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Environment, Security, and Peacebuilding in the West Asia Region

Writer: Dr. Mohamed Abdelraouf*


The majority of West Asian countries are characterized by extreme arid climates, sparse natural vegetation, and fragile soil conditions. The region comprises mainly desert lands with the exception of coastal strips on the fringes and some mountain ranges and has access to very scarce water resources and arable lands.

Whilst much attention is paid to the region's political economy, far less is paid to the climate change and environmental issues surrounding it. Environmental concerns in the region are often disassociated with what is perceived as the more urgent state politics, economics and even sports, and only come into full view through the lens of a climate crisis, foreign investment opportunity, and/or public protest.

For example, although some scholars express caution about securitizing climate change, the uprising in Syria is often attributed to earlier years of crop failure as a result of climate change and low precipitation. There are of course other factors that have contributed to the unrest in Syria including socio-economic discord and political mismanagement but environmental and climate factors must also be considered.  

The conflict in Yemen can also be viewed through a climate change and natural resource lens, namely the persistent water and food crises that have contributed to state failure prior to the most recent Yemen uprising. The environment then, broadly conceived with issues ranging from water, food, air, and waste management, as well as the uneven distribution of wealth derived from natural resources, has to be considered to be a large part of the drivers towards the uprisings and social inequality that is still prevalent across the region.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN says that effective environmental management in the Arab World, where there are many common denominators, is key to future growth and stability. Islam, the religion of the majority of the region, places special emphasis on the protection of natural resources and environmental stewardship. As such, one would expect climate change and the degradation of the environment to be a driver for change and yet, it is one of the last areas of concern in many of the countries in the Middle East. This contradiction begs the question, why would a region whose religion is very much embedded in its policy and laws fail to adequately address and prioritize one of the most fundamental elements of its doctrine?

It is argued that climate change impacts and environmental degradation in the West Asia region are abnormal across all aspects, including water and waste management, although some progress has been made in places such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Oman. These environmental problems act as a latent issue that can fuel unrest and conflict across the region. Climate change contributes to a host of socio-economic issues but is also a function of them. Without a holistic strategy, often states fall short of prescriptive measures to alleviate human suffering associated with climate change impacts and environmental problems, if that is in fact part of the overall brief for authoritarian regimes, which is highly disputable.

Violent conflicts have also had a major impact on the environment, including water resources, contamination of rivers, releases of oil, access issues, and use of contaminating materials by the military (such as depleted uranium from ammunition). A stark example of this was at the end of the first Gulf War when Iraqi troops set fire to over 700 oil wells south of the Iraqi border, releasing 1.5 billion barrels of oil into the environment resulting in the largest oil spill in human history. Claims were made against Iraq in response to the oil spillage by a number of state actors, but the difficulty of quantifying the degradation to groundwater, long term consequences to the environment, and uncertainties about refugee human health meant many were unsuccessful.

During the U.S. military campaign in Iraq, the U.S. military used the equivalent of 1.2 million cars worth of oil in 2008 alone, illustrating how climate concerns often take a backseat to broader political agendas. Cases of ill health from increased levels of dust and toxins have also been reported in Iraq. ISIS would repeat Saddam Hussein's technique of setting fire to entire oil fields during their retreat from Mosul in 2016. During war and in cases of state fragility and collapse, it is extremely difficult to maintain the necessary infrastructure to protect the environment. In fact, environmental concerns may run entirely contrary to socio-economic and political concerns. In some instances, there has also been a politicization and even securitization of climate change and environmental challenges. This is very clear especially when it comes to water resources whether surface or underground aquifers.

In short, environmental issues, climate change and natural resources in West Asia can be a source of fueling tensions but can also fall prey to the endless conflicts in the region. It can also be an entry point for joint cooperation and sustainable development and peacebuilding, as climate and natural resources are not particularly sensitive political issues.

This paper discusses the environment and natural resources throughout West Asia as both a source of regional conflict, as well as a casualty of it. First, a very brief outline of the natural resource status and environmental challenges in the West Asia region will be presented, including reference to Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. The paper will then go on to explore the link between climate change, environment, and civil unrest/conflicts across the region in more detail. Finally, concluding remarks and recommendations are made related to the environment/climate change and conflicts in the region.


Environmental Status in the West Asia Region

The entire West Asian region is facing numerous environmental challenges. Some are traditional, linked to water scarcity, land degradation and desertification, and a lack of capacity linked to resource allocation and mismanagement. The region is in fact the most water scarce region in the world. Others are emerging environmental challenges such as climate change, increased demand for energy, construction and demolition debris, and hazardous war remnants.

Water pollution is another problem due to contaminants from the oil industry, war remnants, untreated sewage, and salinization. Water resource depletion and quality deterioration have resulted in unsustainable water consumption pattern and created undeclared state tensions over shared water sources, both surface and underground. Another environmental problem related to water is the marine and coastal pollution from oil spills and the shipping trade, land-based sources of pollution, as well as negative impacts from global climate change.

Political changes aimed at improving environmental governance and social equality could lead to a virtuous cycle of year-on-year efficiencies and improvements, building national resilience to further resource shocks or shortages, and new social processes and norms that favor environmental conservation and protection.

The sub region of the GCC countries represents a unique case of development, where oil and gas revenues have enabled an exceptionally accelerated development process in all aspects of life. These countries have become a hub of intense geopolitical, military, economic, industrial, construction, tourism, and other anthropogenic activities. There is no doubt that the transformation of the region has been primarily driven by hydrocarbons. The economies of the GCC countries are supported primarily by the oil and gas sectors, which contribute between 25 percent and 56 percent of their GDP. However, recently, the GCC countries have undertaken a number of pioneer steps towards the green energy transition and circular economy through their vision statements. Yet, the scale of oil and gas productions has nonetheless led to severe environmental problems.

The main concern continues to relate to oil spills and other discharges on land and offshore from large tankers, oil refineries, distribution stations, and the petrochemicals industry, with consequent impacts on natural resources including biodiversity loss and air pollution. As a result, it appears that as economies grow, traffic, waste, greenhouse gas emissions, and ecosystem destruction also increases. The fact is that the management and use of natural resources as well as chemical, hazardous wastes, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, have not kept pace with economic development in the region, especially in the GCC countries.

Climate Change and Conflicts

At the same time, there is growing recognition of the interrelationship between climate change and conflict. This can be a result of climate change causing direct competition over scarce resources as well as mistrust between groups/villages/authorities etc. In addition, climate change can contribute to or intensify natural disasters, such as floods, heat waves, dust storms, or droughts, which can have socio-economic impacts and weaken governance, especially in fragile states that lack capabilities for managing these vulnerabilities.

According to economists, a rise in the local temperature of even half a degree Celsius is associated with a ten to twenty percent increase in the risk of deadly conflict. Whereas recent research indicates that climate change does not directly cause conflict, it acts as a “threat multiplier” that exacerbates existing conflicts and tensions by disrupting livelihoods, provoking food insecurity, water scarcity, resource competition and spurring migration.

The relationship between climate and conflict is neither simple nor linear. Climate-driven conflict is not always a straightforward scramble for diminishing resources, be they water, food, or arable land. Climate change impacts can create situations that disturb peace and cause tensions within and between countries such as unstable food prices and competition over scarce natural resources such as water, pastures and fisheries. This can contribute to more conflict and fragility, in particular when interacting with other existing conflict drivers such as inequality, marginalization and unfair distribution of natural resources.

The same climate impacts can produce very different conflict outcomes depending on the political response. In some instances, rising temperatures and uneven rainfall generate scarcity; in others, climate change—and human responses to it—unlocks new resources. While some countries manage climate-induced competition well, others do not manage it at all—making unrest/instability and conflict more likely. 

The relationship between climate and conflict can also be inverted: conflict can worsen climate change and impede mitigation efforts. Some scholars have referred to a society’s adaptive capacity to assess its ability to address climate change-related stressors. A society’s adaptive capacity is “their ability to adjust to change, reduce risks and protect the population.”  It results from having the right institutions, knowledge, technology, infrastructure, resources, and a level of equity in society. However, even societies with high adaptive capacities can fail at addressing climate-related stress, if the right supportive policies and governance are not in place.

Climate change creates additional demand for state services as well as adds new tasks for official armed forces in any country. For instance, when local firefighters and volunteers were unable to extinguish the 2021 Algerian wildfires, armed forces were called in. Still, the government resources were inadequate in putting out the nearly 70 fires that roared through the northeast of the country. This lack of preparedness resulted in many deaths, loss of homes and livestock, and resulted in fierce criticism over the government’s inability to provide basic protection measures against common natural disasters.

When these urgent needs are unmet, they can compound pre-existing grievances over inequality, political marginalization, and unresponsive governments. Particularly in fragile states, the convergence of conflict and climate change can create new forms of social vulnerability.  Because climate change acts on many fronts and one event can trigger a cascade of responses, many indirect and hard to predict consequences of climate change may occur.

Moreover, the relationship between changing climates and armed conflict is complex. It does not always take the same form, but the research is clear that changes in the natural environment impose stress on human societies. Similarly, violence and unrest weaken institutions, impeding

Source: United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) et al. 2017. Arab Climate Change Assessment Report – Executive Summary. Beirut, E/ESCWA/SDPD/2017/RICCAR/Summary.

adaptation and resilience-building, making society more vulnerable to climate shock. When men are forced to go off to fight in armed conflict, they leave their wives and children behind, increasing the socio-economic toll on women. Women are likely to suffer disproportionally from climate change, with increased maternal mortality associated to heat-stress, and gender-based violence in the aftermath of natural disasters or conflicts. If, as is common today, men in rural areas move to cities to seek paid employment when they lose their traditional livelihoods, rural women would be under pressure to take over their husbands’ responsibilities on top of their own daily activities. This cycle suggests that political and socioeconomic factors will continue to be the primary sources of internal strife and that climate change will serve as a risk multiplier. This is especially true in countries that are already low or declining in peacefulness.

Overall, this means that countries with high levels of positive peace are better able to manage climate-induced shocks and tend to have higher environmental performance than those with lower levels of positive peace.

Climate Change in the West Asia Region

Among the top countries most exposed to the impacts of climate change, all West Asian countries are included. What’s more, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen, and the GCC countries rank among those “extremely” vulnerable to negative impacts of climate change.

Climate change affects almost all sectors of the economy such as water, agriculture, energy, and tourism and could therefore be catastrophic to humanitarian and economic development efforts. In the UN’s 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it was agreed that climate change can “indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts in the form of civil war and inter-group violence by amplifying well-documented drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks.” In 2007, the ex-UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region as the world’s first climate change conflict. The assumption was that water scarcity from changed rainfall patterns resulting from climate change had contributed to this conflict. His thinking reflects findings to date that the incidence of conflict is likely to be higher in years of lower precipitation, especially in arid or desert areas.

The environment continues to be the silent casualty of the civil unrest and from the various endless conflicts in West Asia. In the region, people are not only dying from bombs, missiles, and bullets but also from preventable diseases, maladies, and complications arising from environmental pollution, including air pollution which cost an estimated 125,000 lives in the Middle East in 2013 and costing an estimated $9 billion.  The economic losses associated with air pollution are greater than the GDPs of Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen combined.  

In the West Asia region, temperatures are already increasing (1.1˚C) and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. Predictions lay between 2.7°C and 5°C by the end of this century compared to the reference period (1985–2005). This means that temperatures in this region are rising more than the global average. Overall, the highest increases in average mean temperature in the region are projected in the non-coastal areas, including the Tigris and Euphrates headwaters, and the central and western parts of the Arabian Peninsula. Precipitation trends are likely to continue decreasing across the region until the end of the century, although some limited areas are expected to exhibit an increase in the intensity and volume of precipitation (such as in Oman). Scientists believe that the increase of temperature will lead to a number of transboundary effects in the region such as desertification (especially of the Empty Quarter desert), deforestation, projected sea-level rise, and decline of freshwater sources.