Climate Change to Add More Instability to the Middle East

dry lake bed near Israel’s Dead Sea
A view of a dry lake bed near Israel’s Dead Sea. (Photo by Abir Sultan/Flash90 via

As the effects of climate change become increasingly apparent to the world, the chronically unstable Middle East may prove to be one of the worst affected areas.

This raises the prospect of climate change fueling existing security tensions, as regional states contend with growing droughts and conflicts, meaning that Israeli strategic planners may have no little choice but to factor such changes in to future assessments and preparations.

“In the past decades, climate change in the world has led, more than once, to international conflict,” Ofer Israeli, an expert on decision-making and foreign-policy at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, told JNS.

“Here is supporting evidence for the claim that one of the factors in the Syrian civil war was a water shortage,” added Israeli, who also lectures at Ashkelon Academic College in southern Israel.

Massive dams built by Turkey on large rivers flowing into Syria ultimately contributed to unrest among its population, Israeli argued, noting that many Syrians rely on agriculture as a main income source.

“The water shortage is the most significant factor since Israel’s neighbors, particularly Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, rely to a large degree on the Israeli water supply to meet their demands. The expected decrease in precipitation could, on the one hand, lead to an increase in the water demand among these neighbors (Jordan and the Palestinian Authority) and on the other, make it harder for Israel to meet their demands, which would increase already existing tensions,” he warned.

As a result, he said, Israel and the international community, as part of their conflict management strategy, must address global climate change and its local effects when thinking ahead and find ways to decrease their destructive effects.

‘Water shortages, economic crisis and instability’

In May, the U.S.-based Atlantic Council think tank released a report warning that climate-induced water shortages will be a source of conflict in the Middle East.

“When the Islamic State controlled large swathes of territory across Iraq and Syria, it wrested control of dams that provided drinking water, electricity and irrigation to millions along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Ensuing clashes with Kurdish and Iraqi forces left Shi’ite holy cities like Karbala and Najaf without water,” stated the report. “More than 23 million live in the river basin, and experts predict that, because of global warming, the Tigris and Euphrates will ‘disappear this century,’ making conflict over what remains even more tempting if contested political control returns to the Fertile Crescent.”

In addition, the report said, climate change will likely make Middle Eastern governments less capable of handling unrest, by putting a “drag on resource delivery and create new emergency-relief needs. In the Middle East, where foreign assistance is often critical, donors may have to work double time to continue to fund stabilization and governance projects while also providing more humanitarian disaster aid.”

Professor Eyal Zisser, vice rector of Tel Aviv University and chair of the Department of the Contemporary History of the Middle East, told JNS that climate change “severely harmed the Middle East, and it seems its impact was higher in this region than on any other area in the world. The drought and the water shortages led to harm to agriculture, which forms an important source of income for residents of the area.”

The inevitable consequence, Zisser warned, is “water shortages, economic crisis and instability that led to the outbreak of rioting and that fueled violent conflicts.”

In most regions of the world, regional cooperation and investment in technology would be the clear countermeasures to addressing water shortages and finding solutions. But, Zisser said, this approach is impractical in the reality of the Middle East.

“As a result, the forecast is one of instability, local and regional conflicts, weaknesses of governments and states—and this also influences Israel,” he said.

On the other hand, it also gives the Jewish state “an ability to influence the region—with Jordan being one example—due to Israel’s supply of part of its water needs, which strengthens the peace and cooperation between the two countries.”


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