Canaries in coal mines: Gaza, the Levant and climate change | Climate change


Gaza is located on the dividing line between the Mediterranean climate in the north and the desert in the south. It was originally settled as an oasis by the sea. It was built to take advantage of coastal groundwater aquifers and the Gaza Valley, into which several streams flow from the Negev Desert. It benefits from fertile soil, access to the Mediterranean Sea and good trade links, making it a strategic and economic center.

However, in the 19th century, Gaza’s importance declined because it was eclipsed by the ports of Jaffa and Haifa, and the establishment of Israel in 1948 disconnected it from the rest of Palestine with a long history. Today, the Gaza Strip is not only economically devastated, but it is also considered “uninhabitable” by the United Nations. This is largely due to the repeated Israeli military attacks and the 13-year siege imposed by Israel.

Gaza’s limited fresh water resources are being pumped at an unsustainable rate, and 95% of groundwater is considered undrinkable due to the pollution of wastewater and seawater. In addition, its agricultural land has been shrinking due to Israel’s military invasion, and it is becoming increasingly insufficient to feed its rapidly growing population.

Climate change is expected to make precipitation more unstable and unpredictable, thereby further weakening the depleted and polluted coastal aquifers on which life in the zone depends, thereby complicating these challenges. It is also expected to increase temperature and water evaporation, reduce agricultural productivity and further aggravate food insecurity.

Although the situation in Gaza may seem special, if emergency climate action is not taken, the entire Eastern Mediterranean will face environmental and humanitarian disasters. This is the canary in the coal mine.

A struggling region facing climate change

Although the blockade and regular Israeli attacks have greatly exacerbated the instability in Gaza, other parts of the Levant — including the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan — are also struggling to meet these environmental challenges.

The famous geographer Tony Allan pointed out that about 50 years ago, the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan had “exhausted” self-sufficiency in water and food. If you look at the food imports in the region, it will be obvious why he put forward this point. Even in Israel, often hailed as a pioneer in agricultural technology, more than half of the calories consumed are imported.

The Levant is struggling with scarce and over-exploited water resources, especially in parts of Syria and Jordan. The region is no stranger to periods of drought, during which the agricultural and pastoral areas in the south and east have been shrinking-a pattern that has shaped its culture and history. But severe drought and desertification caused by climate change may be worse.

It is widely expected that global climate change will bring wetter conditions to many parts of the world. However, due to the unique geographical environment of the Eastern Mediterranean, the Levant, Turkey, Egypt, and the island of Cyprus may all encounter the opposite situation. Climate models indicate that climate change will bring less rainfall and longer dry times to the region, and the amount of groundwater that can be used to help alleviate dry periods will also decrease.

The consequences of these changes cannot be overstated. The drought currently experienced in the Eastern Mediterranean has been severe. According to NASA’s research, the dry period from 1998 to 2012 was 50% drier than the driest period in the past five centuries, and 10% to 20% drier than the worst dry period since the 12th century.

Some scholars believe that the drought contributed to the uprising in Syria in 2011 and ultimately led to the Syrian civil war, although its role is still the subject of academic debate. However, there is no doubt that climate change will cause a series of socio-economic and political challenges.

Rising temperatures and falling water supplies are expected to exacerbate food insecurity and employment vulnerabilities, inevitably leading to migration. These effects will be most severe in areas that struggle with conflict, displacement, military occupation, limited natural resources, and rapid population growth.

The Jordan Valley is one of the Levantine hotspots where many of these factors intersect. In a paper to be published by the Chatham Institute, Grada Rahn and I concluded that climate change is unlikely to directly lead to conflicts around the Jordan Valley, but it will exacerbate existing social tensions and tensions. Resource competition. Although Jordan’s adaptation is a matter of political coordination and financial resources, climate action in the West Bank is restricted by Israeli occupation.

Need for collective action

In the past, the Levant relied on Egyptian food exports to cope with drought. For centuries, Egypt has acted as a shock absorber, supplying surplus food during the famine in the Levant. This is only possible because Egypt’s food production is not affected by the Mediterranean climate and it uses the Nile River nourished by the East African monsoon.

In fact, the Eastern Mediterranean’s dependence on food supplies from two completely independent climate systems ensured the prosperity of empires in various regions throughout history.

But this is no longer the case. Today Egypt has become the world’s largest wheat importer and is no longer anyone’s granary. The construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s reduced soil fertility, and the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is expected to further reduce food production. Depending on the storage rate of the dam reservoir, Egypt may lose up to two-thirds of its agricultural land.

From this perspective, the last time Egypt and the Levant faced water and food shortages at the same time was a thousand years ago. At that time, a series of droughts spanning more than a century resulted in an average famine every five years. This dark period in the history of the region included a seven-year drought known as the “catastrophe” (1065-72), which resulted in massive deaths, an unprecedented economic crisis, the destruction of the city of Fustat, and even the Kill each other.

Globalized trade has greatly reduced the possibility of such famines today, and the growth momentum of global climate action has brought hope that climate change in the region can be controlled. But the race to mitigate climate change is fierce, and the region urgently needs to take more measures to adapt to the changes that have already taken place. The conflict is currently preventing meaningful cooperation on this, but governments in the region must be aware that it is in their common interest to take collective action. After all, things that pollute and destroy natural resources in an area will soon affect others around them.

Gaza’s high sensitivity to environmental changes is an early warning signal of the imminent climate change risks in other parts of the region. Only by acknowledging this early warning and taking appropriate action can the area survive.

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

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