Tip of the iceberg: GCC's environmental worries pile high

Water scarcity, desertification, pollution, and rising sea levels threaten the GCC's environmental security [Getty Images]
01 July, 2021
Despite discussions among GCC members to formalise an action plan to tackle climate change, there are certain unavoidable truths that the Gulf states must face. With water scarcity, pollution and sea levels on the rise, what lies ahead?

As climate changes gradually set in, extreme weather events have been recorded more frequently around the world. For years now, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have been hit by heavy dust storms, with their already hot and humid climate reaching unprecedented levels

The Middle East is considered one of the most water-stressed regions globally, having just 1 percent of the world’s total renewable freshwater resources, according to the World Resource Institute’s Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas. This region could become a hot spot for extreme climate events, should nothing be done.

Consequently, the GCC states have incorporated climate goals in their long-term policies and have joined international initiatives such as the 1995 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the 2005 Kyoto Protocol and the 2015 Paris Accord.

Riyadh seeks to reduce carbon emissions by 60% in the GCC region, and, to achieve this target, 10 billion trees will be planted in the country while a total of 40 billion trees will be planted across the Middle East

Discussing ways to cope with these emerging environmental challenges, Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman had a significant phone conversation in March 2021. Willing to participate in any regional initiatives, Sheikh Tamim had expressed his complete support.

Having announced two programmes to beat climate change – the Green Saudi and Green Middle East – the Crown Prince has ambitious goals. Riyadh seeks to reduce carbon emissions by 60 percent in the GCC region, and, to achieve this target, 10 billion trees will be planted in the country, while a total of 40 billion trees will be planted across the Middle East.

Notably, this will be one of the largest reforestation programs in the world. MBS has said that “This is just the beginning. The Kingdom, the region, and the world at large need to move forward at an accelerated pace in the fight against climate change.”

While the Green Saudi Initiative will commence in the months ahead, the Middle East Initiative will kick off in the second quarter of 2022, with the prescribed support of regional and international partners. Already, the GCC states are facing lower precipitation levels and rainfall could decline by 20 to 40 percent in the years ahead. It is clear it is now a race against time. 

This month, the 23rd meeting for environment ministers of the GCC states was held. Attended by Qatar’s Minister for Municipality and Environment, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz bin Turki al Subaie, urgent issues like the Covid-19 pandemic were highlighted. In addition, environmental resolutions adopted by the Supreme Council at the Al-Ula summit, alongside an update on the progression of the 'Strategic Plan for Environmental Affairs' were discussed.

Following this, the undersecretaries of the environment ministries of the GCC states met to work over ongoing collaborative projects between the GCC Secretariat General and the UN Environment Program. In this meeting, some of the initiatives announced at the 2020 G20 summit in Riyadh were also discussed.

Clearly, each state is seemingly on board with efforts to combat climate changes taking place at both the state level and regional level. However, the specific focus on each climate risk may vary from state to state.

According to facts published in the latest report by Sophie Smith for the Euro-Gulf Information Centre, detailed below are some of the main environmental challenges that the GCC faces.

Water scarcity

Having no lakes or rivers, water availability has been Bahrain’s primary issue, especially since it predominantly relies on groundwater and desalination. By 2040, Bahrain could face a water crisis, especially since the per capita share of natural water has already decreased by 74 percent. Being heavily dependent on desalination, a lot of highly concentrated brine has also been released into the sea, harming the marine environment.

Water scarcity is a major issue for Saudi Arabia, it has less than 1/5th of the absolute water scarcity level of 500 m3 per capita. Despite this, it remains one of the biggest water consumers per capita globally, with a 7.5 percent increase in demand yearly.

Even Qatar is at risk. With its daily water consumption rate at over 500 litres per person, it could yet have a water crisis looming on the horizon. 

Each state is seemingly on board with efforts to combat climate changes taking place at both the state level and regional level. However, the specific focus on each climate risk may vary from state to state

Desertification

Accounting for 59 percent of the GCC population, Saudi Arabia also has the largest land area and desertification has made 76 percent of its land non-arable.

Despite having a diverse landscape, with deserts, mountains and the second largest coastline in the GCC region, Oman faces the same environmental issue. Nearly 95 percent of its land is undergoing desertification, with very little arable land. 

Even Qatar’s arable land was just 1.2 percent of its total area in 2016, while UAE’s arable area was just 0.6 percent in the same year.

Air pollution

Due to its desert climate and emissions from its hydrocarbon and petrochemical sectors, Saudi Arabia’s air quality has depreciated from the 'safe level' by nearly nine times. It accounts for 1.6 percent of CO2 emissions globally, the same proportion as Canada. 

Meanwhile, Qatar also has a high carbon emission rate, with the air quality index exceeding the recommended level by nine times.

Due to pollution from industries and automobiles, the UAE had emitted 20 tonnes of C02 per capita in 2019, one of the highest globally.

Rising sea levels

Since 90 percent of the population live in the coastal areas, 27-56 percent of Bahrain could be underwater by 2100.

Oman has 80 percent of its population living in low-lying areas near the coast and flooding in urban, high-risk areas has already increased ten-fold from 1060 to 2010. As such, it could lose 385 to 929 square kilometres of land by 2100.

Being a coastal country, Kuwait could also lose 1.4-3 percent of urban territory, 90 percent of its population lives by the sea. The UAE stands to lose six percent of its developed coastline by the end of this century, and 80 percent of its population lives in these areas.

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Marine biodiversity loss

Due to changes in the chemical composition of the sea, Oman’s fisheries face the risk of biodiversity loss in its marine ecosystem, which will have knock-on effects on its economic sector. In Qatar, 26 out of 995 marine species face the threat of extinction due to their oil and gas production.

Meanwhile, in the UAE, 13 species have been harvested beyond sustainable levels and are near extinction.

This week, the World Bank announced a new Climate Change Action Plan 2021-25. Aiming to provide record levels of ‘climate finance’ for green projects, the plan is to help countries align climate goals with development strategies. The GCC countries, by attempting to implement similar policies, may yet reap the rewards of regional and international cooperation. 

Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist, lawyer and geopolitical analyst specialising in modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, Middle East and South Asia.

Follow her on Twitter: @sabena_siddiqi