Extreme hotspot: What 60C means for the Middle East

At the current level of greenhouse gas emissions, the Middle East and North Africa region will suffer scorching heatwaves and impossible living conditions.

Food production is expected to be severely affected as a result of climate change with about one-third of arable land in MENA hit by extreme heat [File: Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters]

The Middle East and North Africa is already the hottest and driest region on the planet but climate change could make some areas uninhabitable in the coming decades with temperatures potentially reaching 60 degrees Celsius or higher.

The repercussions throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region would be devastating including chronic water shortages, the inability to grow food because of extreme weather and resulting drought, and a surge in heat-related deaths and health problems.

By 2100 about 600 million inhabitants, or 50 percent of the population of the region, may be exposed to “super-extreme” weather events if current greenhouse gas projections hold, one recent study in the journal Nature noted.

Lasting weeks or even months, the scorching heat would be “potentially life-threatening for humans”, it said.

“We anticipate that the maximum temperature during … heatwaves in some urban centres and megacities in the MENA could reach or even exceed 60 °C, which would be tremendously disruptive for society,” the scientists wrote.

George Zittis, lead author of the study, told Al Jazeera higher humidity from increased evaporation of the surrounding seas will increase the danger.

“Heat stress during summers will reach or exceed the thresholds of human survivability, at least in some parts of the region and for the warmest months,” said Zittis.

Major urban centres around the Gulf, Arabian Sea, and Red Sea – such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Dhahran, and Bandar Abbas – would all see severe temperatures on a more frequent basis.

“Cities will feel an increasing heat island effect and most capital cities in the Middle East could face four months of exceedingly hot days every year,” according to the World Bank.

‘Unprecedented catastrophe’

About 70 percent of the world’s most water-stressed countries are in MENA. As the climate warms further, the social and economic fallout will be intense.

More than 12 million people in Syria and Iraq are losing access to water, food and electricity because of rising temperatures, record low levels of rainfall, and drought, which are depriving people across the region of drinking and agricultural water.

Syria is currently facing its worst drought in 70 years. Aid groups described the situation as an “unprecedented catastrophe”.

“The potential intensification of heatwaves in the already harsh, hot and arid MENA environment is expected to have direct negative impacts on human health, agriculture, the water and energy nexus, and many other socioeconomic sectors,” said Paola Mercogliano, CMCC Foundation’s director of hydrogeological impacts.

Increasing water shortages have already been blamed for igniting regional conflicts, and some researchers fear that fighting over scarce resources will intensify throughout the Middle East and North Africa as the world heats up further.

“Societal impacts may be relatively large …  Moreover, the human population of the MENA region is projected to peak around the year 2065,” Mercogliano told Al Jazeera. “Therefore, the threat to water supplies in the region with temperatures rising is very much serious.”

Water scarcity will also be a financial burden with estimates suggesting MENA will suffer the most of any region around the world, costing governments 7-14 percent of their gross domestic product by 2050.

‘Adaptation is essential’

The agricultural sector, which provides the most jobs in the Middle East and North Africa, could be devastated with water availability declining by as much as 45 percent.

Food production is expected to suffer severely as a result with about one-third of the arable land scorched by extreme heat.

With the warming of Earth already well under way, costly adaption measures will be necessary.

“Adaptation is essential for the survival of future generations under changing climate,” Mercogliano said.

Lebanon is developing hill lakes to conserve and store water for irrigation. In Egypt, efforts are under way to build wave breakers to preserve wetlands and coastal installations from seawater intrusion. In Jordan, treated wastewater is now used to irrigate agricultural areas, she noted.

“A project in Morocco is empowering women to harvest water from fog, while in Jordan another aims to empower rural women to help tackle agriculture in the context of climate change,” said Mercogliano.

‘Extreme danger thresholds’

For Muslims around the world, participating in the Hajj in Saudi Arabia will require highly adaptive innovations to protect pilgrims from the burning conditions.

An estimated two to three million Muslims perform Hajj each year with each spending 20-30 hours outside in the elements over a five-day period.

“Heat stress levels could exceed extreme danger thresholds,” said Zittis, of future pilgrimages to Mecca.

Adaptation measures, however, can only do so much and if the “survivability” of areas becomes impossible, millions of people in the Middle East and North Africa could be on the move.

Researchers agree without greenhouse gas emissions urgently and rapidly declining, the situation in the MENA region will be a grim one in the decades to come.

“When an estimated 600 million people are faced with life-threatening heatwaves [and] subsequent food and water shortages … the only way to survive is to head for cooler, resource-abundant and still thriving parts of the world,” wrote Hafed al-Ghwell from the Foreign Policy Institute at John Hopkins University.

Source: Al Jazeera

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