Climate change could add to Middle East water scarcity

Talks in Sweden preparing for Cop28 hear concerns over poor sanitation and lack of rainwater

Buffalo cool off in scarce Iraqi waters that have turned into pools of sewage due to pollution and desertification. EPA
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Fragile water supplies in the Middle East are under further threat from climate change, officials from the region said on Tuesday.

Talks in Sweden heard that access to clean water in the region was a “pressing challenge of our times”.

Rising temperatures could reduce Iraq’s available freshwater by as much as a fifth, according to one official. There are also fears of “severe health risks” in Palestinian territory.

The concerns were raised during World Water Week in Stockholm, one of the events paving the way for the Cop28 summit in the UAE. One day of talks in Dubai will be dedicated to food, agriculture and water.

Shahira Wahbi, an Arab League official responsible for housing and water resources, said problems such as water scarcity, pollution and poor sanitation are “all related to the effect” of climate change.

She said ensuring access to clean water in the Middle East and North Africa was “one of the most pressing challenges of our time… especially in the face of climate change and water scarcity”.

“We all know that water is a fundamental human right and its sustainable management is crucial for the well-being and prosperity of communities across the world, and this region is no exception,” she said.

Omar Salih, an engineer at Iraq’s Ministry of Construction, Housing and Public Municipalities, said water scarcity was increasing due to lacking regulation and poor infrastructure.

His presentation said climate change “will further exacerbate the situation” because of forecasts that precipitation will fall 10 per cent by 2050 – leading to a 20 per cent drop in available freshwater in Iraq.

Palestinian children play by a puddle in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Reuters

The problem is compounded by deteriorating water quality due to pollution, Mr Salih told delegates, but Iraq could make “great strides” if it improves environmental regulations.

“Iraq has great potential in water resources and if we continue to work in this regard we will improve our systems,” he said.

Elsewhere, climate hazards could force Palestinians to switch to alternative water supplies that carry “severe health risks”, according to Majeda Alawneh from the Palestinian Water Authority.

She said the effects of climate change had been observed in heavy rain, floods, droughts and contamination of the groundwater that many people rely on in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Findings published last week by the World Resources Institute said every nation in the Mena region would suffer extreme water scarcity by 2050.

The institute warned that even a brief drought could wreak havoc and totally consume supplies, pushing governments to cut water to residents.

The UAE's presidency of Cop28 has promised to make "lives and livelihoods" a key focus of the two-week negotiations in Dubai.

It said last month there was "no path" to achieving global climate goals without progress on water, nature, food and agriculture.

Updated: August 22, 2023, 4:35 PM