Amid coinciding realities of chronic conflict, institutionalized social disparity, and persistent land grabs on the basis of religion and kleptocratic drive for finite resources, threats associated with the climate crisis in the Middle East are commonly overlooked altogether or otherwise perceived as being far from acute.
However, across the arid expanse of the Arabian desert and into the Eastern Mediterranean region of al-Mashriq — meaning ‘the place of the rising sun’ — the mounting implications of climate change have already started to take form as tangible losses in livelihoods, increased water scarcity, and a heightened risk of malnutrition consequent of low agricultural yield.
The troubling reality is, that the intersecting events of climate change and conflict may actually work in synergy.
As emphasized by the International Crisis Group, current research suggests that for every half degree increase in local temperatures, there is an associated 2–20% increase in the risk of armed conflict. And just as climate change holds the capacity to provoke or amplify acts of war, existing conflicts will inevitably make the impacts of a less hospitable climate more devastating for those at the greatest risk.
For Palestinians residing in Gaza and the West Bank under conditions of prolonged military occupation by Israel, these effects could become catastrophic.
The traditional Palestinian landscape, painted green with olive groves and the vibrant shades of citrus and dotted along the coast with the boats of babas and brothers catching fish to provide for their families, has been entirely transformed by decades of colonization and the growing pains of a peace-process that seems more analogous to the prodigal son.
Whether still living within the historic borders of Palestine or indefinitely exiled elsewhere, the conflict spans a multi-generational tragedy for the people of this land, and the conditions locally will only continue to deteriorate with the added pressures of climate change under a system that provides Israel authority over the designation of rights and access to essential resources and opportunities.
As outlined by the Oslo Accords, 80% of water aquifer resources are allocated for Israeli use, while blockades and regulation of incoming and outgoing materials for infrastructure and development render the extent of Israeli control over the resource almost ubiquitous. Events of war have also contributed to further compromise of water and wastewater systems, dismantling upwards of 200 agricultural and drinking wells, along with systems for water distribution and filtration.
In Gaza — a region densely over-populated and heartbreakingly described as an open-air prison — 97% of water is unfit for human consumption according to World Health Organization standards, and water contamination now exists as a leading cause of child mortality in the region. In direct competition with this growing need, over-extraction of water resources beyond sustainable limits contributes further to the worsening of water quality, inducing increased salinization of freshwater through intrusion of water from the sea. Poor sanitation is equally as problematic.
Forecasted consequences of climate change, including reduced and inconsistent precipitation, increased local temperatures, and further saline intrusion from sea level rise, will aggravate current conditions of social and economic vulnerability, contributing not only to increased water scarcity, but also food insecurity and transitions in livelihoods, traditions, and culture.
Where border closures and land confiscations have already imposed market restrictions, changes in groundwater composition will alter the capacity of arable land to bear fruit.
High-value export crops, including sweet citrus oranges and fresh summer strawberries, could be altogether lost to small-scale farmers in Gaza due to the low tolerance of these crops to high salinity. In consequence of such conditions, opportunities for profitable agriculture and even subsistence farming for the most well-equipped stewards of the land will become strained.
Extrapolated to encompass all long-term considerations for health, social wellbeing, and economic circumstance, the foreseeable consequences become an extensive threat to this population’s entire quality of life.
The Palestinians I know are some of the most resilient individuals, but under the weight of inequitable policy, their loved ones and the people with lives still rooted in their homeland have been confined to coping mechanisms that are almost entirely reactive, and in many cases, harmful. With an anticipated decline in conditions accompanying the progression of climate change, development of mutually beneficial policies and the strengthening of local infrastructure grows increasingly more important across regions characterized by strong ethnic and political divide.
Climate change will continue to act indiscriminately, but left as is, existing man-made policies will result in dramatically different experiences on either side of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. As geopolitical boundaries beg for ambiguity as communities lose opportunities for livelihood and refuge, it is imperative to recognize the climate crisis as both a barrier to peace and a compelling motivation for it.