About three years ago, I wrote a policy briefing that was published by the Middle East Institute, titled ‘Middle East Revolutions: An Environmental Perspective’. The key message was that environmental challenges and problems related to water, food, air, waste management etc as well as the unfair distribution of wealth derived from natural resources were the root causes of the uprisings in the Middle East. I also warned that if the environmental problems are not solved, one could expect more waves of unrest across the region. I had hoped that the Arab Spring would lead to better environmental governance, and social equality. And that in turn would lead to prosperity, a better quality of life and contentment among citizens in the region.
Sadly, after nearly four years, the Arab Spring has turned out to be a real curse on environment and natural resources across the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region. There is massive destruction of ecosystems and a severe depletion of the already scarce natural resources, as well as corruption and theft of natural assets and heritage. Besides, fertile land is eroding. Soil, water and air pollution have become the norm; noise and garbage are everywhere. It is really very ironic because Islamic teachings call for protection of natural resources and environmental stewardship. It is even considered a religious duty to protect the environment and natural resources. Failing to do so, as a Muslim, is considered to be a sin.
In Syria, for instance, one can see that the very low precipitations and drought are among the first modern events in which a climactic abnormality has resulted in mass migration. This has created what are called “environmental refugees” (water refugees in this case). This has resulted in widespread deterioration of agricultural harvests and led to food insecurity and contributed to state instability. Currently, the environmental situation has deteriorated further not only because of low rains, but also because natural resources have been polluted and/or looted as a result of the military conflict in Syria.
The ecosystems — which are already fragile in the Mena region — and the biodiversity are the real victims of the military conflicts in many Mena countries such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. Military operations lead to the destruction of soil, rendering it unsuitable for agriculture and for habitation. Whoever the ultimate ‘winner’ might be, the environment is the real victim, especially nowadays when humanity has many weapons of mass destruction.
Across Iraq and Syria many churches, mosques, museums and statues have either been destroyed or looted by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil). In addition, Assyrian monuments in Syria are being ruined. That is apart from the destruction of statues of musicians, poets and thinkers because they represent a different ideology than that of Isil. Sadly, all these treasures, many built more than 5,000 years ago, are being looted or destroyed. This is a loss not only for Iraq, Syria and the Arab region, but also for human heritage and civilisation.
Almost all Arab countries are suffering from water scarcity. In addition, the very poor water governance in the region has led to many disputes/tensions, between sectors and governorates and even between neighbouring countries. Libya, for instance, was and is still suffering from water insecurity. And despite the fact that the Muammar Gaddafi regime initiated the “great artificial river project”, which depends on withdrawing water from the shared underground aquifer between Libya, Chad, Sudan and Egypt, the sustainability of the project is in deep doubt after the depletion of the available water in the reservoir.
After almost four years of Arab uprisings, it is very obvious that the economy still has the same brown colour, which proved to be a total failure in almost the entire Mena region. Unless the region adopts greener economic policies at least in some key sectors, like the energy sector, one can expect no improvement at all. Problems such as pollution, social inequalities and unemployment will continue and are even expected to increase, making these countries more vulnerable to socio-economic unrest.
However, one still hopes that the Arab Spring and the socio-political transformations in the region will represent a real opportunity for reforms and reconsideration of developmental priorities, notably social justice and job creation, as well as the adoption of green economy as a tool to achieve sustainable development. Any government in the region, if it really wants to address and resolve the reasons behind the unrest and stabilise these societies, must solve the environmental issues first. Otherwise, the environmental problems and conflict over natural resources will be the catalysts for further instability and tensions in the Middle East.
Dr Mohamed Abdel Raouf is an independent environmental researcher.