Vicken Cheterian

The climate debate and our stupidity

In the Middle East we think the debate on the Climate Change and related environmental concerns as unimportant, foreign, Western. At best, it is a luxury that cannot concern our societies. At worst, we think the debate about the climate, about pollution, preservation of our environment as naïve. 

Could we be wrong? Those who study environment from political perspective had already suggested about indirect links between environmental degradation and the collapse of the political order in the Middle East. The rapid demographic growth with decrease in available resources such as water and energy had caused social instability. Rigid political regimes based on repression rather than consultations with its populace failed to introduce necessary social, political and economical reforms further aggravated the situation.

Both Syria and Yemen present classical cases to illustrate the relationship between our environment and political-economic equilibrium. Both countries are undergoing demographic explosions. In 1970, the year of the military coup of Hafez al-Asad, the country had 6.3 million inhabitants. In 2011, the year of the “Arab Spring” the country had 23 million inhabitants. Between 1970 and 2011 it was no more the same country if one considers the population, yet it preserved the same rigid, top-down authoritarian system. For four consecutive years starting from 2006, Syria witnessed severe draught, the worst seen in four decades. As a result, wheat production was halved, and thousands of herders lost their livestock. By 2008 UN agencies were launching emergency appeals to help feed 200’000 rural families, or one million people, affected by the crisis.[1]

There were several reasons for the crisis. First, in the draught years rainfall dropped by as much as by two-thirds compared with previous years. Second, the water debit of Euphrates and Tigre, flowing from Turkey towards both Syria and Iraq, have largely decreased as a result of the construction of the “Southeast Anatolia Project” in Turkey. With its 22 dams and 19 hydropower stations, it led to a reduction of 40% of Euphrates flow to Syria. The third reason is political: in spite of the repetitive draught, the Syrian authorities did not have the flexibility to adapt to the crisis, change old agricultural patterns with intensive water usage, and provide alternative livelihoods to the affected families. The result was up to 500’000 people were internally displaced, leaving the agrarian regions to bulge the poverty belt around urban centres, the cradle of the Syrian revolt. 

Yemen has a similar trajectory: in 1970 it had 6 million inhabitants; in 2011 it had 24 million. In 2025 it could increase to 32 million. In a country where 70% of the population are dependent on agriculture, the population explosion means decreasing portion of land and water per capita. Yemen is one of the most water scarce countries in the Middle East, with 140 cubic meters per capita per year, while less than 1’700 cu. m. is considered “water stress”. Yet as much as half of the irrigation water goes for the production of qat (chewing its leaves is a stimulant, which creates dependence),[2] the cultivation of which has regularly increased in last decades. 

Two degrees of global warming, the optimistic aim in the Paris summit, will be catastrophic to the entire Middle East. It will mean less rain, more evaporation, and more dependence on import of food and to fluctuations of international prices. Even 1-3 degree global heating could have larger repercussions for the Middle East – one of the most arid regions of the world: it could cause water stress to an additional 100 million people, and sea level rise plus coastal flooding displace between 6 to 25 million people.[3] 

The explosion in the Middle East, known as the “Arab Spring” coincides with peak oil. Different estimates put peak oil production between 2010 and most optimistic ones around 2020, after which its production will fall dramatically. In case the Middle East produced a barbaric wars even before the peak oil, what will happen once the entire regional economy collapses?

But such questions do not concern us. The Middle East is caught by the fever of self-destruction, state against its citizens, Arab against Arab, jihadi party against jihadi organization, Turkish state against its Kurdish opposition. Instead of developing alternative economic models, searching new types of crops that can survive heat waves, resisting the desert by planting trees, developing engineering solutions to defend our port-cities from sea rise, we are busy with our narcissistic violence. And when trouble hits us, we can always accuse imperialism and colonialism for their malice.