The pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus has upended our lives, making a mockery of our illusions of permanence and stability. Economies that only last month appeared solid are teetering. Healthcare systems that were supposed to be resilient are proving anything but. For many of us in the environmental field, this all bears a hideously eerie resemblance to the kind of toll we fear climate change will soon inflict. Think of this pandemic as an unwelcome stress test for these looming challenges.
In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), these undertones echo all the more strongly precisely because of the ways in which climate change and other environmental concerns look set to amplify the pandemic’s devastation. Minimal preparation for climate shocks, which seem likely to strike the region extra hard, might maximize the pandemic’s fury—just as years of region-wide environmental mismanagement have created conditions that threaten to hobble many MENA states’ response to the virus. In most parts of the region, the environment, as with public health, is considered such a distant priority that responsible officials seldom receive sufficient funding, attention, or clout.
Though coronavirus appears to have caught everyone, especially the United States, off guard, the MENA region stands out for the extent to which it appears to be merging this crisis with the even more severe climate and other environmental troubles to come. Here are several such challenges.
Lack of Water
The Middle East is the world’s most water-impoverished region. Many of its constituent states, such as Jordan and Yemen, already have some of the lowest per capita water availability on the planet, and those numbers are only becoming uglier as rainfall becomes more erratic and populations continue to boom. That means that in some parts of the region, water is scarce and often prohibitively expensive, just as it is needed most. The grim headline statistics mask even grimmer conditions among the poor, some of whom must make do with as little as 10 liters of water per person per day—much less than the UN refugee agency’s minimum accepted standard of 20 liters. For many poor Jordanians, Iranians, and others, water is already so rationed that people struggle to cook small amounts of food, entertain guests, or fully clean themselves, let alone wash their hands a dozen times a day. Tens of millions of people in the region’s most deprived countries will struggle to maintain the vital hand-washing hygiene that public health experts recommend to guard against the virus. And were the virus to infiltrate the displaced populations of Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere—where water and soap tend to be at a premium even in non-pandemic times—the results could be devastating.
Sizable chunks of the region’s farmland are becoming unviable as climate stresses bite, which is fueling some of the world’s fastest growing, petri dish-like cities. Unable to make much of a living off the land amid drought, desertification, and other environmental stresses, large numbers of rural migrants have descended in ever-greater numbers on Cairo, Baghdad, and other megacities in recent years, adding to the burden on already-overtaxed health, water, and housing infrastructure. Many of these new arrivals live in cramped slum districts, with sometimes-irregular water supply, unsanitary wastewater disposal, and insufficient money to stockpile non-perishable goods and thereby reduce their exposure to potential infection. For these people and plenty of others across the MENA region, self-isolation and social distancing simply are not an option to protect against the coronavirus.
Poor Air Quality
Then, there is the potential direct fallout from years of neglectful or non-existent environmental policy. Because many government officials in the MENA region see environmental protection as incompatible with economic development, and because the economy trumps all, polluters have been given a free pass. Early evidence suggests that poor air quality could make people more susceptible to the virus, while also slowing the recovery of those who are infected. That is desperately unfortunate in a region where toxic industries are often lightly regulated and operate in close proximity to residential neighborhoods. Moreover, climate change and rampant deforestation, among other problems, have boosted the number and severity of dust storms. Baghdad, for one, now experiences more than 200 days of dusty conditions a year, up to five times more than in the past. Respiratory diseases have prospered in these conditions, and there is a risk that coronavirus—with its dangerous bouts of lung-clogging pneumonia—might, too.
As if all of that is not concerning enough, extreme weather events, which appear to be striking the MENA region with even greater rapidity than most other regions, threaten to undermine governments’ ability to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus. How, for example, can local officials orchestrate an effective pandemic response in a time of brutal heat waves or extreme floods, as both Iraq and Egypt recently experienced? If even the wealthiest, most stable states struggle to manage more than one crisis at a time, the fallout in their poorer, more politically unstable peers could be brutal.
The region’s largely desert climate may not be a bulwark against the pandemic. Despite plenty of rumors to the contrary, scientists appear unconvinced that the virus will weaken as the weather warms, as some officials in the MENA region and other ‘hot’ latitudes appear to be banking on. On the other hand, another characteristic of the region—its youthful population—might help to blunt the damage because fewer residents may be acutely vulnerable to severe sickness.
Some MENA governments appear to have acted with appropriate haste as the coronavirus has spread. Saudi Arabia, for example, moved swiftly to suspend the ‘umrah (Islamic pilgrimage). But other governments appear to be responding to the pandemic with the same mixture of menace, apathy, and denial that has characterized their handling of environmental issues. Government officials are generally loath to share data with their counterparts in other MENA states—sometimes even with other branches of their own states—even though viruses, like wildlife, have no respect for borders. Already, the World Health Organization’s regional office has decried the lack of information sharing among authorities in the MENA region, while internal power struggles and buck-passing in Iran appear to have compounded that country’s horrific outbreak.
Many MENA states are also suppressing coronavirus-related dissent and whistleblowing, much like the ongoing crackdowns on environmental activists in Iran, Turkey, and Egypt that have silenced many of those whose efforts might have rendered their countries less vulnerable to environmental shocks. Security services across the region have not been slow to pursue those who dare to deviate from the party line that all is under control. Foreign correspondents in Cairo have been threatened, and one expelled, for citing a Canadian study suggesting that Egypt’s infection rate might be considerably higher than its officials acknowledge. Four prominent Egyptian human rights activists were also detained for highlighting prisoners’ vulnerability to coronavirus. As states rush through draconian measures to contain the virus, there is every possibility that regional authorities will once more target the bearers of bad news, rather than harness their talents.
In the MENA region, as in much of the rest of the world, coronavirus presents something of an opportunity to reevaluate models of governance that privilege regime survival over public policy results, and that favor chronic short-termism, centralized rule, and the suppression of dissenting voices over tackling the sources of long-term peril. While the solutions to a public health disaster are very different to those of climate change and pollution, the pandemic is (yet another) illustration of the damage these environmental crises could inflict. Left unaddressed, climate change and environmental degradation will batter humanity in ways that not even the most coronavirus-ridden parts of the world can imagine. As temperatures warm and habitat destruction continues apace, pandemics will become all the more likely, scientists warn. The Middle East and North Africa, the most environmentally vulnerable of regions, would be particularly foolish not to heed the warning.
Peter Schwartzstein is an environmental journalist who covers water scarcity, food security, and the conflict-climate nexus across the Middle East and North and East Africa. He is also an environmental consultant and non-resident fellow at the Center for Climate and Security.