American University of Beirut

Climate Change in the MENA Region - Full Text Summary

MENA region climate change problem is multifaceted and dire, AUB Beirut-New York City seminar concludes 

  Several experts from AUB and the World Bank sat down for a video-linked discussion at AUB’s New York City Office and on campus in Beirut, Lebanon, to consider the challenges posed by climate change and poor resource management to Middle Eastern societies.  

   Dr. Nadim Farajalla, Director of the Climate Change and the Environment Program at AUB’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, began the discussion by describing rapid population growth and urbanization in the Arab world. He mentioned that agriculture accounts for 80 percent of water consumption in the MENA region. Desalination accounts for much of that figure. Still the region is a net food importer.  

   Water scarcity, Farajalla says, is a central issue. Much of the region is overexploited in terms of water resources, and per capita energy use is higher than the world average. Farajalla notes that higher temperatures, longer lasting droughts, and increased prevalence of natural disasters are all predicted for the Arab world. Poorer countries in the region, like Yemen and Syria, are less able to adapt their infrastructure to make it more climate resilient.  

   AUB has looked at Beirut’s historical climate data. Though rainfall remains unchanged in the past 150 years, average temperature has risen three degrees Celsius during that time period. That’s important because it means less snowfall, thus less groundwater. Droughts have diminished reservoirs in region and disease infestation has become rampant. They also portend a reduced agricultural yield, which will have compounding effects on the economy.  

   Multilateral government action is needed, but it’s being impeded by OPEC countries who fear the potential damaging effect of regulation. Continued strife in the region has made climate cooperation a challenge. Food, water, and energy sectors must be considered as interlinked; planning for those systems must be done with this interlinkage in mind. In terms of food consumption, certain diets—fruits and vegetable-based—have much lower water footprints than others, meat-based.  

Anders Jagerskog, a senior World Bank researcher and author of Emerging Security Threats in the Middle East: The Impact of Climate Change and Globalization, considered three central questions: are water resources managed sustainably? How accessible are water-related services? Are water-related risks being recognized and mitigated?  

   He noted that diversity of supply—groundwater, wastewater, surface water—is important. He mentioned that roughly 18 percent of the region’s wastewater is currently recycled; the other 82 percent represents an opportunity for more recycling. Libya, he says, pumps a lot of fossil groundwater, which, like oil, is finite.  

   The region generally provides lots of access to water, but less so in strife-ridden countries. The transnational nature of water resources creates management challenges. There are several bilateral agreements in place, such as between Israel and Jordan, however they don’t function optimally and fail to account for the needs of all affected parties.  

   Yaser Abunasr, associate professor of landscape architecture at AUB, considered climate change from the perspective of urban landscapes. He described the urban heat island phenomenon whereby cities witness higher temperatures than surrounding areas. The temperature of Arab cities is already much higher than others around the globe. The impact of runoff and flooding is compounded.  

   Cities must be adaptable and make use of surrounding natural systems. Who knows how accurate climate change projections will be. Abunasr is working on a collaborative project with UC Davis to study the effect of green infrastructure, such as urban gardens and trees, on air pollution reduction in eight Arab cities across the world. He and his team have deployed drones to conduct measurements to this effect.  

   Abunasr is also working with students to study domestic water consumption in Beirut. He mentioned that most Beirutis get two hours of government water daily and rely on private deliveries of bottled water to their homes.  

   Aram Yeretzian, assistant professor at AUB’s Department of Architecture and Design, discussed the relationship between air pollution and the heat island effect in Beirut. He also looks at building energy use, as relates to year of construction and building shape. The majority of energy use in Beirut, he says, comes from the existing building stock. Considering how those buildings consume energy could go a long way toward reducing the city’s carbon footprint.  

   Yeretzian is considering policies that might reduce urban energy consumption. He advocates for reducing the construction industry’s reliance on cement and concrete and focusing instead on using earth as a standalone material or mixing it with another material. To promote these policies, he is working with the Ministries of Public Works and Environment, as well as the Green Building Council.  

   During the question and answer session, the panel made a point to state that there is no single solution to the climate change problem, but rather, a suite of solutions that addresses back-end generation and front-end consumption 

   Adaptation, panelists pointed out, is contextual. Lebanon and Saudi Arabia face different challenges and must adapt to those respective challenges accordingly. They called for less use of energy intensive products and pointed out how subsidizing goods like water and electricity can lead to overconsumption. Policymakers, they said, must be made aware of the savings that can accrue from enacting pro-climate policies.

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