Climate change was notably absent from the extensive coverage of the fires that raged across Israel last week. But it’s an issue with far-reaching consequences for Israel’s future. While dry conditions and strong winds from the East are not uncommon in Israel during November, the current episode cannot be isolated from its larger context. Specifically, the Middle East, and Israel as an integral part of it, is drying. These effects are being felt from North Africa eastward to Syria, Iraq and Iran, and throughout Jordan and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula.
Persistent trends of declining precipitation, hotter and drier conditions and more intense evapotranspiration rates — which measure loss of the earth’s moisture — have already begun to be felt, according to studies by the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), the World Bank and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The science behind these trends has been well-documented by international experts, Israeli researchers among them. These developments have been clear for some time.
Increasing Water Scarcity
Water scarcity is not new to the Middle East. The Old Testament mentions droughts, scant rainfall and famine deriving from them as having been constant preoccupations. Yet, the as described by the Israel Water Authority, over the last decade the country has endured “the most severe droughts in its history, experiencing a consecutive period of continuous decrease of precipitations (sic) far beyond the multi-annual average.” The report ties these droughts to regional trends.
The effects are clearly visible. The current level of Lake Kinneret, Israel’s largest surface reservoir of fresh water and the source of approximately 30 percent of the country’s potable needs is less than 214 meters (702 feet) and is approaching its historical minimum, a level that ecologists suggest alters the ecological balance, erodes water quality, and precludes further pumping.
On average, global temperatures during 2016 are expected to be the highest ever measured, part of a trend evident since the 1970s that is also playing out in the Middle East: in July of this year temperatures in Mitribah, Kuwait and Basra, Iraq were possibly the highest ever recorded (approx. 54⁰ C/129⁰ F) anywhere in the world.
The effects of a severe drought that took place in northeast Syria and neighboring Iraq from 2007-2011 were largely responsible for the collapse of the rural areas in the Al Jazirah region, Syria’s breadbasket. Several studies show that the drought could not be explained by natural variation alone and that it was exacerbated by climate change. That unfolding produced 1 to 1.5 million environmental refugees who left their desiccated lands and congregated in shanty towns surrounding Syria’s main cities. The resulting mix of a declining economy, government neglect and repression, and heightened congestion and competition in Syria’s urban areas was the major precipitant of the ongoing civil war.
It has often been said that the future wars in the Middle East will be fought over water rather than land. The future is approaching faster than expected due to climate change, rapid population growth and other maladaptive human practices ranging from our diets, transportation systems and energy sources.
Even if the bold decisions taken at the Paris in December 2015 that resulted in an international agreement on limiting greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere are actualized, it is doubtful that we can avert many of the impacts engendered by climate change. Parallel to the vital efforts to mitigate these impacts is the adoption of measures meant to adapt to them.
One way in which Israel has adapted to water scarcity is through desalination, a technology that now provides 55% of its domestic water needs after innovators here discovered means to overcome its high cost in equipment and energy. Israel is now regarded as a world leader in the field.
In other areas, we lag. According to Yale University’s 2016 Environmental Performance Index, Israel was rated at 49th place out of 180 countries. Our achievements in water and sanitation put us in first place, though we were in 136th place for air quality, 144th for agriculture and 121st for biodiversity and habitat.
The dry winds that blew over the thirsty Land of Israel during the past week are likely to become a hallmark of a seasonal pattern that will worsen. Winters are expected to become shorter with fewer rain days. Summers will become longer and more intense. As part of a region that is at high risk for deteriorating conditions, we must anticipate the likely impacts that are looming ahead.
Planning for these impacts and formulating policy that will enable us to meet our needs is imperative. Further, to avert conflict and promote regional stability sharing our knowhow and helping our neighbors improve their environmental resilience is squarely in our strategic interest.
It is far from clear that our decision-makers have absorbed that message. To do so, they must reorder priorities and implement changes that place these issues considerably higher on the national agenda.