Water and food are overwhelming concerns for Middle East, Arab Barometer poll finds

Immediate day-to-day issues a worry among the region's public

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Issues related to water, including pollution and scarcity, are key concerns in the Arab world, according to a study that canvassed the views of more than 26,000 people in a dozen nations.

The Arab Barometer research by Princeton University found that while climate change was a worry for the region’s public, issues with a more immediate day-to-day impact tended to have a higher priority.

A report outlining the survey, titled “Views on the Environment and Climate Change in the Middle East and North Africa”, has been released before the start of the Cop27 summit in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.

When asked what the biggest environmental challenge facing their country was, respondents in all nations ranked water issues (including pollution of drinking water, pollution of waterways and lack of water sources) higher than other concerns, with between 32 and 59 per cent of respondents highlighting them as their biggest concern.

As The National reported in July, temperatures across the Middle East are forecast to rise by 5ºC this century, which would prove catastrophic for food production and make parts of the region uninhabitable.

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We have seen in a lot of countries people [that] are having a hard time getting access to food, sustaining their access to food
Mohamed Abufalgha, the report’s author and a senior research specialist at Princeton University

That people in many nations are worried about issues such as access to enough clean water “reflects the reality in large parts of the Middle East and North Africa”, said Mohamed Abufalgha, the report’s author and a senior research specialist at Princeton University.

“The region has suffered for a long time from a lack of water or lack of access to water, and to see that people perceive water as the biggest challenge, for me, signals that people understand the challenges the region is facing,” he told The National.

However, Mr Abufalgha said that there was variation across the region, with about 60 per cent of Tunisians, for example, but less than a third of Lebanese seeing water issues as the biggest environmental concern.

In most countries waste management was the next most cited issue, being the greatest concern for between 8 per cent and 30 per cent of people.

Day-to-day worries

Climate change was named as the biggest environmental threat facing the country by between zero and 10 per cent of survey participants.

Mr Abufalgha cautioned against concluding that climate change was not seen by the public in the Mena region as important.

“One misunderstanding of the survey could be that people are not concerned about climate change. This is not true,” he said.

People are “already aware and concerned about” climate change, which is “reflected in broad support” for more government action.

However, he said “more immediate” issues — notably food insecurity, stability and spending on areas such as education and health care — tended to take priority.

A worker holds a handful of wheat grain at the Modern Mills of Lebanon in Beirut. In April, the World Bank approved a $150 million loan for food security in crisis-hit Lebanon to stabilise bread prices. AP

“These seem to people to be daily challenges,” he said. “We have seen in a lot of countries [that] people are having a hard time getting access to food, sustaining their access to food, so when compared to climate change, food insecurity, for example, would take priority.”

Echoing this, the report states that compared with issues such as “food insecurity, subsidies or education”, the environment “ranks lowest in the list of priorities for government spending, as well as preference for foreign aid”.

Attitudes vary within countries, with urban residents and people whose income covers their expenses tending to feel more strongly that their government should take action to address climate change.

The Arab Barometer research initiative dates back to 2006 and describes itself as the largest repository of publicly available data on the views of Mena citizens.

The latest report is the result of the seventh round or wave of surveys, carried out between October 2021 and July 2022. This round has delved more deeply than previous ones into people’s views on the environment.

Other reports from the seventh wave giving the results of surveys on subjects such as racial discrimination, gender attitudes, food insecurity and migration have been published earlier.

The latest report stated that many citizens across the region reused items such as glass or plastic bottles, with people who could not cover their expenses especially likely to, something that “reflected the motives behind such behaviour”.

Heat and drought

“At least pluralities in most countries surveyed say they reuse bottles to save money or because it is convenient,” the report stated.

“Only in Kuwait do nearly half of the population say they do so to protect the environment.”

Bob Ward, of the Grantham Institute of Climate Change and the Environment, part of the London School of Economics and Political Science, said that issues such as water scarcity, highlighted by Arab Barometer as a key concern, would be made worse by climate change.

So, while climate change may not be the key environmental concern for some people, it would have an impact on the environmental issues that were ranked higher.

“Climate change is going to change patterns of rainfall and increase evaporation and the risk of drought,” he said.

“Access to freshwater is going to become more difficult because of climate change. When people understand that, their concerns about climate change become more apparent.”

He said people were experiencing more extreme weather events and they understood that this was the result of climate change.

“In the Arab countries, which tend to be closer to the equator, extreme heat and potential drought are going to get worse as a result of climate change,” Mr Ward said.

Updated: October 27, 2022, 9:45 AM
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