News & Reports

Population Growth Compounds Climate Change

A new study released last week found that the effects of climate change in the Middle East have been compounded by population growth—particularly in Lebanon.

Researchers predict that the Middle East may be one of the regions hardest hit by climate change—but the region has little data about the local effects, increasing the importance of the latest research.

In Lebanon, the researchers found that the presence of over 1 million Syrian refugees is making water and food scarce in some regions, leading to what is known as food insecurity, a situation in which people are living in fear of hunger.

“One of the main issues overall is of population growth and in Lebanon we’re not talking about a natural growth but the influx of refugees, and the extent of it is amazing,” said Nadim Farajalla, associate professor of environmental hydrology at the American University of Beirut. He is also one of the lead researchers of the new report, titled “Impacts of Population Growth and Climate Change on Water Scarcity, Agricultural Output and Food Security.”

Lebanon’s population has increased by 25 percent since 2011 due to Syrians seeking refuge in the country of around 4.4 million. The influx has caused a shock to water availability in the areas the report surveyed: the eastern Bekaa region and the Mount Lebanon village of Kfardebian.

In the Middle East, a 2012 World Bank report forecast that temperatures will rise by up to 6 degrees Celsius by the 2060s, compared to 4 degrees Celsius in the rest of the world. Water scarcity is likely to become even more pressing in a region that already has some of the lowest water reserves in the world.

The report released last week found that farmers in Egypt and Lebanon are facing similar problems as a result of population increase and climate change, leading to rising water and food insecurity in both countries. Egypt’s population growth of 1 percent per year is also adding a strain to its water resources, while 18 percent of the population is too poor to buy food. In Lebanon, up to 20 percent of the population is food insecure, making them especially vulnerable to future changes as a result of climate change.

The researchers found that awareness of climate change differed between the two countries, with a higher awareness of the phenomenon in Lebanon. But farmers in both countries reported experiencing longer winters and water shortages, cutting their usual growing seasons, and hurting irrigation. In the Bekaa, 81 percent of the farmers interviewed reported not having enough water at times. Less rainfall and snow, coupled with rising temperatures, could decrease water resources 10 percent by 2050.

In Lebanon, a particularly dry winter coupled with weak water infrastructure has already caused strains, leaving many without running water for days, a situation likely to become worse as summer hits the country. Although the country has the highest rainfall per capita in the region, nearly half of the country’s water distribution networks leak badly, and there are few dams and reservoirs to store water, something Farajalla said should be addressed.

“We only have two dams in Lebanon and there is a huge gap of 43 years between the construction of the recent Shabrouh dam and that of the older Karaaoun dam,” he said in a press release. Farmers in both Egypt and Lebanon are digging their own, informal wells to combat water shortages.

Farmers reported noticing changes in weather conditions over the past 10 years. They have adapted by changing the time they plant their crops to offset losses to production caused by the earlier onset of winter, as well as using more pesticides to combat the increase in pests and diseases.

In Egypt, despite a low awareness of the concept of climate change, farmers also reported having to change their crop schedules to adjust to seasonal changes.

Although farmers have already started using some techniques to handle changes, not enough is being done collectively and by governments, the report said.

The report laid out recommendations for farmers to make the best use of the water they have and adapt to the effects of climate change. These adaptations included changing their irrigation methods; changing their planting seasons and crop varieties, and cooperating on water-efficiency techniques with other farmers.

But change must go higher than the level of the farmers to be effective, the report said. It outlined suggestions on a policy level, by both governments and non-governmental organizations, including training farmers in techniques to adapt and supporting innovations to address the problems.

Aside from the farmers, it is vital that the rest of the Middle-Eastern population understand and use water-saving techniques, Farajalla said.

“Around the Arab world we need to educate the end-users on good consumption and efficient water use, and we have not done a good job,” he said.

The report was a joint effort of AUB’s Issam Fares Institute’s Climate Change and Environment Program in the Arab World and the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences, the American University of Cairo’s Desert Development Center and the Columbia University Middle East Research Center, via the Institute for Sustainable Development Practice, in Amman.


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