max Planck Institute has warned of areas of the Middle East becoming uninhabitable for human life. They conclude that summer temperatures in the Middle East will increase at twice the normal global average.
The temperate, mild regions of the Mediterranean are expected to reach 46 degrees Celsius by 2050. By 2100, extreme heat waves will occur ten times more often than before while extreme weather, firestorms, dust clouds, and rapid evaporation will become the norm.
Even if the world somehow pulled together and tried to prevent climate change-related temperature rises, we're already too late to prevent its effects.
7) A New Middle East
In this new Middle East, nighttime temperatures will not fall below 30 degrees Celsius, and normal day temperatures will reach 50 degrees Celsius. Air conditioning is a short-term solution as it will only increase energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.
Over 3 billion people will call the Middle East and Africa home by 2050. Water might replace oil as a strategic resource.
Amidst such upheaval, today’s exodus of refugees and persistent global conflict could become a pale shadow of the terrible human displacement to come.