Beirut:  Dust storms scour Iraq. Freak floods wreak havoc in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Rising sea levels erode Egypt's coast. Hotter, drier weather worsens water scarcity in the Middle East, already the world's most water-short region.

The Arab world is already suffering from effects consistent with climate change predictions. Although scientists are wary of linking specific events to global warming, they are urging Arab governments to act now to avert potential disasters.

There are huge variations in per capita greenhouse gas emissions across the region with very high rates for several oil and gas producers. Qatar recorded the world's highest per capita emissions with 56.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2006, while Egyptians emitted just 2.25 tonnes each, UN figures show.

While the region as a whole has contributed relatively little to historic greenhouse gas emissions, it is among the most vulnerable to climate change, and emissions are surging.

Inaction is not an option, said Mohammad Al Ashry, former head of the Global Environment Facility, a fund that assists developing countries on climate and other environmental issues.

"It's human nature to wait until there is a crisis to act," he told Reuters.

"But you hate to wait until there is really a huge crisis where large numbers of people suffer needlessly."

Measures to tackle the region's environmental woes would also help offset future impacts of global warming.

"Addressing water issues, say, would have the dual benefit of responding to climate change issues, but also addressing the problems that result from population growth, poor management and very weak institutions related to water," Al Ashry said.

The Arab world's population has tripled to 360 million since 1970 and will rise to nearly 600 million by 2050, according to a UN Development Programme (UNDP) research paper this year.

"For a region that is already vulnerable to many non-climate stresses, climate change and its potential physical and socio-economic impacts are likely to exacerbate this vulnerability, leading to large-scale instability," it says, adding the poor and vulnerable will suffer most.

Severe scarcity

Water scarcity, the biggest challenge, is already dire. By 2015, Arabs will have to survive on less than 500 cubic metres of water a year each, a level defined as severe scarcity, against a world average exceeding 6,000 cubic metres per head.

That warning came in a report last week by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED), which said the region's water supply had shrunk to a quarter of its 1960 level.

Climate change will aggravate the crisis in a region where temperatures may rise 2 degrees Celsius in the next 15 to 20 years and more than 4C by the end of the century.