Stuart Schoenfeld

While the eyes and ears of the world were focused on bombs, rockets, civilian casualties, tunnels and fire-fights, I have been following a different kind of Middle East news. Here are some news reports just from the last week or so:

• Zafrir Rinat reported in Haaretz on the steady decline of Mediterranean fish stocks. He quotes researchers, “There is no room left for optimism with regard to future yields,” noting that fishers are “emptying the sea without leaving a younger generation of fish to reproduce.”

• The Beirut Daily Star has carried a continuing series of reports on the severe water shortage in Lebanon, mostly a result of mismanagement, waste and decades of government neglect.

• Francesca de Châtel and Mohammad Rab’a in the summer issue of the Middle East Report show how water mismanagement, along with corruption and war created “manufactured scarcity” in a major Syrian river valley, Wadi Barada. This article was part of a special issue on “Fuel and Water: the Coming Crises” in the Middle East Report.

• The editor of “Fuel and Water: the Coming Crises”, Jeannie Sowers, notes, as context for these coming crises of energy and water: population growth, large disparities between Middle East countries in financial resources to address water and energy needs, and effects of climate change that are already evident. “Summer and winter temperatures,” she writes, have become more extreme. Rain and snowfall are less predictable, varying dramatically from historical patterns in timing, form and intensity. Less frequent but more intense rain has contributed to unprecedented floods, landslides and mudslides. Drought and dust storms are more frequent and severe, while the wildfire season has grown longer and more deadly. Rising sea levels have threatened coastal communities and resources, as inland water catchments and reservoirs have plummeted at times to record lows.”

• On the same day, Alejandro Litovsky’s column on the global crisis of competition for scarce resources appeared in The Jordan Times, and was reprinted soon after in the Beirut Daily Star. “Many governments and multinational companies,” he writes, “are feeling vulnerable about relying on others for vital resources. The stakes are high. Resource scarcity is closely linked to political risks.” Competition for resources involves not only countries that are concerned over food supply and economic development. “Developed-country consumers’ voracious demand for resources” also drives resource competition. The column commented on a number of “dangerous political-environmental chain reaction[s]”, including the “potentially explosive issue of the Nile Delta’s water resources,” and ended by calling for international cooperation on “earth security.”

This has not been an anomalous week in Middle East environment and climate news. Other recent news reports tell similar stories. A Reuters report published in Al-Arabiya in early July commented on water shortages and mismanagement under the headline “More people, less water mean rising food imports for Egypt.” Late June reports from Lebanon, Israel and the West Bank covered the annual drought induced forest fires. In early July Reuters from Gaza reported on sewage on beaches and garbage – inadequate sanitation infrastructure is another continuing thread in the story of Middle East environmental challenges. Continuing stories report water stress, population pressure, decreasing bio-diversity, energy shortages, transportation congestion, climate change effects, private encroachment on public land and resources, and pollution from resource extraction, industry and sewage.

The environmental management challenge in the Middle East and continuing conflict are connected and also found in recent news I’ve been reading.

Al Jazeera reports on the damage to Gaza energy, water and sewage systems under the headline “Gaza’s infrastructure on verge of collapse.”

• Friends of the Earth Middle East publishes on its website a list of “water and environment issues held hostage” by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, commenting, that these cross border environmental issues and “pollution havens” “need urgent solutions, lest they become acute public health issues in the near future.”

• Ora Cohen reports in Haaretz that “Jordan and Palestinians” want to import gas from the Israeli fields being developed in the Mediterranean. She spends much of the article on the obviously difficult politics of this relationship.

Al Jazeera reports “a record six-metre drop in Lake Assad, the reservoir of Syria’s largest hydroelectric dam and the main source of water for drinking and irrigation to about five million people” after its capture by ISIS.

• The Beirut Daily Star notes that the water shortage in Lebanon is “exacerbated by the influx of over 1.1 million Syrian refugees.”

Week after week, month after month, year after year, news reports, academic studies, policy papers, and NGO reports contribute to a portrait of a region with limited resources, growing populations, feeling the impact of climate change and growing environmental stress associated with war.

There are of course, other stories, stories of foreign aid and investment, stories of technological development and implementation, stories of cooperation between nations and the slow building of regional transnational environmental networks. But this is probably not the week to highlight these stories since continuing war in the region diverts human and financial resources from addressing its severe environmental challenge, and especially from working across national and sectarian boundaries. Perhaps those who focus the eyes and ears of the world on what to see and to hear will – when there is a lull in the violence, as there inevitably will be – pay more attention to this crisis, help explain its role as a driver of conflict, help explain it as a shared challenge that can only be met through cooperation, and help the politicians and people of the region work through a conflict based worldview to something better.

Stuart Schoenfeld is co-editor of “Environment and Climate in the Middle East”