Why Middle East cities should worry about climate change

Left: Alexandria is one of the MENA cities under threat. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 05 January 2020

Why Middle East cities should worry about climate change

  • The global sea level is likely to rise 20-30cm by mid-century, says a Climate Central report
  • Alexandria and Basra among the cities in the Arab world that face high threat of inundation

DUBAI: The impact of climate change on human civilization will be “incredibly disruptive,” yet as long as the issue is viewed as a “slow-motion crash” people around the world will continue to underestimate its magnitude and urgency.
That warning by Jonathan Pershing, climate envoy under the Obama administration and program director of environment at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, comes as a study reveals that 150 million people now live in areas at risk of coastal flooding by 2050 — three times the estimate of previous reports.
The new research, published in the journal Nature Communications, suggests that global sea levels will rise between 20 cm and 30 cm by mid-century, wiping out at least a dozen cities worldwide.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is not exempt from the impact of rising sea levels, with Egypt’s second-largest city Alexandria and Basra in Iraq identified as areas facing high threat.
The findings, released by Climate Central, a science organization based in New Jersey, are based on an artificial intelligence device — CoastalDEM — that was used to correct the error rate in previous data on rising sea levels.
In a phone interview with Arab News from California, Pershing said the scientific community is in agreement over the extent of the projected damage, calling Climate Central’s measurements “increasingly clear.”
Many scientists point to catastrophic floods and violent climate patterns on different continents as telltale signs of global warming. The new study confirms that the largest vulnerable populations are concentrated in Asia.

Saudis stranded inside their cars in a flooded area in Jeddah in November, 2009. Saudi Arabia’s civil defence said that 77 people were killed and scores were missing. Many of the dead were trapped in vehicles caught up in the rising waters. (AFP)

More than 70 percent of people worldwide living in threatened areas are in eight Asian countries: China, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Japan, according to the study.
Alexandria is one of several low-lying, coastal cities in the MENA region at serious risk of being submerged in the next three decades.
“Much of the city is going to be inundated on a pretty regular basis,” slowly becoming uninhabitable to over 5 million residents, Pershing said.  
This is likely to cause an influx of people moving inland to Cairo, an already overcrowded city with a population of 9.5 million.
However, Pershing pointed out that even Cairo is subject to inundation and likely to suffer from “substantial flooding,” which could lead to an enormous displacement crisis.
Underscoring the urgency of planning for an inevitable future of extreme weather, he said that several areas in the MENA region could begin to experience periodic floods in coming years. These include Basra, Beirut, Kuwait City, Dubai, Manama, Sharm El-Sheikh, Dammam, Jeddah and many fishing villages in Yemen.
“Djibouti will also be threatened, and if we go further down to Qatar, the whole country is on a flat, flood plain,” Pershing said, adding that Doha’s new crop of buildings along the corniche are “not more than a meter above sea level.”
Matt Smith, associate head of the School of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure and Society at Heriot-Watt University in Dubai, said that while Alexandria and Basra have been revealed as the two most populated urban areas in the Middle East particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels, any settlement or population center on low-lying coasts is vulnerable.
“Basra is in what was low-lying marshland, next to the Euphrates River. The area roughly south of Baghdad to the Arabian Gulf, along with the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, is low-lying floodplains and deltas where the Euphrates enters the Gulf,” Smith told Arab News.

Vehicles at the edge of a flooded area in southern Iraq’s al-Qurna district, north of Basra, in April, 2019. Weeks of rain — compounded by melting snowcaps in neighbouring Turkey and Iran — swelled its two main rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. (AFP)

“The area is susceptible to seasonal flooding from the rivers and also any increase in sea level. Similarly, Alexandria is situated on the Nile delta. Many cities around the world are built on deltas and are typically more vulnerable to storms and rain-induced river floods.
“Assuming the sea level does rise as predicted, low-lying cities on deltas will be especially at risk of flooding and the increased impact of storms and river floods.”
Pershing said that cities historically originated and grew near trade routes located by the oceans, so even economic hubs such as London, New York and Paris are “threatened” by the projected sea-level rise.
In the MENA region, a sea-level rise will trigger large-scale population migration accompanied by a surge in social and political instability and worsening refugee crises.
The water conflict over the Nile is a case in point, said Pershing. Countries surrounding the river have spent decades trying to reach an equitable water-sharing arrangement considering the “current” amount of water in the river.


5m - current population of Alexandria, which will slowly become uninhabitable, causing an influx of people moving inland to Cairo, an already overcrowded city with 9.5 million residents.

30cm - predicted rise in global sea levels by 2050, wiping out at least a dozen cities worldwide, new research suggests.

150m - people now live in areas at risk of coastal flooding by 2050.

“What would this arrangement look like if millions of people had to move not because of water scarcity but because of flooding in coastal cities?” he asked.
Despite the dire climate scenarios, many countries in the Middle East, including the GCC states, have revenue structures and economies deeply linked to the production and extraction of fossil fuels, Pershing said.
“Oil is one of the culprits of climate change,” he said, adding that tackling climate change will prove a big challenge for oil-producing countries.
Nevertheless, with all the data in hand, it is up to humanity to decide how disruptive the future will be, according to Pershing.
However, Matt Smith warned that decarbonizing societies will cost vast sums of money, require rapid technological innovation and invention, and potentially slow development in emerging economies.
“Some argue if we do not do this, it will lead to a collapse of ecological systems, large sea-level rises and displacement of large numbers of countries’ populations,” he told Arab News.
“There is actually a lot of subtlety and nuance in these climate debates, but because most people only read the headlines, skepticism, misunderstanding and argument tend to occur.”
Smith said that oil and gas “are not going to last forever. Therefore, it seems prudent to keep an open mind about the possible consequences of a changing climate and to look for non-carbon alternatives and complementary technologies which could also be the foundation of future industries and economic prosperity.”


● Alexandria

● Basra

● Ho Chi Minh City

● Bangkok

● Shanghai

● Mumbai

● Jakarta

● Venice

● Miami

● Lagos

One way of achieving this would be through economic diversification by oil-producing countries. Pershing described Saudi Arabia’s investments in solar energy as a step in the right direction, adding that the Kingdom could become the region’s leading solar power exporter.
The UAE’s emergence as a business and financial hub is another example, with its diverse investments in advanced technology and artificial intelligence (AI).
Pershing also draws attention to the Arab world’s accessibility to “large-scale (oil and gas) reservoirs” that are crucial for carbon capture and sequestration, a process that traps carbon dioxide at its source before transporting it for storage and isolation.
Technology will play a role in both the “mitigation side” and the “adaptation process” of dealing with climate change, according to Pershing. AI and advanced technologies will increase the capacity to look at huge amounts of data, offering clear analysis of future risks and effective contingency planning.

Sheep graze on a ridge above a flooded area following heavy rains in Al-Rawdatayn, about 115 kilometres north of Kuwait City, in December, 2019. (AFP)

“It provides us with everything from sea-level gauges, which tell us exactly how much the sea level is rising, to satellite imagery, which can tell us which homes will be affected,” he said.
Paradoxically, the same technology that might help limit the effects of climate change has revealed that if even if emissions of greenhouse gases stop overnight, the world’s oceans are still likely to rise another 45 cm by 2100.
Against this backdrop of looming danger, Pershing said, President Donald Trump made a “significant miscalculation” about climate science, leading many around the world to ignore an extremely serious threat.
“Trump is moving us down the road in which long-term planning is devalued and real risks like climate change are vastly underestimated,” he said.

Iran announces 3 new cases of new virus after 2 deaths

Updated 20 February 2020

Iran announces 3 new cases of new virus after 2 deaths

  • A health ministry official said the number of confirmed cases of the virus in Iran was five, including the two elderly Iranian citizens who died on Wednesday in Qom
  • Authorities were now investigating the origin of the disease, and its possible link with religious pilgrim

TEHRAN: Iran said Thursday that three more people have been infected with the new virus that originated in central China, following an announcement the day before that two people had died of the illness caused by the virus in the Iranian city of Qom.

All schools and universities, including religious Shiite seminaries, were shut down in the holy city of Qom, according to the official IRNA news agency. Other news reports said Iran had recently evacuated 60 Iranian students from Wuhan, the Chinese city at the epicenter of the epidemic.

Qom, located around 140 kilometers (86 miles) south of the capital, Tehran, is a popular religious destination and a center of learning and religious studies for Shiite Muslims from inside Iran, as well as Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan and Azerbaijan. It is also known for its cattle farms.

An official in Iran's health ministry, Kiyanoush Jahanpour said on his twitter account that the number of confirmed cases of the virus in Iran was five, including the two elderly Iranian citizens who died on Wednesday in Qom.

IRNA reported that the three new cases are all Iranians residing in Qom, with one of the infected having visited the city of Arak. Mohammad Mahdi Gouya, Iran’s deputy health minister, said they did not appear to have had any contact with Chinese nationals.

Iranian authorities were now investigating the origin of the disease, and its possible link with religious pilgrims from Pakistan or other countries.

Iran’s health minister, Saeed Namaki said the roughly 60 Iranian students evacuated from Wuhan had been quarantined upon their return to Iran and were discharged after 14 days without any health problems.

Iran once relied heavily on China to buy its oil and some Chinese companies have continued doing business with Iran in the face of U.S. sanctions. Unlike other countries — such as Saudi Arabia, which barred its citizens and residents from traveling to China — Iran has not imposed such measures on travel there.

The new virus emerged in Wuhan, China in December. Since then, more than 75,000 people have been infected globally, with more than 2,000 deaths being reported, mostly in China.

The new virus comes from a large family of coronaviruses, some causing nothing worse than a cold. It causes cold- and flu-like symptoms, including cough and fever, and in more severe cases, shortness of breath. It can worsen to pneumonia, which can be fatal. The World Health Organization recently named the illness it causes COVID-19, referring to both coronavirus and its origin late last year.

The virus has had few cases in the Middle East so far. There has have been nine cases of the virus confirmed in the United Arab Emirates, which is a popular tourist destination, and one case in Egypt. Of the nine in the UAE, seven are Chinese nationals, one is a Filipino and another an Indian national.

On Thursday, Iraq's Interior Ministry announced the suspension of tourist visas for Iranians.

Meanwhile, Egypt's national air carrier announced Thursday that it would resume flights to China as of Feb. 27 after nearly three weeks of suspension.

Egypt Air said in a statement it will operate one flight a week between Cairo and two Chinese cities, Beijing and Guangzhou. Before the suspension, the carrier used to operate a daily flight to Guangzhou and three weekly ones to Beijing and Hangzhou.