The 2011 Gulf Research Meeting

When we talk about climate change adaptation in developing countries, are we talking about climate change? If not, what should we be talking about? These were among the questions I personally took home from a colourful workshop last week, which focused on the impacts of climate change on the Gulf region.

On 6-9 July, the formerly Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, an independent research institute, organised its second Gulf Research Meeting in Cambridge. Reflecting rising academic interest in this subregion as well as the mushrooming of its local education sectors, the meeting drew together around 300 participants specialising in areas as diverse as foreign relations, healthcare, innovation and migration. The workshop on climate change itself was also a sign of the times, appearing as a freestanding theme with eleven papers presented as part of it (none of which touched upon the issue of response measures, or the negative impacts of international mitigation). Gulf studies at least—if not all Gulf states themselves—are indeed waking up to impending adaptation-related challenges.

Presentations in our workshop were broadly of three types: those exploring the negative impacts of climate change (on water security, biodiversity, land reclamation, border disputes, tourism and state failure); those presenting adaptation strategies (water management, drought-resistant crops and switching to natural gas); and those evaluating early climate change responses (mitigation-related projects, mostly in the wealthier states of the region).

What caught my attention regarding the impacts of climate change was that most speakers were actually talking about something other than climate change -- something already subject to the negative impacts from other human-induced phenomena. Climate change is generally simply expected to make things worse.

For example, both biodiversity and water security have been under severe stress since the beginning of the oil era in the Middle East, and particularly in the Gulf. The boom of the 2000s, with its Palms and Pearls, desalination, dredging and digging, caused damage of an immeasurable scale to local marine ecosystems. Probably few, if any, of the areas where massive land manipulation has taken place were studied by impartial scientists beforehand. Scientific data on the region's ecosystems is only now - slowly - beginning to accumulate. Preserving for the future requires knowledge about the present. And as my colleague Mohamed Raouf has noted, it is difficult to compensate for environmental damage if we don't even know what has been damaged. Reclaimed land areas (which one of the presenters cleverly suggested might strain already tense foreign relations between neighbouring states like the UAE and Iran) could in turn be threatened by rising sea-levels, but were these low-lying money-magnets really made to last for long in the first place?

Increasing environmental degradation, eroding water security due to "development activities", and unmanaged agriculture-related water exploitation are arguably much worse environmental security threats than climate change. They are occurring now; their causes are known (and increasingly openly admitted) and impacts are felt today.

Water security, particularly in poorer countries like Yemen and Syria, is reaching a critical point; a complex mix of socioeconomic, cultural and political factors continues to impede effective demand-side management. The only effective supply-side solutions are either too expensive (desalination), or may come too late due to slow government responses and/or lack of capacity (e.g. wastewater treatment and recycling).

The adaptation strategies presented, too, were primarily techniques and technologies devised to target pressing human-induced pressures on natural resources, including rapid population growth and water mismanagement. Indeed environmental degradation  is likely to be accelerated by climate change.  Luckily the remedies are largely the same. In the case of ecosystems, if countries pay more attention to preserving what is currently left of local biodiversity, the future perspective will follow naturally. In the case of water, as the Lebanese professor Hamed Assaf has argued, current water management related problems -- "high water demand, negligence of water quality, and over-pumping" -- are much more urgent challenges than climate change. However, addressing these also means adapting to potentially even scarcer water resources and less predictable weather events in the future.

Finally, many in the group agreed that the most of the largely laudable responses to climate change that we have witnessed in past years in, for example, Abu Dhabi (the United Arab Emirates) and Qatar, have risen from a range of motives. These include economic diversification, attracting foreign investment, building a knowledge economy and regional prestige. In a way, many of them also contribute to the state's capacity to adapt to the impacts of climate change mitigation, but not necessarily climate change itself. Adaptation thinking even in these more proactive states is still in its early stages.

It turned out that, without fully noticing it, our workshop actually spent two days talking about a range of underlying societal problems and challenges, which may or may not in the coming decades be intensified by climate change. Our discussions actually largely centred around the issue of natural security—a brilliant concept coined in 2009 by Sharon Burke from the Center for a New American Security to describe the intertwined consequences of natural resource consumption (energy, minerals, water, arable land) on the environment (climate change, biodiversity).

Another security-related concept, also coined by Americans, describes climate change as "a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world." Although "security" definitely needs to be extended to include human security (and the dangers of securitisation should not be forgotten), in my opinion, these two concepts could help us refocus our attempts at trying to grasp present and future challenges.

Climate change in the Middle East is expected to complicate existing challenges relating to water, food, economic growth, migration, among others. Governments there need to begin by targeting existing challenges, including unsustainable agriculture-related incentive systems, the so-called rentier mentality, lack of accountability and transparency in environmental impact assessments and natural resource-related state failure in Yemen -- to name just a few. By addressing present natural security, with human security in mind, the region will be better equipped to cope with the future climate change challenges.