Adaptation risks & opportunities

Climate adaptation is a challenge and a great shared opportunity in the Arab region. At the global level, the UN Climate Change Adaptation Unit focuses on four priority areas, which can inform action in the region. The four priority areas are:

  • Ecosystem-based adaptation – Implementing projects that utilize biodiversity and ecosystem services as part of a holistic adaptation strategy;
  • Knowledge-sharing, analysis and networking – Spreading vital adaptation knowledge through well-connected global networks;
  • Access to adaptation financeHelping countries to gain access to finance for building resilience and national capacity;
  • World Adaptation Science Program – Providing an interface between the adaptation research community and decision-makers.

 At the regional level, the spread of war and accelerated climate-heating exacerbate social vulnerability, resource insecurity and displacement. Over the past decade, the Arab region has witnessed cycles of drought, the frequency and severity of which are beyond anything seen for hundreds of years. This means that there is a huge opportunity to finance more resilient communities and cities across the region.

Climate adaptation and resilience in a diverse region

The population of the Arab region is exceptionally diverse. Wealth disparities between the regional countries are among the highest in the world. While the annual per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of Qatar is just under $130,000, six countries in the region are Least Developed Countries (LDCs) with predominantly rural populations. This diversity creates opportunities for cross-border investment and knowledge sharing within finance, technology, energy and other sectors.

The first UNDP Climate Change Adaptation Project in the Arab region was launched in Egypt in 2010 with financing from the Global Environment Facility’s (GEFs) Special Climate Change Fund (SCCF). Since then, the portfolio includes ongoing projects with total financing of approximately US$42 million, primarily financed by GEF, the Adaptation Fund (AF) and UNDP. Most recently, UNDP has also supported Egypt in accessing financing from the Green Climate Fund (GCF) for coastal adaptation.

In parallel to GEF supported initiatives, UNDP has also supported Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, the occupied Palestinian territories, Somalia, Sudan and Tunisia in disaster risk reduction and recovery with projects from 2005-2016 valued at US$151 million, through support of UNDP resources and bilateral donors like Canada, the European Commission, Iceland, Japan, Kuwait, Switzerland and the US. The GEF’s work points to an opportunity for more blended finance and shared financing of climate adaptation across the region.

Public sector funding at a national level is raised through specific taxes and levies throughout the region. For example, in Morocco, the city of Casablanca is in the process of extending its water network and flood protection measures to meet the demands from rapid urbanisation.

Part of this is funded by contributions from property developers, who are financing a growing share of total investment, from 7% in 2004 to 54% in 2014. The contribution is a share of the price of the property when sold, ranging from 0.7% of the selling cost for social housing to 1.3% for luxury apartments and buildings, and contributions are waived when the developments take place in underprivileged neighbourhoods. Special conditions have also been set to adjust the contribution to the pace of urban expansion and to harness major urban developments.

The EBRD is also promoting climate resilience in Morocco, providing a loan for the Saiss Water Conservation Project.

Particularly in countries with large rural areas, the systematic planning of land use in newly urbanizing areas can offer considerable benefits in terms. Traffic-free city centres and the introduction of zero-emission public transport in dense cities are two easy local actions that can be taken across the region. Environmentally sound and sustainable transport adds to fuel savings in the long term, as does public transport inside and between remote areas and towns and locating new settlements and developments close to agricultural or manufacturing centres.

Cities add further pressure to the water-energy-food nexus, as they concentrate water, food and energy consumption patterns within a smaller space, coupled with environmental degradation and urban air pollution. In the Arab region, urbanization is increasing which creates a great opportunity to start an energy transition in the region’s largest cities.

The urban population in Arab countries grew by more than four times from 1970 to 2010 and will more than double again by 2050. A total of 56% of the Arab region’s population already live in cities, and the United Nations projects that by 2030 this proportion will increase to 70%. Over the next decade to 2030, the region will add an additional 83 million new residents. While, in the past, poverty was largely associated with rural areas, rapid urbanization means that in countries such as Jordan and Tunisia, poverty is mostly urban.  As Arab cities continue to expand, the arguments for switching heating, cooling and transport systems to clean energy becomes more powerful. By 2035, Sana’a will be the first city in the world to deplete its groundwater reserves – with the rest of Yemen not far behind.

Within the region, the GCC economies are among the most urbanized countries in the world, a factor influencing their own policy decisions and priorities in the areas of energy, water and food relative to other parts of the region. Close to 100% of the population in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE live in cities. The wealth of these city-states makes them unique from their regional peers with larger, more dispersed and more rural populations. Consuming over 60% of the Arab region’s final energy, the GCC economies face many of the Arab region’s sustainability challenges and have the financial capacity to demonstrate leadership on achieving SDGs for their primarily urban populations.

Mainstreaming the notion that sustainable energy and natural resource use is in the interests of regional economic development, includes an emphasis on long- and medium-term benefits for society. These include cleaner air and water, the preservation of arable land, coastal waters and the natural biosphere.

There is a parallel creation of jobs and innovative industries that provide opportunities for citizens to build a more prosperous society. Water, in particular, deserves much higher priority on investors’ agendas in a region as water-stressed as the Arabian Peninsula, the Mashreq and North Africa, subsidizing wasteful water use is simply not an option in the long term.

Regardless of climate change impacts, water scarcity in the Arab world will reach severe levels by 2025.  Current climate change projections show that by the year 2025, the freshwater supply in the Arab region will be only 15 per cent of levels in 1960. By 2030 the predominant effects of climate change will include a decrease in precipitation, a rise in average temperatures and an increase in seawater intrusion into coastal aquifers as sea levels rise and groundwater is depleted.

The Fertile Crescent, spanning from Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine, would lose all traits of fertility and might disappear before the end of the century because of deteriorating water supply from the major rivers. Man-made problems, mainly the widespread construction of dams and unsustainable irrigation practices which waste about half of the water resources, and rates of human water consumption which are well above international standards in some Arab countries, are making the situation worse.

The expected effects of climate change are likely to exacerbate this deterioration, leading to a huge potential for conflict. With continuing temperature increases, water flow in the Euphrates may decrease by 30% and that of the Jordan River by 80% before the turn of the century. Water management is, therefore, an urgent issue. There is a great opportunity to improve efficiency, especially in irrigation, and to develop new water resources, including innovative desalination technologies.

Agriculture is a special sector, because of its critical meaning for agricultural economies as a primary source of income and food security, but also because its energy needs change as the sector evolves. A systemic shift from more rudimentary forms of agriculture towards the use of more technology, including water pumps, machinery and fertilizers, implies a gain in crop yields, but also more energy usage per agricultural value-added, typically before this intensity rate starts to decline again as more efficient technology is used.

Many Arab economies with agricultural sectors are now at the stage where better technology uses more energy but improves yields in harvest. Within each country’s individual geographic and climatic context, this re-emphasizes the need for a trade-off as to whether the incremental cost of the increased technology and energy and water use generates enough additional food to be worth the investment.

Reflecting substantial differences in geographic and climatic conditions and the uptake level of modern machinery and technology across different Arab countries, energy-intensity rates for agriculture vary considerably between these countries.

Food types such as cereals, fruit, vegetable and oil crops differ intrinsically in the amount of water and therefore energy they consume, as do crops compared with livestock farming and fishery. For instance, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia use most of their land resources for growing fruit, vegetables and oil crops (especially olives), which are competitive export commodities. On the other hand, Algeria, Egypt and Morocco use most of their land resources (between 60% and 70%) for growing cereals – overwhelmingly wheat, which is mainly intended to meet domestic demand.

The Arab world has the highest food-deficit and is the highest food-importing region globally. The average annual increase in the food production and consumption gap was 7.3 per cent during the period 2005-2014. After the food crisis in 2008, many Arab countries put agriculture and food security on top of their national policy agenda. Climate change is expected to impact the region’s agriculture and food production systems, with potentially severe impacts on food security, most notably in countries that depend on rainfed systems. Most of the agricultural area in the Arab countries is rainfed, and a large portion of the region’s agricultural production is based on dryland farming systems, with a variable annual rainfall in the range of 200 to 600 mm.

Marine protection is of particular value because of the immense importance of coastal areas for fishing, recreation and biodiversity and as a natural carbon sink, vital to the mitigation of climate change. The lack of attention paid to coastal areas is of particular concern for the Arab region: approximately 28,000 km2 in total – a scant 3.8% of marine territorial waters in the region – were protected in 2010. The growth in protected marine areas over the 10-year period after 2000 was almost zero. The Arab region and the wider Middle East are rich in natural biodiversity, including marine mammals, fish, some 500 km2 of mangrove forests and well over 15,000 km2 of coral reefs: these resources require protection.

Nearly two-thirds of the coral reefs in the Middle East region are at risk from coastal property and industrial development, overfishing and destructive fishing practices, marine-based pollution, and/or watershed-based pollution. The greatest pressure is in the Persian Gulf, where more than 85 per cent of reefs are considered threatened, while the figure for the Red Sea is just over 60 per cent. Fisheries are particularly threatened by global heating and overfishing.

Areas of low threat in the central-western Red Sea and along the northern Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia may be some of the most extensive areas of reefs on the continental margin under low threat anywhere outside of Australia.

Tourism is an important sector of the economy for a number of Arab countries. The sector is highly vulnerable to climate change. An increase of between 1 – 4°C in average temperature will cause a drastic decline in the index of tourism comfort all over the region. Areas classified between “good” and “excellent” are likely to become “marginal to “unfavorable” by the year 2080, mainly because of hotter summers, extreme weather events, water scarcity and ecosystems degradation. Bleaching of coral reefs will affect tourism in countries in the Red Sea basin, mainly Egypt and Jordan. Beach erosion and sea-level rise will affect coastal tourist destinations, mainly in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, especially in locations where sandy beach stretches are narrow and buildings are close to the shoreline. Options for alternative tourism, which are less vulnerable to climatic variability, should be explored, such as cultural tourism. Countries with coastal areas highly vulnerable to sea-level rise should develop alternative inland tourist destinations.

Displacement and migration, particularly in low- and lower-middle-income Arab countries, will further accelerate pressure on urban living space and resources. Climate change will only serve to exacerbate existing migration patterns and challenges in dealing with the regional refugee population. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) data indicates that the Arab region has in recent years been witnessing globally unprecedented numbers of refugees and displaced persons, mainly as a result of conflict in Iraq, Libya, the Syrian Arab Republic, Sudan and Yemen.

Conflict and instability have led to the destruction of entire cities, with devastating effects on the livelihoods of millions of people, who will have to face yet more challenges with the eventual reintegration of returning refugees under insufficient funding for housing, infrastructure and social services. The difficulties these countries will face extend far beyond the duration of acute armed conflict and present the Arab region with major humanitarian and developmental challenges over the coming decade.

Mass migration imposes tremendous material and logistical challenges for host countries and communities, while it deprives millions of refugees of secure access to energy in addition to other essential services such as clean water, sewerage, food and health care. Energy services in refugee camps and informal settlements are often inferior, poorly planned and highly inefficient, leading to a reversion to traditional biomass, such as fuelwood, and diesel generators.

The effects for both human health and the environment from large refugee populations are significant, from the implications of inefficiently burnt biomass, together with common problems, including deforestation around refugee camps and the effect of polluting fuel fumes inhaled by women and children in particular.

Transition risks & opportunities: Energy efficiency

Energy efficiency is one of the key pillars of inclusive sustainable growth. By empowering countries to maximize energy-efficiency, these investments pay for themselves. Both large scale energy producers and net energy importers in the Arab region have much to gain both politically and economically from enhanced energy efficiency.

The World Bank estimates the potential for savings from energy efficiency at 25% of the projected total primary energy supply in the Middle East and North African countries by 2025. Nearly three-quarters of these savings, or 219 of 300 million tons of oil equivalent, are from greater efficiency in end-use sectors, including industry, residential, commercial uses, transport and public services. This is an enormous opportunity.

For more information please read: Financing the energy transition