The latest Arab Human Development Report published by the UN gives a detailed assessment of the most significant environmental hazards facing the Arab countries. The report, based on research conducted over two years, considers population and demographic pressures
in the context of water shortages, desertification, pollution, and climate change.
A key aspect to these environmental threats is the dynamic, interactive relationship among them. Water shortages, for example, contribute to desertification, while climate change may lead to floods in some areas and to worsened water shortages, drought and desertification in others. Similarly, air pollution is an underlying cause of climate change. All pose Challenges to Human Security in the Arab Countries, which is the subtitle of the report.
“The environmental issues can only be confronted through scientific research and serious technological development,” says Mostafa Kamal Tolba, the former Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
“Moreover, no one Arab state alone can undertake the tasks single-handedly. A serious beginning thus needs to be made on creating networks of specialized research centres in these critical areas for the purpose of distributing roles and sharing expertise in order to develop a menu of alternative solutions from which decision makers in the various Arab states may choose,” Tolba says.
The Arab region faces growing challenges to the security of its population from environmental stresses, the report says. Potential conflicts originating in competition for dwindling natural resources may heavily strain relations among communities, populations and states. These challenges will result from population and demographic pressures, the overexploitation of land, water shortages, desertification, pollution, and climate change.
An important factor is growing population pressures, the report says. According to UN estimates, the Arab countries will be home to some 395 million people by 2015 (compared to about 317 million in 2007, and 150 million in 1980). In a region where water and arable land are shrinking, population growth at these rates while falling, will still put intense pressures on the carrying capacity of Arab countries’ lands and further threaten environmental sustainability.
Another factor, obviously linked to the growth in population, is urban growth, which poses its own particular challenges. An accelerating drift to cities and towns is straining already-overstretched infrastructure and creating overcrowded, unhealthy and insecure living conditions in many Arab centres. In 1970, 38 per cent of the
Arab population was urban. By 2005 this had grown to 55 per cent, and it is likely to surpass 60 per cent by 2020.
Then there are the specific demographic pressures where the most evident and challenging aspect of the region’s demographic profile is its so-called ‘youth bulge’.
Young people are the fastest growing segment of Arab countries’ populations.
Some 60 per cent of the population is under 25 years old, making this one of the most youthful regions in the world, with a median age of 22 years compared to a global average of 28.
Water scarcity is a major human security and environmental concern. Total available surface water resources in the Arab countries are estimated at 277 billion cubic meters per year, only 43 per cent of which originates within the Arab countries, the report says. Surface water resources shared with neighbouring countries outside the region account for approximately 57 per cent of its total water requirements. Years of effort have yielded the establishment of formal agreements (such as the Nile Basin Initiative) on the management of shared water resources.
However, most are partial, ineffective and inequitable in terms of the full spectrum of riparian rights. At the regional and interregional levels, cooperation on water usage and management is heavily affected by prevailing political tensions and ongoing conflicts.
Stressed groundwater systems are often the only source of fresh water in the region, yet reserves in renewable aquifers are being withdrawn faster than they can be replenished. Transboundary conflicts, poor distribution and heavy use, especially of ground resources, characterize water use in much of the Arab countries. This leads to a lack of clean water for much of the population and the waste of significant amounts in the agriculture, industry and tourism sectors.
Desertification is a peril in the region. It is formally defined under the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) as “land degradation in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities.” A UN Environment Programme study estimates that desert has swallowed up more than two-thirds of total land area of the region (9.76 million square kilometres of desert, or 68.4 per cent of the total land area). The highest ratio of desert to total land area is in the Arabian Peninsula (nine-tenths or 89.6 per cent). This is followed by North Africa (over three-fourths of the land or 77.7 per cent), the Nile Valley and the Horn of Africa (less than a half or 44.5 per cent) and the Mashreq (35.6 per cent).
Ongoing desertification threatens about 2.87 million square kilometres or a fifth of the total area of the Arab countries. Some 48.6 per cent of the land area in the Mashreq facing the peril, 28.6 per cent in the Nile Valley and the Horn of Africa, 16.5 per cent in North Africa, and 9 per cent in the Arabian Peninsula.
The amounts of desertified land or land threatened by desertification vary greatly from one country to another. In North Africa, for example, they are the greatest in Libya and the least in Tunisia; in the Nile Valley- Horn of Africa region, they are the greatest in Egypt and Djibouti and the least in Somalia; and in the Mashreq they are the greatest in Jordan and the least in Syria.
In the Arabian Peninsula, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE are the most affected countries and together form the most desertified area in the Arab region, in contrast with Syria, which is the least desertified.
Water pollution in Arab countries has grown into a serious challenge. It is mainly attributed to the increasing use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and horticultural and veterinary medical treatments whose long-lasting traces find their way into the water. The lack of access to sufficient clean water threatens human security in many ways. It can lead to the spread of disease among children and affect school attendance and academic achievement. It deprives women of long hours of the day which they could devote to personal and income-generating activities rather than fetching water for their families. In addition, water scarcity and pollution threaten agricultural and food production and precipitate domestic rivalries over scarce water resources.
On the plus side, the Arab countries do not suffer from the levels of air pollution that make life intolerable in many cities around in other parts of the world. In fact, the levels of air pollution in Arab countries are among the lowest in the world. However, this is attributed to the relatively low level of industrial activity to date, the report says. In 2004, carbon dioxide emissions did not exceed 1,348.4 metric tons, compared to 12,162.9 metric tons in middle-income countries and 13,318.6 metric tons in the
However, Arab countries have relatively low carbon dioxide emission rates mainly because most have not progressed very far with industrialisation.
Even so, carbon dioxide emissions in North Africa and the Middle East are increasing at a faster rate than any other region in the world, except for South Asia (driven by India) and East Asia (driven by China).
From 1990 to 2004 the average annual rate of growth was 4.5 per cent, which means that carbon dioxide emissions had nearly doubled over that period.
In terms of climate change, the Arab region is one of those least responsible for the direct creation of the greenhouse effect. According to the global Human Development Report (HDR) 2008 and world development indices for 2007, the region’s share of carbon dioxide emissions, which contribute to this phenomenon, was no more than
4.7 per cent—lower than any other region except Sub-Saharan Africa.
However, the region is also the nearest to becoming a direct victim of climate change, which will affect it in the following ways: a) water shortages; b) reduced agricultural production; c) large population transfers to foreign countries (environmental refugees); d) lower levels of economic activity; and e) threats to national security.
As regards to global warming; according to the UNDP Global Human Development Report 2007/2008, Egypt, Lebanon, Sudan, and the countries of North Africa could be those in the region most affected by climate change. An increase in the Earth’s temperature by three or four degrees would raise the sea level by approximately one metre, creating 6 million refugees in Egypt, with 4,500 square kilometres of agricultural land in the Delta flooded. Even if the sea level rises by only one-half metre, it could create two million refugees and cause more than $35 billion in economic losses.
In the Kordofan region of Sudan, an increase in temperature of 1.5 degrees centigrade between 2030 and 2060 would reduce average rainfall by 5 per cent, leading to a general drop in agricultural production and a decrease in the production of maize by 70 per cent of current levels. An increase of 1.2 degrees centigrade by 2020 would reduce available water in Lebanon by 15 per cent and in some areas of Morocco by over 10 per cent.
It is impossible, argues the report, to confront all these challenges at the national and regional levels alone. Environmental issues are inherently global so attempts to address them need to be global as well. Arab countries have kept pace with the global concern for environmental affairs and have ratified most environment-related conventions.
Moreover, the brunt of the responsibility for some of these issues, particularly climate change, should be borne by the industrialized powers that contribute most to them.
At the regional level, Arab countries can work together to confront the challenges posed by environmental degradation, especially the threats of water shortage, desertification, and pollution.
The authors of the report urge Arab countries to establish an Arab agency to coordinate specialised networks for environmental issues, collecting available information from Arab regional organisations, harnessing expertise and formulating the alternatives needed to tackle these issues.
The Arab Human Development Report 2009 was prepared through a lengthy consultative process and draws on contributions from over Arab 100 scholars. It does not represent the official policy of UNDP.
Global Arab Network
This article appears in the fortnightly bulletin of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce (02/09/2009).