Adding to the tensions in the Middle East and North Africa

This piece is written by Joel Kelling, the Anglican Alliance’s Middle East facilitator.  Joel describes the growing pressures on the region caused by climate change impacts on water, increasing temperatures and displacement – all adding to an already febrile environment. All have profound implications for families in the Middle East and North Africa.

The Middle East is often described as the cradle of civilisation, with the Fertile Crescent running from the Euphrates-Tigris rivers in the east to the Nile in the west providing the water supplies that helped birth the Babylonian empires and the Egyptian kingdom, and from where Judaism, Christianity and Islam emerge.

However, the fertile nature of this region is under serious threat due to climate change, with predictions of reduced rainfall of between 20-25% by 2050 from 2000 levels[1] and a temperature rise of 2-2.75°c. The Euphrates is conservatively predicted to have a 29% reduction in stream flow up to the period 2081-2100, whilst the Jordan River is predicted to have a reduction of 82% in stream flow over the same period[2]. The knock-on impact of climate change is thus massive reductions in the availability of freshwater and rising temperatures, which will hugely reduce the agricultural capacity of the land. And that’s without taking into account the pressures of an increased population, caused both by natural growth (with an anticipated doubling of the region’s population from 2000 to 2050[3]) and the likely displacement into and across the region from rising sea levels – for example 10.5% of Egypt’s population could be displaced by rising sea levels by 2050[4].

Additionally, the competition for water has raised tensions between those with upstream access to water sources, and their downstream neighbours. The construction of the Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia is causing consternation in Egypt, because the rate the Ethiopian government decides to fill it at will potentially have a great impact on their own agriculture if the Nile’s flow decreases too dramatically. In the Jordan River basin, 96% of the 1950 flow rate has been diverted, leaving Palestinians with no access to the Jordan River. Fifty percent of the valley’s biodiversity has been lost in that period[5].

Meanwhile, the wealthier countries of the region and those with access to the sea, such as Bahrain, have begun building expensive desalinisation plants, whilst those with more limited resources, such as Jordan, are depleting their ancient aquifers faster than they are being replenished by the reduced rainfall. Today, Bahrain is able to consume 400 litres of water per capita per day, whilst Jordanians have access to only 80 litres per capita.

In a region that is home to long standing and seemingly intractable conflicts over land and religion, and where there are currently at least 5,644,769 Syrian refugees, let alone Iraqis, Yemenis and Palestinians displaced by ongoing conflicts, the spectre of climate-related displacement looms large.  This is where the human face of the climate crisis resides, not in the geopolitics of conflict between riparian boundaries, but in the lives of those displaced and having to look elsewhere to survive.

War over ideology is tearing families apart, depopulating the ancient Christian communities of Syria and Iraq, as well as other persecuted minorities. Continued overconsumption of water in the region alongside the effects of climate change will displace people into countries overburdened with refugees already and generate further animosity and violence. Indeed, climate change exacerbated drought in Syria between 2007-2010, leading to crop failure and encouraging displacement of farming families into Syria’s cities. Researchers theorise that this mass movement into urban areas was a contributing factor in the explosion into civil war in the country in 2011[6].

As Christians, we remember that we are dwelling between the river in which Moses found refuge and the waters of Babylon, where the displaced Jewish leaders wept in remembering Jerusalem. At the banks of the Jordan Jesus was baptised and in this symbolic act we were made aware of our impending redemption, commemorated in our own baptism with holy water. Water is sacred in our sacraments and in our scriptures, and yet we are not doing enough to protect it for future generations. Christians often act as peacemakers in this region, echoing the reconciliation with God offered to us in Christ. Restoring the flow of these ancient rivers is a sacred duty for us as Christians, as part of our wider effort to halt climate change and as a pre-emptive act to halt suffering before it starts, to attempt to reduce the need for millions to flee in search of water and away from the scorching heat and rising tides.

We all have a responsibility to live as stewards of creation and bearers of Christ’s message of reconciliation.


[1] Ragab & Prudhomme, 2000

[2] Kitoh et al, 2008

[3] Clawson, 2009

[4] World Bank, 2007

[5] EcoPeace, 2104

[6] Kelley et al, 2015