Middle East Food Security and Climate Change

The global problems of food insecurity and climate change are in many ways entangled. As is well known, climate change is projected to severely impact global food security. Few, however, realise that agriculture, together with forestry and land use change, is responsible for roughly a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Both problems also have the same fundamental causes:  rapid population growth and rising living standards. But population control is largely a taboo, the North can’t prevent the South from eating meat, and the latest UN climate conference in Durban proved that countries are still too worried about their short-term economic adversities to care about the planet’s future. So the emerging scenario appears rather Darwinian. This setting has important, although partly divergent implications for the countries of the Arab Middle East.

In the past decade, largely due to oil revenue-induced economic growth, populations have grown at record rates, particularly in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. In this largely hot and arid region, renewable water sources are already scarce, both in absolute terms and given the current populations they are supposed to sustain. Still, around 80 per cent of fresh water resources in the Arab region are currently used up by agriculture.

Owing to political, cultural and psychological factors, many Middle Eastern governments have stubbornly continued to pursue national food self-sufficiency (which is not the same thing as food security), or at the least allowed the agricultural sector to keep recklessly soaking up what is left of domestic groundwater resources. Reasons include sustaining an important source of employment and income (sometimes of key political constituencies, as in Syria), unregulated cultivation and irrigation practices (like khat in Yemen), and perceptions of insecurity in an unstable region mix with national pride in food self-sufficiency (as with Saudi Arabia, among others).

Fortunately, government awareness of unsustainable water consumption patterns is rising. Data and analysis on the potential threats to food security from climate change are also starting to accumulate. The report Rising Temperatures, Rising Tensions (2009) by Oli Brown and Alex Crawford was the first to raise the issue of climate change-related security impacts in this already insecure region. Later reports, such as that by the NGO Arab Forum for Environment and Development, have also examined the linkages between food production and climate change.

Generally speaking, there is high scientific confidence on climate change, but high uncertainty regarding its impacts on food security. Higher temperatures and loss of precipitation lead to lower crop yield, and precipitation patterns in general are expected to change in the Middle East. But projections of future precipitation levels give a somewhat mixed picture, disagreeing even in the direction of change (more or less rainfall). Sea level rise causes soil salinisation in coastal regions. Increases in extreme weather events, weather extremes and pests and diseases can also create negative impacts. Still, current water extraction levels are already so unsustainable in most Arab countries that these alone threaten future agricultural development. On the mitigation side, biofuels could take space from food crops, but this is arguably an unlikely scenario in the region given the current fossil fuel reserves and future prospects for solar energy.

As I have discussed elsewhere, in the Middle East the growing gap between the very or relatively fossil fuel-rich Gulf and the rest is a key determinant in shaping governments’ new security agendas, including their responses to water and food-related challenges. While both groups of countries face similar challenges - including rising population and living standards, profligate irrigation patterns, and bad water management and related governance – the more resource rich Gulf states are in a more fortunate domestic situation. They can afford large-scale desalination and can, therefore, significantly postpone domestic agricultural adaptation to structural water scarcity, which might worsen as a result of accelerating climate change.

Given their fossil fuel abundance, the GCC governments will be able to sustain an illusion of limitless water resources and nourish their well-fed populations as long as there is oil or gas in the ground (or seabed) and global demand for fossil fuels is sustained. This enables the Gulf states to continue trading their oil monies for food. Although climate change adaptation isn’t the main concern in the GCC when it comes to maintaining near-term water and food security, troubles loom on the horizon, since there are just as many uncertainties related to future global energy demand and prices as there are to regional climate change impacts.

Meanwhile, the Gulf monarchies’ poorer neighbours are left to face the challenge of adaptation much earlier than most climate change-related impacts even begin to kick in. The moment for states like Syria, Yemen and Jordan to improve water management and governance systems and structures is therefore now. Increased public participation prompted by the Arab Spring, likely to increase people’s sense of accountability and responsibility, will probably be the best chance for these states to improve water consumption patterns and management and, consequently, longer-term domestic food security prospects.

Some wealthier states are still fighting against the storm, like bone-dry Qatar, with its ambitious domestic food production plans (discussed in my previous article). But food will most likely be increasingly imported to Middle Eastern states, both proportionally and quantitatively, as populations grow and water resources dwindle. Food security for the GCC states, in particular, is therefore set to continue to come from far outside their borders.

Hence, the impacts of climate change on food security in the GCC are perhaps more globalised than anywhere else. GCC states, which import almost all their food from almost every imaginable country in the world, should now be closely examining reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change while negotiating their long-term strategic food trade agreements, and planning different kinds of foreign land leases, purchase agreements and business ventures. The GCC states will need to carefully diversify the sources of their future food imports, keeping in mind climate change, among other issues. In particular, the Gulf governments should carefully consider the moral and ethical dimensions of planning long-term land leases in developing countries, especially in Africa. In addition to food shortages and crises (like in Kenya and Sudan), these are also the usually the most vulnerable to climate change impacts.

For once, despite their wealth, there is not much the GCC states can do to improve their future food security in relation to climate change impacts. They are small emitters in the global scale and, due to existing climatic patterns, there is little the GCC states can do to increase domestic agricultural production in a sustainable manner. Economic diversification into non-oil sectors will also help indirectly by providing revenue for sustaining the increasing food import volumes in a post-oil era. There is one area, however, where Gulf oil exporters can contribute right now.

Qatar, the region’s new mini-superpower, recently negotiated its way to hosting the next major UN climate conference. The 18th conference of parties of the United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will be held in Doha in December 2012. Qatar is seeking to profile itself internationally in the area of food security, and has even managed to develop some locally based expertise in this area. However, it lacks sufficient domestic negotiating capacity in the UNFCCC context, and has a dubious reputation in the climate regime as the number one supporter of Saudi Arabia’s obstructionist positions. Here, Qatar could do both itself and the UN climate regime a favour by devising a new, more balanced negotiating position around two things: the expertise and international networks it has built since the establishment of its food security programme in 2008, and the ethos of global partnerships and solidarity that has since come to mark the programme’s public relations rhetoric. The UAE, with its young and dynamic negotiating team, could also provide brotherly support, as time is running short. This way, Qatar would gain valuable international green credentials (which it now lacks) and a reputation as a responsible global player. Middle East adaptation issues (and not only impacts related to response measures) would also gain more global attention, and might spur badly needed regional cooperation in this area. This way the multilateral climate process might just avoid another scary moment on the brink of collapse.


EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is the second part of a two-part series about the rise of food security in the Middle East and the Gulf. Read the first part here.


Mari Luomi, PhD, is a post-doctoral fellow at Georgetown University's Center for International and Regional Studies in Doha, Qatar. She is the author of Emissions, CI's monthly analysis of the environment, climate change & the Middle East.