World Environment Day: Why the Middle East cannot ignore the climate conversation

Desertification and environmental damage are drivers of exactly the kind of problems that can fuel armed conflict

An Iraqi farmer harvests wheat in Diwaniya province in April 2022. Iraq is one of several Middle Eastern countries at risk from land degradation and worsening sandstorms. AFP
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Even as the Middle East struggles with the consequences of a destabilising regional war, the need to leave a habitable planet for the next generation has not lost its crucial importance. Climate change and environmental damage are drivers of exactly the kind of problems that can fuel armed conflict: irregular mass migration, water scarcity, poverty and hunger, to name just a few. Without immediate action to reverse key threats such as land degradation and desertification, the region faces a precarious future.

It is no surprise then that this year’s World Environment Day is focused on the dangers posed to natural habitats by human activity, a phenomenon that the UN Environment Programme warns has already afflicted a fifth of the planet’s land. According to the Brookings Institution, desertification is sweeping across Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Iran and in 2022, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace warned that climate change would shrink arable lands and disrupt agricultural patterns in the Middle East. Increasing amounts of desert dust will accumulate in the atmosphere, Carnegie added, creating more sandstorms, especially in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

What makes this problem so complex is the fact that agriculture – an activity vital to human survival – is often responsible for extreme land degradation, with natural environments compromised so that crops can be grown on a mass scale to feed growing populations. It is fitting that the UAE, one of the region’s most arid countries, has been at the forefront of new ways of growing food and restoring land to its natural state.

Projects in the UAE such as the National Biodiversity Strategy and the National Strategy to Combat Desertification have gone hand in hand with organic crop production, sustainable irrigation and the use of drones to sow and plant more than 6.2 million seeds for local tree species, such as ghaf and samar. Since the 1970s, in fact, the Emirates has transformed large areas of desert into green spaces, farms and gardens, and the UAE recently raised its ambitious target for planting mangrove trees from 30 to 100 million seedlings by 2030.

These domestic efforts have been mirrored by international action. The UAE is a signatory to the 1994 UN Convention to Combat Desertification, and in November 2022 it joined the International Drought Resilience Alliance. At the Cop28 climate summit in Dubai last year, a UAE-Indonesian partnership called the Mangrove Alliance for Climate announced a deal to halt mangrove destruction by 2030. Since 2001, a similar partnership with the US – AIM for Climate – has focused on climate-smart agriculture and food systems innovation.

This collaborative approach was highlighted by President Sheikh Mohamed today. While praising the efforts of a group of climate leaders and entrepreneurs during a meeting at Qasr Al Bahr in Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohamed stated that the UAE would "continue to serve as a global convener for sustainability solutions in pursuit of a better future for all”.

But for every step forward, there is a fresh challenge. For example, although further developing renewable energy is widely regarded as necessary to reduce carbon emissions, the infrastructure needed for solar or wind-power projects can be land-intensive, with the Brookings Institution claiming that at least 10 times as much land per unit of power produced is needed than coal or natural gas-fired power stations.

Nevertheless, such challenges are an intrinsic part of reckoning with the evolving challenge of habitat destruction and environmental degradation. The signs are there that the issue has, at least, been recognised. In 2021 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration was launched, sparking pledges from nations to restore one billion hectares of land and the UAE's continued Cop28 leadership has helped focus attention on nature and its role in combatting climate change. Next December, Riyadh will play host to an international summit of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, again putting the Arab world at the heart of efforts to restore environmental balance. Given what’s at stake, it is vital to make sure that the climate conversation is not drowned out by the sounds of war.

Published: June 05, 2024, 11:00 AM