As Dubai gets ready for COP28, an intense debate on the causes and consequences of climate change in the Middle East has entered public discourse.
The social, economic, and environmental implications of climate change have prompted policymakers, environmental activists, and academics to assess the vulnerability of the UAE to the rising sea levels, and what is being done to mitigate it. Scientific evidence demonstrates that sea level rise is real and so are the threats it poses to the fragile ecosystem of the coastal areas of the UAE.
Frederic Wehrey and Ninar Fawal of the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, an international centre that examines cross-border political, economic and ideological challenges facing the world, highlight that, “the MENA region is also one of the most vulnerable regions to rising sea levels caused by climate change; according to some studies, the mean global sea level is set to rise 30-122 cm (1-4 ft) by the end of the century”.
Climate Change has a strong connection to sea level rise and environmental degradation in the Middle East, as the flooding of coastal areas due to rapid industrialisation and fossil fuel emissions can make waterfront cities uninhabitable, exacerbating climate-induced migration.
Therefore, sea level rise and subsequent devastation of mangrove forests, will increase carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and exacerbate climate change.
This correlates with information collated by the UAE government report titled Mangrove resources of the United Arab Emirates: Mapping and Site Survey 2011-2013 which reveals that “mangrove habitats are in decline due to a number of factors including coastal development and land reclamation, aquaculture, oil spills and coastal pollution, and many other anthropogenic impacts”.
Also, the devastating effects of sea level rise on mangrove ecosystems can also be explained by how mangrove habitats are being further pressured by sea level rise and climate change. The world’s oceans act as carbon sinks and by now have absorbed approximately 90 per cent of the heat generated through increasing emissions, as reported by the UN.
One of the most immediate impacts of sea level rise is on mangrove ecosystems which serve as natural carbon stores. Climate Change resulting in sea level rise and associated environmental challenges are destroying natural habitats including mangroves. Mangroves act as ‘carbon sinks’ and help reduce greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
This can be further supported by research undertaken by Greenpeace MENA which states that “coastal developments coupled with damage to, or removal of reef systems and coastal wetlands destroy habitats that provide essential services”.
UAE’s coastal mangrove habitats
The research further noted that UAE’s coastal mangrove habitats provide “breeding grounds for marine life and acting as a carbon store, these ecosystems provide resilience to climate change and rising sea levels”.
This can be corroborated by a study in the journal Science which reveals that “if sea levels rise by just 6 millimetres per year, mangrove forests will die out”. The strong relationship between climate change and sea levels can also be demonstrated in the precise context of the Middle East.
Earth. Org has modelled what flooding will look like in Dubai by 2100, if no action is taken.
Greenpeace MENA has noted in its environmental report, ‘Living on the edge’ published last year, that shifting distributions of fish caused by sea level rise and climate change are linked to, “changes in predation, species interaction, plant-animal interaction, which can potentially alter ecosystem productivity and carbon storage”.
As a result, “high sea surface temperatures can have particularly negative impacts on vulnerable coastal and shallow water ecosystems such as seagrass meadows, mangrove forests and coral reefs”, noted in the Greenpeace MENA report.
Climate change and sea level rise will also lead to mass extinction of marine life. Anna Zacharis notes in the National that, “a third of marine species could become extinct in the Arabian Gulf by 2090 unless immediate action is taken.” A study from the University of British Columbia has found that Abu Dhabi expected will be worst hit due to climate change and sea level rise.
The UAE government and regional NGOs are working hard to mitigate the worst effects of climate change for greater climate resilience. The government has pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions “by 23.5 per cent compared to business as usual for the year 2030”.
In effect, “this translates into absolute emission reduction of about 70 million tonnes”. The UAE government’s conscious agenda on climate change will help reduce the impact of sea level rise as lower emissions will mean that less greenhouse gas emissions will be absorbed by the atmosphere, and so oceans will not heat so quickly.
This is perhaps the closest to a long-term solution for mitigating the effects of sea level rise.
Overall, sea level rise can be understood as one of the main consequences of climate change and the high level of carbon emissions caused by industrialisation and development. Sea level rise has a significant impact on the UAE’s environment by threatening mangrove ecosystems, marine life, biodiversity loss and the fishing industry.
The UAE government has developed an ambitious plan to mitigate sea level rise considering climate change, and policy options such as reduced greenhouse gas emissions and carbon capture will help reduce the effects of sea level rise on the environment and the urban areas.
However, system change and moving the UAE towards a green economy with net zero carbon emissions is the only way to tackle sea level rise and climate change in the long-term.
Nibras Malik is an environmental journalist