Friday, 22 April 2011

Arab World Faces Environmental Catastrophe

Arab world mapImage via WikipediaThe eyes of the world are currently focussed on the political and social upheaval that is ongoing in the Arab world. The events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria have dominated the news for weeks now. However, what lies ahead may prove to be more significant than anything we have seen yet. I am not talking about war or political change here. No, I am talking about the environment. Not in abstract terms either. We are not talking about something that may happen in 50 or 100 years. No, we are talking about environmental catastrophe in a decade or so.

What kind of catastrophe are we looking at? Well, according to Lester Brown in The Guardian, we are looking at widespread drought on a biblical scale and consequent food shortages of epic proportions. For instance, Yemen and Saudia Arabia are facing severe depletion of natural aquifers, meaning that water shortages are increasing on a scale we in the West can only imagine in our nightmares.

He gives the example of Saudia Arabia once being self-sufficient in wheat through the widespread introduction of irrigation and now facing total loss of all production due to the exhaustion of fossil aquifers. That means they have to look elsewhere to feed their almost 30 million population.

He points out that Yemen, once blessed with renewable aquifers now facing exhaustion of these too, with water tables falling around 2 meters every year. Yemen now imports 80% of its grain and with a rising population it faces ever more food shortages.

All this bodes ill for the future. Even if democracy comes to the Arab world those fledgling democracies will face uncertain futures with social disintegration an increasing problem. The next Middle East war is likely to be due, in large part, to arguments over water and it exploitation. Already, Israel has been in dispute for years with its neighbours and the Palestinian State over water. Some say that even the 1967 war was started over water. What is certain is that water and control of it will be at the heart of any future conflict.
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