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Climate change and its impacts on people's lives are a major concern for Middle Eastern countries. The region suffers from limited resources and vulnerable ecosystems. Water shortage, drought, food shortage, land degradation, and desertification are some common problems Middle Eastern countries face. The worsening of food security in the region is highlighted in the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) 2022 Global Report on Food Crises (GRFC 2022). The report identifies conflicts, economic shocks and weather extremes as the main drivers of the food crisis in the Middle East.

Further, there are challenges concerning the water crisis due to extreme climatic conditions. According to the Drought in Numbers 2022 report by United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Yemen and Oman were the drought-affected countries in 2020-2022. In addition, the report noted Syria, Iran and Iraq as facing drought emergencies during 2020-22, and these are also among the most food-insecure countries.

Climate change has gained more significance in managing sustainable water resources in the Middle East. The region is vulnerable to climate change and its consequences, including increased average temperatures, reduced and more irregular precipitation, and rise in sea levels, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report. As per the data from NASA's GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment), the Gulf region is becoming drier and is a global hotspot for water scarcity. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) Water Development Report 9 underlines that the total renewable water resources per capita per year (m3/person/year) of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and some parts of Lebanon and Israel fall under the category of less than 500 m3 indicating ‘absolute water scarcity’. While Syria, Iraq and other remaining parts of Lebanon and Israel fall under the 500-1000 m3 indicating ‘water scarcity’. Iran’s renewable water resources per capita per year is around 1,484 m3 while Türkiye, an upper riparian country, is water-rich and its water resources at around 1,500 m3 fall under ‘water stressed’. These data point towards the region facing extreme water scarcity and water-related challenges.

One of the most important climatic characteristics is precipitation, which occurs most frequently in northern mountainous regions in the Levant when cold fronts from Siberia and the Atlantic Ocean flow. Precipitation can exceed 1,500 mm/yr in Mount Lebanon and western Syria, but it steadily decreases to the east when the weather fronts pass coastal mountain ranges and starts making their way to the desert regions of Jordan, northern Saudi Arabia, and western Iraq. Increased evaporation rates significantly diminish the quantity of water left as surface or groundwater. However, the infrequent but heavy precipitation in the mountainous regions accumulates and seeps via a vast network of the wadi (valley) channels (channels of a watercourse that is dry except during rainfalls), serving as a major local source of freshwater. The region's climate makes it impossible for perennial river systems to exist. This is why Jordan, Tigris and Euphrates, the major river systems, are experiencing a yearly recession, risking water security across the Eastern Mediterranean and Levant. Notably, climate change-related water shortages and overuse have reduced Shatt al-Arab's capacity, formed by the confluence of Tigris and Euphrates in Iraq, by 30 percent since 1980. By 2040, the river system is anticipated to be entirely dry. One addition to the challenge of the water crisis is that on the upstream sections of the Tigris and Euphrates, Türkiye has built 22 dams reducing the water flow into Iraq and Syria. The fertile alluvial soil around these river basins and the vast Mesopotamian Marshes are important, constituting food sources for many people but are also stressed due to hampered water flow.

Ensuring people's basic water usage needs is a growing concern besides ensuring water for irrigation and industrial requirements. Agriculture accounts for most water needs, and its scarcity worsens the situation. Most countries have groundwater as their major source of fresh water and irrigation. Iraq, Syria and Türkiye have surface water as their major source. Some countries such as Bahrain, Iran, Israel, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE also depend on desalination. One of the outcomes of the water crisis in the region is accelerated desertification, which leads to an increase in dust sources. As a result, there has been a rise in dust storms that affect everyday life and regular activities, besides posing a serious health hazard. The dust storms' immediate economic effects on Iranian and Iraqi infrastructure are significant, including the temporary shutdown of power plants, the recurrent suspension of public sectors in impacted areas, and the effects on the aviation sector.

In common terms, food security exists where food availability, access, utilization and stability exist. It is considered a food insecure region if these are not fulfilled. Extreme climatic conditions, drought, low precipitation and dried river basins lead to reduced yields, crop failures and price hikes, causing supply instability, reduced agricultural income, migration, deteriorating food quality and health issues. Yemen, Syria, Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan (Syrian refugees) were ranked under the list of food crisis countries in 2021 according to the 2023 Hunger Map of the World Food Programme (WFP). These countries were included, along with Armenia, in the predictions of the prevalence of the food crisis in 2023 in this map. In the GRFC 2022 report, which stated weather extremes as one of the primary drivers, Yemen and Syria were among the world's ten largest food-insecure countries. According to the report’s Integrated Food Security Phase Classification system, which divides food crisis into five phases, these countries came under the IPC/CH Phase 3 (Population in Crisis) or above. Yemen has been under IPC/CH Phase 5 (Population in Catastrophe) every year since 2018. Around 10 percent of Iraq’s population, 22 percent in Jordan and 31 percent in Palestinian territories came under IPC/CH Phase 3 (Population in Crisis) or above in 2021. Since 2020, the effect of weather-related calamities on food insecurity has increased. In recent years, weather shocks in many forms have been particularly harmful.

In countries experiencing food crises, malnutrition has existed at critical levels due to factors including low nutritional content due to food insecurity, a rising rate of childhood diseases, and lack of accessibility to sanitary facilities, clean water, and medical care. In technical terms, the number of ‘wasted children’; that is, children with low weight-for-height under five years of age was worse in Yemen, with around 2.3 million in 2021. Among the most susceptible to severe food insecurity and malnutrition are the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), with causal effects on low-income consumers, including women and children. The Middle East also has one of the largest IDPs due to conflicts and civil wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. In Lebanon, the production of cereals in 2021 was 15 percent lesser than the five-year average and was comparable to the low harvest in 2020 brought on by the nation's economic difficulties. Based on these characteristics, the World Food Programme's RCA approach projected that 46 percent of Lebanese people experienced acute food insecurity in the second half of 2021, increasing from 32 percent in the year's first half.

Hosting refugees and asylum seekers in an already food-insecure country only adds to the crisis. Lebanon and Jordan were among the ten food-insecure countries which hosted the highest numbers of refugees, according to the 2021 report of the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Notably, the nearly 5.7 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria are not included in the report. If considered, it would add up more to the data on the actual food insecurity of these countries.

Environmental challenges and structural issues harm sustaining food in the Middle East. Most regional countries do not produce enough food to feed their population. They are mainly dependent on imports. The global and regional supply chains have been severely affected by Covid-19-induced lockdowns and the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Moreover, Russia and Ukraine were the major sources of wheat for the Middle Eastern countries. This has exacerbated the food crisis in the region, with wheat prices witnessing a 14-year high in 2022. As a result, prices for basic foods have skyrocketed in most regional countries. Lebanon saw the biggest rise (75–100 percent), followed by Iran and Yemen (50–75 percent). The Black Sea Grain Initiative mediated by Ankara for the safe passage of grains from Ukrainian ports has, for the time being, helped in reducing the pressure. In the Global Food Security Index of 2022, the UAE was the most food-secure country in the Middle East, followed by Israel, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Türkiye and Kuwait. Interestingly, Jordan was under the list of food-insecure countries the previous year, as 15 percent of its population was stressed. However, due to its national strategy for food security and other measures, it secured a place in the list of secure food nations in 2022.

Thus, water and food insecurity have gained worldwide attention due to several conferences and conventions, such as the Convention to Combat Desertification and the UN Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP). For example, during COP 27 in Egypt in November 2022, discussions regarding water-related issues were held under the theme ‘Water Supply and Climate Change: Adaptation is Urgent.’ The larger issue of climate change was also discussed in the COP 27 meeting, with food security being discussed under the themes ‘Disrupt Hunger: Innovating for People and Planet’ and ‘The Climate Emergency is a Hunger Emergency: Scaling-up Climate Change Adaptation and Solutions to Address Loss and Damage in Food Systems.’ The issue of climate change, water and food security are also expected to be discussed prominently during the COP 28 meeting in the UAE in November-December 2023. Regional countries also have individual initiatives, such as the Saudi Green Initiative, for combating the ill effects of climate change.

Climate change is an issue that does not limit itself to boundaries and areas. It affects all, mildly or severely, sooner or later. The poor are the first casualty, but it does not mean the rich are secure. Food and water are issues that have been predicted to lead to future conflicts and wars, especially in the Middle East. There exists data insufficiency and gaps regarding the environmental conditions in the region and its actual impacts on the people, but the data noted in this article do underline the magnitude of the crisis. Several projects are underway to enhance data accessibility and estimates, and organizations, including the League of Arab States, ESCWA, and other specialist organizations, are leading the Regional Initiative for the Assessment of the Impact of Climate Change on Water Resources and Socio-Economic Vulnerability in the Arab Region. However, there remains a vacuum regarding urgent collective action by regional countries to combat the interconnected issues of climate change, water scarcity and food crisis. The Middle East region faces grave environmental issues that must be discussed extensively, and urgent steps to be taken to resolve them.

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy