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

Karim Elgendy

Under the blockade, Gaza is often likened to a prison, with poor and patched up infrastructure and declining sanitation. In May, the Israeli bombing of urban areas in response to Hamas rockets caused yet more devastation. But what is often overlooked is that with every war, indeed with every passing year, the environment in Gaza is becoming more fragile, and the ability of this small strip of land to sustain human life further eroded. As such, Gaza is a reminder to its neighbours of their serious environmental challenges and a warning of dire consequences if action is not taken.

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 benefited from fertile soils, limited sand dunes, access to the Mediterranean, and excellent trade links that made it a strategic and economic hub.

However, Gaza’s significance was downgraded centuries ago with the demise of the Arabian land trade, and was eclipsed by the ports of Jaffa and Haifa in the 19th century. The partition of the Levant in the twentieth century and the creation of Israel saw Gaza disconnected from all but a 141 square mile strip of land.

Yet what is at stake today in Gaza is more fundamental than strategic importance and economic prosperity. The questions facing Gaza today are whether it can remain inhabitable; how many of its two million inhabitants can it sustain; and whether climate change could be its last straw.

Gaza’s limited freshwater resources are being pumped at an unsustainable rate, and 95% of its groundwater is deemed undrinkable due to contamination with wastewater and sea water. 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 bringing even less — and more unpredictable — rain, 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 security.

A struggling region facing a changing climate.

This precarious situation is intensified by the blockade and regular conflicts. Yet the rest of the Levant — including Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan — is also struggling with these environmental challenges, and faces similar climate change impacts.

The eminent geographer Tony Allan once 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. Today most of the calories consumed in Israel are imported, despite being hailed as a pioneer of agricultural technology.

The wider Levant is struggling with scarce and over-exploited water supplies, especially parts of Syria and Jordan. The region is no stranger to periods of drought, and has always experienced the 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 have more far-reaching consequences.

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 storage to help bridge dry periods.

The consequences of these changes cannot be overstated. Droughts currently experienced by 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 twelfth century.
Some scholars have argued that this drought has contributed to the uprising in Syria in 2011 — which ultimately led to the Syrian civil war — yet the role it played remains a subject of academic debate. What is not in question, however, is that climate change will lead to cascading socio-economic and political ramifications beyond its physical impacts. Rising temperatures and falling water supplies are expected to multiply food insecurity and employment fragility, inevitably leading to migration. Its impacts will be felt hardest in areas struggling with conflict, displacement, 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 finance, the Palestinians in the West Bank, are hamstrung by the Israeli occupation and land restrictions.

Losing neighbours and safeguards.

In the past, the Levant could reliably depend on Egypt’s support 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 food production in Egypt from the Mediterranean climate, and its sole reliance on the Nile and the monsoons of eastern Africa. In fact, the eastern Mediterranean’s reliance on two totally independent climate systems for food supply, supported the creation of various regional empires throughout history.

But such this resilience measure can no longer be relied upon. Egypt today is the world’s largest wheat importer, and is no one’s grain basket. The construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s has reduced its soil fertility, while the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is expected to have further impact on food production. Depending on the rate at which the dam’s reservoir will be 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.

Globalized 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 may prevent meaningful collaboration on this. And yet the Levant shares a common interest; what pollutes and damages natural resources in one area will soon effect its neighbours.

Like a canary alerting miners to danger in a coal mine, Gaza’s high susceptibility to changes in its environment is an early warning signal to the rest of the region about the impending climate risks. If its warning is acknowledged and appropriate action is taken, the whole region could survive them.

Karim Elgendy is a sustainability consultant and architect based in London. He can be contacted at: Karim [at] Carboun [dot] com .

A version of this article was published on Aljazeera News Website

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