Heatwave in Mid-East may portend woes of global warming

More conflicts and refugee crises feared if mushrooming populations in the region face extreme water scarcity

BAGHDAD • Record-breaking temperatures this summer have scorched countries from Morocco to Saudi Arabia and beyond, as climate experts warn that the severe weather could be a harbinger of worse to come.

In the coming decades, United Nations officials and climate scientists predict that the region's mushrooming populations will face extreme water scarcity, temperatures almost too hot for human survival and other consequences of global warming.

If that happens, more conflicts and refugee crises far greater than those currently under way are likely, said Mr Adel Abdellatif, a senior adviser at the UN Development Programme's Regional Bureau for Arab States who has worked on studies about the impact on the region of climate change.

"This incredible weather shows that climate change is already taking a toll now and that it is - by far - one of the biggest challenges ever faced by this region," he said. These countries have already been grappling with remarkably warmer summers in recent years, but this year has been particularly brutal.

Parts of the United Arab Emirates and Iran experienced a heat index - a measurement that factors in humidity - that soared to 60 deg C last month, and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, saw an all-time high of nearly 52 deg C. Southern Morocco's relatively cooler climate suddenly sizzled last month with temperatures surging between 42 deg C and 46 deg C.

In May, record-breaking temperatures in Israel caused brush fires and a surge of heat-related illnesses. Scientists say the rising temperatures shouldn't be surprising.

A study published last year in the journal Nature Climate Change predicted that heatwaves in parts of the Persian Gulf could threaten human survival towards the end of the century.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and the Cyprus Institute in Nicosia recently predicted a similarly grim fate for the Middle East and North Africa, a vast area currently home to about half a billion people.

The UN predicts that 22 Arab countries' population of about 400 million people will grow to nearly 600 million by 2050. That would place tremendous stress on countries where scientists predict significantly lower rainfall and saltier groundwater from rising sea levels.

Already, most countries in the region face acute water crises because of dry climates, rapidly surging consumption and wasteful agricultural practices. Analysts cite inadequate government handling of an unprecedented drought in Syria as a trigger for the country's devastating civil war, which has produced extraordinary refugee flows that have spilled into Europe.

Last year, Iraqis rallied in Baghdad against their government's inability to provide enough electricity during another scorching summer heatwave. Little, if anything, resulted from those demonstrations. According to some estimates, Iraq's population of about 33 million people will nearly double by 2050.

"The countries in the region are not prepared to cope with the effects of climate change," said Ms Francesca de Chatel, an Amsterdam-based expert on Middle Eastern water issues.

Such a blistering future doesn't seem like a far-off possibility to Mr Arkan Farhan, 33, who lives with his family near Baghdad in a tin hut at camp for people displaced by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Last month, he said, he contracted typhoid from a communal water source that has become particularly crowded - and filthy - this summer. To cool off, his sons use it to fill a pan for bathing. Earlier this month, his 69-year-old father, Jassam, was rushed to the hospital after passing out from the heat.

"Fortunately, he was only bruised. He didn't break any bones," Mr Farhan said of his father while sitting in his sweltering shack. "Iraqis are strong people. But this heat is like a fire. Can people live in fire?"


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2016, with the headline 'Heatwave in Mid-East may portend woes of global warming'. Print Edition | Subscribe