Iyad Abumoghli provides an overview of the current state of the environment in West Asia and explores ways to reverse the damaging trends
The Global Environment Outlook in its 6th edition, GEO-6 for West Asia, is part of a global process that aims to review and assess the state of the global environment, identify global and regional priorities, review policies and options, and to chart the outlook on priority environmental issues while also identifying emerging ones. The publication was launched in May 2016 during the second United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 2). It was the result of a scientifically-based global effort under the guidance of a High Level group from Governments and stakeholders, a Scientific Advisory Group and an Assessment and Methodology Group. In West Asia, 20 chapters were produced by lead authors, assisted by 36 thematic authors and 63 reviewers.
The GEO-6 Regional Assessment for West Asia covers the Mashreq countries (Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Syria) and Yemen and the GCC countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates). It is guided by seven regional priorities: water, land, marine resources, biodiversity, air, climate change and waste management. These were identified by member states and stakeholders at the Regional Environmental Information Network (REIN) Conference held in Amman, 10-14 May 2015. Along with the identified regional priorities, two themes governed the West Asia assessment report: ‘peace, security and environment’, along with the ‘water, energy and food nexus’.
The environment is simultaneously threatened by and a cause for a lack of peace and security and increasing levels of conflicts. The war in Syria and the resulting mass displacement of people across the Middle East are having severe environmental impacts that are endangering the health of millions of people in the region. The regional refugee crisis is also having a profound impact on the environment in the region, in particular on environmental health. For instance poor waste management increases the likelihood of disease outbreaks. At the start of July 2015 there were an estimated 2.97 million refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen and Iraq, generating an estimated total of about 1,440 tonnes of waste per day. In Lebanon alone, which has the highest per person concentration of refugees in the world, refugees generate about 15.7 per cent of the country’s total municipal solid waste per day.
The lack of regional cooperation on shared water resources and increased water demand and overexploitation of groundwater resources are major threats to the region. The overexploitation of groundwater resources throughout the Middle East region has resulted in a deterioration of water quality, seawater intrusion, the depletion and salinisation of aquifers, and rising pumping costs. Only four out of twelve countries in West Asia are above the water scarcity limit of 1,000 m3 per person per year. The absence of agreements on shared water resources, as well as the pollution of water bodies, complicates water management in the region. This results in food security issues, human health risks and socio-economic instability. Data sharing between countries is very limited. As a consequence, there exists no common understanding of the state and development of water availability, use and trends. This impedes the development of a common vision on shared water resource management.
One of the top environmental risk factors for human health in the region is air pollution. It is estimated that air pollution alone was responsible for more than 70,000 premature deaths in West Asia in 2010. Military operations during and after the Gulf War have increased sand and dust storms several times over resulting in both threats to human health and also socio-economic challenges. In both 2004 and 2008, the highest mortality rates among children under five years attributable to ambient air pollution were in Iraq and Yemen.
Maintaining nexus priorities has been highlighted as a challenge complicating environmental issues. Unsustainable consumption patterns threaten water, energy and food security. High population and urban growth rates combined with current consumption patterns compound pressure on the region’s limited land and water resources. West Asian countries in conflict or affected by sudden large influxes of displaced people face challenges to satisfy their energy needs. This increases deforestation and the exposure to air pollutants due to burning of materials such as plastics, tyres and other waste in uncontrolled conditions for heating purposes. The harsh climate in the Gulf countries causes high cooling demand throughout the year. This is compounded by huge energy waste caused by a mixture of low efficiency appliances, high living standards and an energy intensive lifestyle.
The continuous shrinkage of agricultural lands due to population growth, urbanisation, land degradation and desertification will jeopardise food security in the region, especially in the Mashreq countries and Yemen. Most coastal ecosystems in Arabia have been classified as vulnerable, having lost significant portions of their original extent, and are in need of further representation in the protected area network. Conflicts over land-use and general mismanagement have led to overgrazing, land degradation and ultimately desertification.
Waste management continues to be performed by localised initiatives. Regional municipal solid waste generation is increasing at about 3 per cent per year. More than 50 per cent of the municipal solid waste in the region comprises food waste. The problem is compounded because nearly 90 per cent of municipal solid waste in the Middle East is disposed of in unlined landfill sites; leachate from these sites is contaminating scarce groundwater resources and spreading disease.
The assessment report offers a visionary outlook scenario over the next 25 years, 10 years after the target date for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Adopting this positive vision, several outcomes can be achieved including: healthy people, clean water and good hygiene, green energy, responsible consumption and production, the mitigation of climate change impacts, the protection of marine life and the conservation of land resources and a level of regional cooperation working towards peace, justice and security for all. However, appropriate policies stressing good governance, regional cooperation, data availability and sharing, capacity development and the transition to an inclusive green economy will be needed to achieve the above scenario.
Addressing these interconnected vulnerabilities in effective, sustainable, socio-economic and environmental policies will reduce the impact of major environmental threats, such as climate change and natural hazards, and maintain good environmental health. Institutionalising these types of policies and regulatory frameworks can cause ripple effects across different sectors and lead to the greater well-being of society in West Asia.
Iyad Abumoghli is Regional Director and Representative for the UNEP Regional Office for West Asia (ROWA) based in Bahrain
This article appears in the Environment issue of The Middle East in London.
Abumoghli, Iyad. “West Asia and the Global Environment Outlook” The Middle East in London 13, no. 2 (February–March 2017): 5-6.