Canary in the coal mine: Gaza, the Levant, and climate change

The environmental degradation in Gaza should be an early warning for what is to come for the whole of the Levant.

Palestinian children fill up gallons with water in Gaza City on May 20, 2021 [File: Mahmud Hams/AFP]

Located on the dividing line between the Mediterranean climate to its north and the desert to its south, Gaza was first settled as an oasis by the sea. It was built to take advantage of the coastal groundwater aquifer as well as Wadi Gaza, into which several streams flowed from across the Negev Desert. It benefitted from fertile soils, access to the Mediterranean, and excellent trade links which made it a strategic and economic hub.

However, in the 19th century, Gaza’s significance declined, as it was eclipsed by the ports of Jaffa and Haifa, while the creation of Israel in 1948 disconnected it from the rest of historic Palestine. Today, the Gaza Strip is not only economically devastated but also considered “unlivable” by the United Nations, in large part due to repeated Israeli military assaults and a debilitating 13-year siege imposed by Israel.

Gaza’s limited freshwater resources are being pumped at an unsustainable rate, and 95 percent of its groundwater is deemed undrinkable due to contamination with wastewater and seawater. In addition, its agricultural land, constantly shrinking due to Israeli military encroachment, is increasingly insufficient to feed its rapidly growing population.

Climate change is expected to compound these challenges by making precipitation even more erratic and unpredictable, further weakening the depleted and contaminated coastal aquifer, upon which life in the strip depends. It is also expected to increase temperature and water evaporation, reducing agricultural productivity and further worsening food insecurity.

While the situation in Gaza may seem exceptional, it is the canary in the coal mine for the environmental and humanitarian disaster the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean region will face, if urgent climate action is not taken.

A struggling region facing a changing climate

While the precarious situation in Gaza is significantly intensified by the blockade and regular Israeli attacks, the rest of the Levant – including the occupied Palestinian territories, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan – is also struggling with these environmental challenges.

The eminent geographer Tony Allan has pointed out that the region between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River already “ran out” of water and food self-sufficiency some 50 years ago. If one looks at the food imports of the region, it becomes apparent why he made that point. Even in Israel, which is often hailed as a pioneer of agricultural technology, more than half of the calories consumed are imported.

The Levant is struggling with scarce and overexploited water supplies, especially parts of Syria and Jordan. The region is no stranger to periods of drought, and has always experienced contraction of agricultural and pastoral land to its south and east during such periods – a pattern that has shaped its culture and history. But the intense droughts and desertification expected due to climate change could be far worse.

Global climate change is widely expected to bring wetter conditions to many places around the world. But due to the Eastern Mediterranean’s unique geography, the Levant, Turkey, Egypt, and the island of Cyprus are all likely to experience the opposite. Climate models suggest that climate change will bring less rainfall and longer droughts to the region, with less groundwater available to help bridge dry periods.

The consequences of these changes cannot be overstated. Droughts currently experienced in the Eastern Mediterranean are already harsh. According to research by NASA, the dry spell between 1998 and 2012 was 50 percent drier than the driest period in the past five centuries, and 10 to 20 percent drier than the worst drought since the 12th century.

Some scholars have argued that this drought contributed to the uprising in Syria in 2011, which ultimately led to the Syrian civil war, although the role it played remains a subject of academic debate. What is not in doubt, however, is that climate change will lead to cascading socioeconomic and political challenges.

Rising temperatures and falling water supplies are expected to increase food insecurity and employment fragility, inevitably leading to migration. These impacts will be felt the hardest in areas struggling with conflict, displacement, military occupation, limited natural resources, and rapid population growth.

One of the Levant’s hotspots where many of these factors intersect is the Jordan Valley. In a forthcoming Chatham House paper, Glada Lahn and I concluded that climate change is unlikely to lead directly to conflict around the Jordan Valley, but will exacerbate existing social tensions and competition over resources. While adaptation on the Jordanian side is a matter of political coordination and financial resources, in the West Bank, climate action is restricted by the Israeli occupation.

Collective action needed

In the past, the Levant relied on Egypt’s food exports to weather periods of drought. For centuries, Egypt served as a shock absorber, supplying surplus grain when the Levant was hit by famine. This was only possible due to the independence of Egyptian food production from the Mediterranean climate and its use of the Nile River, fed by the monsoons of East Africa.

In fact, the Eastern Mediterranean’s reliance on two totally independent climate systems for food supply ensured the prosperity of various regional empires throughout history.

But this is no longer the case. Egypt today is no one’s breadbasket, having become the world’s largest wheat importer. The construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s reduced its soil fertility, while the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is expected to further diminish food production. Depending on the rate at which the dam’s reservoir is filled, as much as two-thirds of Egypt’s agricultural land could be lost.

To put this in perspective, the last time both Egypt and the Levant faced simultaneous water and food shortages was a millennium ago. Back then a series of droughts spanning more than a century gave rise to a famine every five years on average. This dark period in the region’s history includes a seven-year drought known as The Great Calamity (1065–72), that led to mass deaths, unprecedented economic crisis, the destruction of the city of Fustat, and even cannibalism.

Globalised trade has greatly diminished the chances of such famines happening today, and the growing global momentum for climate action holds out hope that climate change in the region can be managed. But the race to mitigate climate change is incredibly tight, and the region urgently needs to do more to adapt to changes already taking place. Conflict is currently preventing meaningful collaboration on this, but the region’s governments have to realise that it is in their common interest to take collective action. After all, what pollutes and damages natural resources in one area will soon affect everyone else around.

Gaza’s high susceptibility to changes in its environment is an early warning sign to the rest of the region about the impending risks of climate change. The region will survive, only if this early warning is acknowledged and appropriate action is taken.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.