The Middle East Policy Council held its 104th Capitol Hill Conference virtually on Friday, April 23rd: “The Impact of Climate Change on the Middle East.” The panelists addressed the shape of the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy; the social and humanitarian impacts of environmental stress in the region; the market dynamics to anticipate around these issues; and how the U.S. Congress and American government can better support allies in the region with these multi-dimensional impacts from climate change in the 2020s.
Richard J. Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; President and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event and Bassima Alghussein (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists were Aisha al-Sahiri (Non-Resident Fellow, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington); Yara Asi (Non-Resident Fellow, Arab Center Washington DC); Jeremy Tamanini (Consultant, Middle East Policy Council); and Jim Moran (Former Congressman D-VA-8 and Council Board Member).
Ms. Al-Sahiri framed her remarks around the extent to which the energy landscape has changed over the past six years in the Middle East. The main dynamics to this change have been the declining price of oil, the increase in demand for energy, and the stress this has placed on state budgets. Thus, independent of climate change related policy interventions, governments in the GCC have been forced to optimize these budgets through fiscal reforms linked to energy pricing, with Saudi Arabia raising its electricity tariffs and the UAE and Oman greatly reducing subsidies for fossil fuels. In parallel, Ms. Al-Sahiri emphasized the focus on energy efficiency programs and increased ambition around climate action, with Saudi Arabia raising its 2030 target for renewable energy production and the United Arab Emirates submitting a more aggressive nationally determined contribution (NDC) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). She also highlighted tangible progress made around developing green hydrogen in partnership with European countries like Germany.
Ms. Asi emphasized how the existing political and social fragility in the Middle East risks being amplified by the “force multiplier” of climate change. Rising temperatures, water scarcity and interruptions to electricity all risk contributing to instability in the region. Agriculture degradation and decreased yields from crops in the Middle East can often be exploited by extremist groups to gain support, according to Ms. Asi. Notably, she highlighted how “climate refugees” currently have no status under international law, amplifying the vulnerability of these growing segments of the population displaced by climate-induced conditions. Further, unlike refugees displaced by conflict, these climate refugees are unlikely to be able to return to their communities, adding additional pressure on the international community to craft an integrated response. Ms. Asi concluded with a note of optimism, encouraging policy makers from the region and beyond to coordinate policy interventions around water and food insecurity, helping to modernize farming practices in the Middle East through more efficient water use.
Mr. Tamanini discussed the market dynamics emerging from both the energy transition and these environmental issues in the Middle East. He stressed the importance of improving resource efficiency, particularly in the GCC where the GDP emissions intensities are some of the highest in the world. Recent efficiency improvements around water desalination and carbon capture and sequestration could help to improve efficiency, particularly in the GCC. Around the environment, he emphasized the importance of both innovation in green technologies and cross-border investment and cooperation. As one example, Israel’s leadership around innovation in water technology could be enhanced by financing from the UAE following the recent Abraham Accords, or exported to countries like Egypt dealing with growing water scarcity and stress on its agriculture sector. Given the history of policy inconsistency around climate change, Mr. Tamanini concluded by highlighting how commercial ties and market incentives can further climate action in ways that government action may not always be counted on to do.
Mr. Moran opened his remarks by highlighting how the combination of weak governance and the rising clout of youth populations makes the current configuration of the Middle East unsustainable. He stressed the same theme with regards to the approach of the U.S. Congress towards the region which emphasizes weapons sales that ferment armed conflict in the region, as opposed to strategically addressing critical issues like climate change. Above all else, Mr. Moran explained that the twin issues of water scarcity and food insecurity will need to be urgently addressed. The social and humanitarian impacts of these twin issues will only get more complicated, leading to increased refugee flows, as happened in Europe during the Syrian civil war. Mr. Moran advised the U.S. Congress to “get ahead of the problem” and foster better regional cooperation, expansion of relations between states around green innovation like battery storage for renewable energy and leading by example by seriously meeting many of the emission reduction targets being set at the Leaders Climate Summit in Washington in April 2021.
The discussion was enriched by participation from Ciarán Ó Cuinn, director of the Middle East Desalination Research Center (MEDRC) and an expert in water desalination technologies. He explained the primacy of public policy capacity in addressing many of the issues linked to climate change in the Middle East. In many countries in the MENA region, the civil service does not have the capacity to select and roll out new technologies matched to many of the climate-linked challenges in the region. With regards to the energy intensity and environmental impact of desalination technology, Mr. Ó Cuinn stressed the centrality of these systems to livelihoods in the region as research continues to evolve around how the efficiency of these processes can be improved over time.
The full video from the event is available on the Middle East Policy Council website. A full transcript from the event will be posted in a few days at www.mepc.org and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. For members of the media interested in contacting these speakers or other members of the Middle East Policy Council’s leadership, please email Press at mepc.org.
AISHA AL-SARIHI, Non-Resident Fellow, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington; Author, “Challenges & Opportunities for Climate Policy Integration in Oil-Producing Countries: The Case of the UAE & Oman”
I’m very delighted to be here today, especially during these exciting times both in the Middle East and in Washington, D.C., where we have the leader's climate summit. I’m pleased to speak about the energy dynamics in the Gulf Arab states. I always find discussing the energy dynamics in the GCC a fascinating topic mainly because, for Gulf Arab states, the oil wealth has been playing a major role in socioeconomic development.
I would like first of all to point out that the dynamics of the energy transition in the GCC have been dramatically changing compared with the situation six years ago. The dynamics of energy have changed since 2014.
Oil has played a major role in creating governmental revenue for the GCC countries. The governments found an easy way to provide energy at some of the lowest costs for electricity and water tariffs in the last few decades. With low energy prices in place — and, again, with oil wealth contributing to the rise in the standard of living — population growth, the expansion of urbanization, industrial development along with hot weather conditions, which demand an increasing role for cooling, all these factors have contributed to a surge in energy demand across the GCC, something equal to a 5 percent (annual) increase in average energy demand.
If we look at per capita energy consumption in the GCC, because of all these factors, the Gulf countries have the highest per capita energy consumption in the world — compared to other advanced and emerging economies, like the United States, the UK, Japan, and China. However, this kind of dynamic and the pressure on energy supplies in the GCC, as well as the demand for energy, have actually changed over the last few years, especially after 2014, when the oil prices dropped by almost half, from a peak of $155 per barrel to something like $50. This put pressure on state budgets across the GCC, forcing the Gulf governments to rethink how they can actually optimize government expenditures in the face of low prices and low revenues from oil exports. So the GCC governments have actually enacted or embarked on many reforms, including price reforms for the first time. For decades, energy prices across the GCC were kept almost the same. Energy provisions were provided for free or at a low cost compared to international prices. But with recent pressure to rethink the expenditures of the government and how to deal with low oil prices and lower revenues, the GCC countries have increased energy prices.
For example, Saudi Arabia has introduced energy reforms twice after 2014, one in 2016 and the other one in 2018. There were increases in the electricity tariff. The UAE also reduced fossil-fuel subsidies in 2015 and then removed them in 2018. In 2015, Oman also reduced petrol and diesel subsidies. And this year Oman has proposed increasing the electricity tariff for both residential and nonresidential consumers.
There are other kinds of initiatives for dealing with an increase in the demand for energy: the introduction or advancement of energy-efficiency programs in many GCC countries. There, I will give an example for Saudi Arabia, which has had in place an energy-efficiency program since 2008. But that program was advanced further and further after 2014. And Oman this year has announced its intent to establish a national energy-efficiency center.
That is an effect of the fall in oil prices in 2014, but what we have seen as well is an expansion in renewable energy and other alternative and clean-energy developments. And I’m going to give statistics from the IRENA 2021 report that was released a few weeks ago. This report shows that for the GCC there was a fifteen-fold rise in the installed capacity of renewable energy in the GCC between 2014 and 2020. In 2014, it was 211 megawatts, and that jumped to something over 3,000 megawatts by the end of 2020.
Having said that, if you are wondering what is supplying the energy provisions across the GCC, it still mostly comes from oil and gas. And although there is a huge expansion of renewables, they still account for less than 1 percent of the share of electricity supply in the region. However, we have seen some momentum in terms of the initiatives and programs that support the development of the renewable energy and other clean-energy projects across the GCC.
In Saudi Arabia, for example, this year the government has announced it will source 50 percent of its energy supplies from renewables and the other 50 percent from natural gas by 2030. Also, the UAE this year has enhanced its nationally determined contribution, which was submitted to the UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change). It set a target to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 23.5 percent by 2030. And then there are a lot of developments going on in terms of initiatives for the expansion of the development of hydrogen.
So across the GCC there are developments — in Oman, the UAE, Saudi Arabia. In Saudi Arabia, you may be aware of the big Neom project, with $5 billion to establish a green hydrogen plant powered by 4 gigawatts, that will come from renewables. Also, Saudi Arabia has established an alliance with Germany, to enhance the development of hydrogen. UAE also has established a hydrogen alliance, through ADNOC, to increase the engagement of stakeholders in the development of hydrogen. The same goes for Oman, which announced a joint project to develop a green hydrogen plant in its special economic zone at Duqm.
Since we are speaking during a time when there is a leaders’ climate summit going on we have the participation of the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Yesterday we heard a speech from King Salman of Saudi Arabia and today Muhammad bin Rashid spoke about UAE initiatives to tackle climate change, along with the other global leaders.
YARA ASI, Non-Resident Fellow, Arab Center Washington D.C.;
Author, “Climate Change in the Arab World: An Existential Threat in an Unstable Region”
I doubt anyone here is not already aware of the political and social fragility throughout the Middle East, one of the defining features of the region and any geopolitical analysis. Significant military and humanitarian attention, to the tune of billions of dollars, is focused on this relatively small area. It is undeniable that the region does host a disproportionate number of conflicts — from Syria to Yemen, Iraq, Palestine and Libya — as well as a disproportionate number of the world’s refugee populations. In fact, nearly two-thirds of the countries in MENA have deteriorated in peacefulness since 2008, according to the Global Peace Index. States previously considered relatively stable — Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and even some of the wealthier Gulf states — are facing new threats to their stability. Fifty million people in the region are hungry. Extreme poverty doubled between 2011 and 2014, making MENA the only region where this rate increased in that time period. The region also reports the highest youth population in the world, as well as the highest youth unemployment rate.
I could go on about the worrying social and economic challenges in the region, despite many milestones and successes. Some of these challenges are being addressed with significant humanitarian and political intervention, and these efforts work in some places and they don’t work in others. There’s another entire other conversation to be had about that. But what we’re not doing is looking closely enough at this entirely predictable force multiplier that is going to accelerate and amplify all of these trends in the coming decades. That’s, of course, climate change, which is a global issue that does not recognize borders or wait for conflicts to be settled. So how do we deal with this threat that is both here and impending in a region not recognized for its collective and human rights-based approach to politics and policy? First, we have to understand it. And that’s what I’m hoping to help with today.
I’ll start with some basic context on the environmental conditions. The Middle East is already very hot most of the year. While there are certainly forests and vegetation and sources of water, there are already desert-like conditions in many areas. The hottest global temperatures on record have occurred in just the past few years in Iraq and Kuwait, at nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit. On top of that, the population of the Middle East is the fastest growing in the world.
Aside from needing to find jobs and homes for these people, a high youth population today means a high elderly population in about six or seven decades, which is going to be a huge strain on already weak state social-support systems. All of these factors cause a significant burden on existing resources. The Middle East, as a region, is already the largest importer of food in the world. The region also reports high water insecurity, with 60 percent of the population of MENA unable to easily access drinkable water.
Despite this, up to 80 percent of the region’s water goes to agriculture — which still does not produce nearly enough food — and especially the cultivation of water-intensive staple crops, like wheat and rice. Electricity is already unreliable in many countries, but higher temperatures strain electrical grids and can cause blackouts. With a rise in temperatures of just a few degrees — which is almost guaranteed by the current trajectory of carbon emissions — all these issues will be intensified.
We’re also likely to see an increased risk of natural disasters like droughts, forest fires, and floods. This reduces arable land, causes displacement, and leads to increased urbanization. Coupled with poor farming practices, natural disasters degrade land to the point where it’s no longer amenable to large yields at all, or the crops that do grow may be inferior. This brings me to my next topic: the threat from these environmental risks of instability and conflict.
You’ve all likely heard the theory that years of drought and urban migration at least in part led to the conditions for war in Syria. While the overall link of climate to conflict remains unclear, according to existing literature, there are some things we know for sure. Higher temperatures and longer periods of drought will decrease domestic food availability and accessible freshwater stores. Evidence shows that decreases in agricultural production due to degraded land, or lack of irrigation, or just lack of availability of land for growing and grazing, does cause political and social tensions. In some cases, it can even lead to support for extremist groups that falsely promise solutions and financial support.
Populations that depend on jobs in the agricultural sector will become unemployed, yet another vector for state instability. Blackouts and other utility cuts can lead and have led to protests and other social unrest. We’ve seen this in states like Lebanon. These factors will test the social fabric of even the most stable, most prepared, and most highly developed states. But in poor or otherwise fragile environments with weak, corrupt, or otherwise unresponsive governments, the potential for conflict is quite high.
Civilians who become displaced due to natural disasters or lack of food or water, or simply because temperatures are too uncomfortable to live in, are another potentially destabilizing component. Unlike refugees fleeing violence from persecution, climate refugees — as these populations are sometimes called — are not protected by international law. And we’ve had a difficult enough time adequately serving conflict-related refugees. Adding potentially hundreds of thousands more migrants into that mix, at the same time that we’re seeing higher unemployment and increased strain on resources in host countries, makes for a very precarious situation. This is almost certain to start happening in the coming decades.
But I do want to turn to a note of optimism and talk briefly about some steps we can actually consider from the outside. To me, the most urgent issue here is water. First, the region requires serious modernization of water and agricultural practices. Water insecurity has already been the cause of many political tensions in the region, and the side effects of limited water are felt in all other sectors. Less water means less agricultural capacity, limited access to adequate sanitation, which, as we’ve learned during COVID, is extremely important. And lack of water is, in and of itself, a risk to human life.
Yet, in some parts of the region, local populations are growing very water-intensive foods for export. But they’re still not producing enough food for their own domestic consumption. Shifting to agriculture that already thrives in this type of region and is less dependent on rainfall — slated to decrease by 30 percent in coming decades — is an immediate step that would involve retraining farmers and helping them keep their livelihoods and cultural practices. We can also take steps to encourage more efficient use of the region’s existing limited water, such as utilization of graywater, rainwater harvesting, and reducing potable-water consumption. This offers many opportunities for external actors.
Despite a reputation as the home of the Fertile Crescent, it is highly unlikely that the MENA region will, again, be able to produce all or even the most-needed food domestically for its rapidly growing populations. The dependence on food imports is likely to be lasting and permanent. This is not inherently a threat, but these systems do need to be modernized. So how can we ensure that the region’s food-supply chain is not interrupted in light of climate threats to food-producing nations and global rises in food prices, which have hit the region quite hard? This is a question that will require food-producing states, food companies, and the many links in the global supply chain to coordinate on a response and be flexible as conditions change.
Lastly, the response to the so-called “climate refugees” cannot be a regional one. This is going to require global cooperation, coordination, and support. We already have an idea of which parts of which nations are going to be affected first. So if action is taken early enough, there can be a two-pronged approach. One, take steps to support populations that can safely stay in their homes to do so. Two, for populations that are forced to leave, let’s figure out where they’re going to go. Unlike typical refugees, where for many the ultimate goal is to return home, climate refugees are often fleeing environments they can’t or won’t be able to return to. They’re going to need housing, schooling, jobs, food, water, and pathways to achieve citizenship in host states. States will need to be supportive in hosting these new populations. U.S. foreign policy can play a significant role here in pushing for equitable and just global climate-refugee plans.
To conclude, when we take these big-picture looks at climate change, it can feel like bad news on top of bad news. However, I think we need to look at this from the opposite perspective. Because there are so many areas where policy change is needed, this offers many opportunities to build regional consensus on a threat that is going to affect everyone globally. The Middle East, however, is poised to feel some of the most severe consequences of climate change earlier than most other regions because of the preexisting conditions.
Many of these countries already have interconnected water and electrical grids. How can we build on those tenuous bonds to meet the existential threat of climate change? How can we, those who don’t live in the region especially, support regional efforts in ways that build solidarity and ensure human rights while preserving the planet for all? I believe if we choose opportunity over hopelessness, we can make progress that can foster a more equitable Middle East, after a century, at least, of injustice and tragedy.
JEREMY TAMANINI, Creator, Global Green Economy Index;
Consultant, Middle East Policy Council
As mentioned, my remarks today will address the market dynamics in the Middle East to anticipate as we enter this new decade of the global climate crisis. I’ll be focusing on market dynamics emerging from the energy transition and the environmental story already so thoroughly presented by Dr. Al-Sarihi and Dr.Asi. Starting with the energy-transition story, among the many associations with the Middle East, energy production has always ranked high. Fossil fuel reserves are plentiful, and so is the renewable-energy development potential, as has already been discussed. Yet, the market dynamics behind renewable energy in the region are very complex and often don’t align with the rhetoric we hear from policy makers.
Morocco, a net importer of energy historically, has witnessed a surge in solar-energy production during the 2010s, reshaping its economic relationships with both energy-producing and importing countries in the MENA region and even Europe. Lebanon, with its inefficient power sector and challenges with intermittent electricity, is also eyeing significant renewable energy development in this decade. Success on this front could improve Lebanon’s risk portfolio to foreign investors and give the Lebanese economy a much-needed boost.
In terms of the energy-rich states in the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the story is a bit different. Leaders from these countries have promoted the energy transition, most notably through the UAE’s Masdar Clean Energy Initiative and Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030. Yet, renewable energy markets within their borders have yet to reach their potential, with the exception of installed solar capacity in the UAE in 2019 and 2020, which increased dramatically when compared to the rest of the 2010s.
Sovereign wealth funds in the GCC, while not quite following Norway’s lead in divestiture from fossil-fuel investments, are increasing investment in clean-energy projects globally, with fossil-fuel and renewable-energy investments basically equal by the most recent accounting. These investments could lead to fruitful joint ventures in the GCC and help to accelerate renewable-energy-capacity installation there in the 2020s.
Yet renewable energy, obviously central to energy transition in the 2020s, is only one piece of the story. Energy efficiency, the less-spoken-about sibling of renewable energy — although I was very happy to hear about it in the opening remarks — is of equal importance, in my view. Among other topics, the Global Green Economy index we publish tracks closely the emission intensity of each national economy in the MENA region. In the most basic terms, emission intensity refers to what quantity of carbon emissions is required to produce a given unit of GDP.
On this count, the GCC have some of the highest emission-intensity values globally, as has already been mentioned. This finding demonstrates how the energy transition in the Middle East is equally a story about renewable energy development and energy efficiency improvements. Only by retooling key sectors of MENA economies, particularly in the GCC, to emit less while producing more GDP and overall welfare for populations, will these countries have a realistic pathway to global-emission-reduction targets being negotiated and set this year at the Conference of Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland.
The market dynamics of energy efficiency are quite compelling. For the GCC states, heavily dependent on desalination for their water supplies, there’s innovation emerging in reverse-osmosis desalination as opposed to traditional thermal methods that are usually co-generated with thermal power plants. Reverse osmosis is more energy efficient and, if developed and scaled successfully in the MENA region, could be exported globally.
Carbon capture and sequestration — long romanticized as a panacea of sorts with the potential for reducing emissions from fossil-fuel extraction — is starting to deserve closer attention, in my view. Oil majors globally are eyeing carbon capture as a new business line that could be sold to other emission-intensive extractive industries, like steel and cement production. While these technologies are still very untested, and the environmental impacts of carbon sequestration at scale demand serious study, it is a market dynamic that should be monitored closely, particularly in the GCC states.
Moving to the environmental story, the commercial developments are equally dynamic. As the Syrian civil war escalated, I remember too being gripped by an essay published in Middle East Policy, the MEPC’s journal, describing the climate-change linkages to the conflict. Preceding years of drought in Syria had forced rural migration to larger cities, leading to social conflict and resource strain. In my mind, this link between climate change and social unrest was clear. And, as the 2010s continued, the notion that climate change had the potential to further destabilize the region and exacerbate humanitarian crises there entered the mainstream — albeit with differing views, as has already been highlighted.
As has been discussed, the Middle East faces unusually severe environmental stresses. Already dealing with one of the lowest freshwater endowments in the world, changes in precipitation and temperature patterns mean that up to 100 million people in the region — about 1 in 5 citizens by my count — could be exposed to water stress by 2025. That’s just four years from now. The agricultural sector in the Middle East faces similarly worrying trends. The water-intensive profile of the agricultural sector is unsustainable in the Middle East, highlighting again the centrality of resource efficiency in the broader story of climate-change impacts in the Middle East.
Throughout the 2010s, the Global Green Economy Index ranked Israel has having one of the highest per capita levels of green innovation in the world. What this means is that when weighted for the size of Israel’s economy, patents, start-up formation, incremental improvements in larger companies, and green investment are all unusually dynamic there. While the politics of water access and control around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an ongoing and very problematic story, the fact remains that innovation around water-management technologies has been quite successful in Israel.
Israel recycles almost 90 percent of wastewater and has been a forerunner in drip irrigation technology, which can reduce a plant’s water needs by up to 90 percent and help to address the water-intensive nature of agriculture in the Middle East. Much of this innovation in Israel has been bolstered by financing from Silicon Valley and the United States over the past decade, a commercial dynamic likely to be mirrored in some form with the United Arab Emirates as commercial ties deepen following the 2020 Abraham Accords signed last September.
In Egypt, where a large percentage of the population live and work in the Nile River basin, the green economy is currently under assault by the twin crises associated with water scarcity and agricultural degradation. Besides the impacts linked to global climate change, these risks are exacerbated by construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The project, while critical for electrification and economic development in Ethiopia, risks amplifying water scarcity for farmers along the Nile in Egypt and further degrading the agricultural productivity of land there. Expanding the exchange of new water technologies between Israel and Egypt in the 2020s will be critical to safeguarding sustainable development there.
I’d like to conclude my remarks with a turn back to the United States, to briefly lay out some ways in which climate change could reshape the relationship with our many friends and allies in the Middle East. At the highest levels, as this week has shown, the new Biden administration is signaling in no uncertain terms the centrality of climate action to its agenda. A visit earlier this month by the president’s climate envoy, John Kerry, to the United Arab Emirates emphasized the urgency of joint financing for renewable energy development and green technology innovation between the United States and the GCC states.
American diplomatic and commercial interests, represented by U.S. embassies in the MENA region, will undoubtedly embed climate action in the country-level relationships they manage, reflecting the agency-wide approach the Biden administration has rolled out. Yet, our allies in the region can surely be forgiven for questioning the long-term consistency of this U.S. commitment to seriously addressing the climate crisis, given the Trump administration’s backing out of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
This rollercoaster of politics and policies around climate change in democracies was observed in countries all around the world during the 2010s and will surely continue into the 2020s. Therefore, commercial interests and market incentives related to both the renewable-energy transition and the environment become ever more powerful tools for enshrining climate action into the U.S. relationship with the greater Middle East. Beyond these bilateral governmental ties, large established companies throughout the Middle East have been slow to integrate sustainability reporting to their corporate processes when compared to similar firms in Europe and the United States.
Mainstreaming carbon accounting, science-based targets, and sustainability certification schemes to industrial sectors in the Middle East, with priority on the carbon-intensive ones, is another concrete step towards empowering market dynamics to address the impact of climate change in the Middle East.
JIM MORAN, Senior Policy Advisor, Nelson Mullins; Former Congressman (VA-8);
Board Member, Middle East Policy Council
There isn’t really anything more to be said in terms of the condition that faces the Middle East and North Africa today. The small comfort is that I must be reading the right periodicals and listening to the right people because I’ve drawn the same conclusions. So let me give you some comments rather than simply repeat what the last two speakers particularly have to say. The situation in the Middle East and North Africa is unsustainable. It can’t continue. A lot of things are going to have to change. There’s too-weak governance in too many countries. Authoritarian governance, I suspect, in the years ahead is going to become more and more unstable. There’s going to be more and more demand for greater individual representation, particularly as the young people who comprise the overwhelming majority of the populations in the Middle East and North Africa, become better educated.
They’re going to demand change. The Congress realizes that, the people who are reflective and really care about the future of this world and their own legislative responsibilities. Most of them have concluded — unless they have large military-industrial complexes within their congressional districts — that the answer is not in selling more military weaponry to the Middle East and North Africa. That’s generally what we’ve been doing. We sell weapons, we create wars, we exacerbate tensions by taking sides, oftentimes in conflict with our philosophical principles.
So, in addition to reducing our military footprint, we need to get ahead of the problem. The most pressing one comes from natural causes, but it’s exacerbated by man-made decisions. I say that deliberately because it’s mostly men — at least up until now — that have been running the Middle East. And they haven’t done a very good job in running their respective countries, frankly. The matter of water scarcity is probably the greatest security challenge facing the Middle East and North Africa today. And, of course, it’s concomitant with corollary factors in food. If you don’t have enough water, you’re not going to have enough food. You’re going to have a population that becomes desperate.
I’m glad that reference was made to Syria. I do think one of the reasons that Syria imploded into a bloodbath had its root causes in a drought, in inadequate nutrition, food for families. They became desperate, and that created the kind of instability that eventually caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, a bloody chaos. It also destabilized the European countries that experienced massive inflows of refugees from Syria. Of course, that issue is still largely unresolved. Egypt is going to face an increase in crisis somewhat similarly.
This migration of people from rural areas into urban areas exacerbates the problem. There will not be enough water to sustain urban populations. And in many countries, those urban populations are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels. In Qatar, for example, 90 percent of the population is urban in Doha, and very close to the shore, as you would expect for commercial purposes. But that’s pretty much the case throughout. The Nile Valley is going to suffer some horrendous climatic changes. And I’m not sure it’s going to be able to continue to sustain its agricultural production.
The agriculture these countries are engaged in is the wrong kind. They want to be self-sufficient, for example, in grains, in wheat. Wheat takes an extraordinary amount of water, whereas fruits and vegetables are far better crops. They’re better for you. They create less obesity and subsequent diabetes and so on. They think that being self-sufficient in grains for bread and so on should be a matter of national pride.
One of the solutions that’s been raised is that there has to be greater collaboration among all the nations of the Middle East, including with Israel. Because they have to take advantage of the natural benefits that some countries have and those others don't, and to exploit what they’re best at, and rely upon other countries in areas where they’re naturally deficient. Israel wouldn’t be surviving today, as far as I’m concerned, had it not been for US intervention. It troubles me greatly that on a per capita basis Israel uses just about seven times as much water, on a per capita basis, as they allow the Palestinians.
But I’m now coming to the conclusion that private-sector innovation in Israel, particularly in the area of recycling water, green technology, desalination, the way that they have grown vegetation and trees on what clearly was not arable land — that kind of innovation is probably critical to the Arab world. It’s going to have to adopt innovation if it’s going to survive. And much of it they can find in Israel. And, of course, a lot of that has been shared innovation with the United States.
That’s why the current normalization process has many benefits for the Arab world, not just economically but in terms of survivability. And there has to be more private-sector innovation within the Arab world. The states, in large part authoritarian, have not been able to come to grips with the real threats that face their populations, particularly in the area of climate change, in the way that rural areas are dealt with, providing better education, better outreach, changes in subsidies. There’s an enormous subsidy for water; tariffs are extraordinarily low. It shows that the state doesn’t value water sufficiently. It’s going to have to change those structures so that people realize water is scarce. And we can’t survive without it. If you look into the future, the expectation is that temperatures in this region are going to rise 50 percent faster than the average throughout the rest of the world. That’s unsustainable for life. And far too little of the land is naturally arable.
I think governments are going to have to do far more than create these high-technology villages to show off to visitors. And they’re going to have to invest in green technology. They’re going to have to, ironically, shift from their natural source of wealth — fossil fuels, whether it be oil and/or gas — and shift to wind and solar power. It’s interesting that in many of these countries wind and solar power are greater natural resources than in most parts of the world, particularly solar power.
If they were going to invest in any particular technology, it’s long-term battery storage from solar plants and from wind power. It’s conceivable, with the right kind of leadership, that the Middle East and North Africa actually could restructure their economy, and have a bright future, and be able to provide for their populations. But not in the direction they’re going now. But I’m pleased that we have an administration in the United States that’s underscoring the importance of climate change.
I hope that those who are participating in the summit that they’re serious about the numbers they’re throwing out, because it means a lot of sacrifice and a whole lot of policy changes. It means almost an about-face from some of the leaders. I’m thinking particularly of Bolsonaro and people like that. But the rainforests have to be protected. Water has to be preserved, and made more valuable in terms of government policy. The way in which we feed populations such as those in the Middle East and North Africa is going to have to be reassessed and, I think, resolved in collaboration among all their neighbors. And they have to use every possible green innovation available.
I appreciate the fact that there’s been so much substance offered to the audience today, and really the fact that the Middle East Policy Council is so prescient, knowing that there was going to be a worldwide summit on climate change to have this panel today. So I’m honored to play some small role in it.
BASSIMA ALGHUSSEIN, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
One of the issues that really stood out to me among all the presentations was that there is just such an inextricable link between water security and improving farming practices. So from a policy perspective — and maybe, Congressman Moran, you could answer this –—what is in the authority of the U.S. Congress to support? What kinds of incentives can we promote to improve farming practices throughout the region?
MR. MORAN: That’s a major takeaway of this panel, obviously. How can we help? I do think that there is a need to disseminate best practices. Some countries are making real progress. You can see that in the health of their populations. You can see it in their economy. You can see it in the rebalancing of urbanization versus rural communities, et cetera. But none of them are doing enough. All of them could do much more if they were sharing information on what works. We have an agricultural extension service here in the United States. It's done wonders in terms of modernizing and bringing in technology and improving the productivity of our agricultural lands.
That information could so easily be shared with countries in the Middle East and North Africa. But it also means you’ve got to have state governments that understand the need to provide incentives for more people to stay in rural communities and not to flood into the cities in the hopes of a better job and a better life. Provide educational opportunities, employment opportunities, particularly in the area of agriculture in rural areas, so that there isn’t so much stress placed on urban areas as there is today, and that you don’t have these refugee inflows from rural communities because the agricultural system is breaking down.
The other thing we can be doing is reaching out with a small fraction of the money that we put into the military budgeting into foreign aid for agricultural sustenance, into green technology, into helping governments throughout the Middle East and North Africa improve the health of their populations and the sustainability of their natural environments.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: Jeremy, the next question is for you. I really appreciated how your remarks focused on the business element because, as we all know, money talks. Specifically, your example of Lebanon, was excellent. I’m wondering how we can support U.S. businesses to invest in Lebanon in renewable energy, to give their economy a boost and create opportunities for American businesses.
MR. TAMANINI: I’m happy to focus on Lebanon; obviously, when you think about foreign investment you often think about stability. And stability is not just related to social strife or civil war. It’s also basic things like the consistency of the electricity supply, the reliability of different power sources. That’s a problem in many MENA countries, including Lebanon. I’d echo Congressman Moran’s comments in terms of coordinating, showcasing, and connecting as a really important role for the United States. More specifically to your question, certain industry associations have many corporate members, and the right linkages can be made with the corresponding partners in markets like Lebanon. One of the kind of most basic but valuable lessons or me, working in this space in the 2010s, was the primacy of learning and information exchange. This is such a new space for all of us. We’re trying to do this seismic shift from one way of doing business, one way of generating the most basic building block of economies — energy — and we’re trying to pivot into something totally different. Lebanese energy companies can definitely be forgiven for not having a natural capacity or IP[RS1] base to make this pivot.
So, to your question, I think that making those connections, being really consistent, particularly in this era of Zoom, around connecting the right companies, the right know-how, the right investors. Remember, what’s great about the investment angle is that there is always going to be energy demand in these states. And many investments can be structured so that there are returns around renewable energy that are incentivized. I think that could definitely be an approach with Lebanon.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: What struck me the most about this example in particular is the link between business interests and also our national-security interests. As all of you have discussed, the growing instability in the Middle East is a security threat not only to the United States but to all of our regional partners. By taking advantage of these investment opportunities, we would also be helping to maintain and improve stability in the country.
Aisha, you talked about the poor human-resource capacity in countries like the UAE and Oman but, clearly, it’s all throughout the Middle East, regarding climate-related issues. Also, of course, the farming practices we keep coming back to time and time again. What is it that the United States can do, or how can governments improve investments in their domestic education systems to help train their labor forces to be better in these areas?
DR. AL-SARIHI: I think the focus on education and human capacity is essential. If we look at the GCC, we see that movement towards developing renewable energy and the reforms that have been introduced in energy prices, happened only very recently. And they happened because there have been internal forces, the pressure of energy demand, and external forces, low oil prices.
In our article, we realized that the know-how is not sufficient for both the policy makers as well as the citizens in the GCC to be involved in addressing the pressing energy issues. What can we do for that? There is an issue here across the GCC: the match between the skills that students have and what the market is actually in need of. That match is not necessarily there. For most of the students, education in the pure sciences is not much linked to how they can contribute in the market.
For example, if there is teaching about renewables, it would be mostly theoretical, but not necessarily linked to how students can enhance their entrepreneurial skills so they can go into the market and establish their own investments. In this area, the GCC can strengthen the education system, not only from the university and college level, but from the school level. They can also seek, as you mentioned, perhaps collaboration with international organizations.
This actually is happening. There are some science parks across the GCC. There is a science and technology park in Saudi Arabia, I think in the King Abdulaziz University. There’s also a science and technology park in Dubai and in Qatar. These are starting to achieve collaboration between domestic education institutions and international institutions. But the big thing is how to translate that know-how from the university level so that it can have an impact when it comes to policy making, investments and the market.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: That reminds me of a point in Yara’s paper. You talked about how the current economic incentives make it difficult to transition from oil. What can the United States do specifically to encourage these countries to change these economic incentives?
DR. ASI: This is a tough one, because wealthy countries that are oil dependent — Libya aside — are some of our most stable and, for now at least, our strongest regional allies. The stability, unfortunately in some part, comes with the wealth that oil provided. That has, unfortunately, for a long time, limited our ability to criticize some of their practices. Now that their economies are so dependent on this and, as we heard, oil prices are going down, we’re going to have to — as with local agricultural practices — show with money, with diplomacy that what we’re doing here in the United States is serving as an example of how to transition.
One thing that we have traditionally done poorly in MENA is to say: This is the outcome we want. Get to that outcome. But if we want a specific outcome, we need to be supportive in the massive social, structural, economic, and political upheavals that are needed to get to those outcomes. So we need to look at regional efforts. I think we need to work with the people on the ground. There are amazing climate advocacy groups within the Middle East that have been working on these issues, that have been researching alternative sources of energy, for their economies.
How can we work with the people that are there? We have high youth unemployment, and we have this huge need to shift the energy market. Let’s put those two factors together and figure out how we can encourage these countries on their own. Many of the populations of MENA are wary of too much international intervention; for most of their lives what they’ve seen that, as the Congressman said, is military intervention. So if we’re going to say this is for you; we want you to shift away from oil, which is how you have buoyed your economies for so long. We can’t just say that it’s for their benefit and then leave answering the questions to them.
How can we incentivize? I think there are thousands of big and small ways to do that. Yes, some on the presidential and congressional levels but recognizing that climate change is an outcome of what we all do, and that even if one of the Gulf countries shifts away it needs to be a regional effort. We can’t just say, OK, Saudi Arabia, you do this. It’s going to be long-term, and that should be the impetus for us to start sooner rather than later.
MR. TAMANINI: There’s a great resource called the Climate Tracker, which is run out of an NGO in Germany. What they do is model all of the countries in the world and which climate commitments are compatible with actually reaching a 1.5-degree Celsius ceiling to emissions. There’s one country in the entire world that is categorized as such: Morocco. I highlight that just to build on what Yara was saying. The exchange of information and know-how is critical, but we shouldn’t assume that the United States is coming to the issue from much of a position of authority. We’re not on a trajectory currently to honor that 1.5-degree ceiling. This is just a bit of broader context around who has authority on this particular issue globally.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: Jeremy, your remarks touched on my next question, the importance of information sharing. We have this phenomenal example of the success in Morocco, and Congressman Moran talked about the success in Israel with new technology. How do the Abraham Accords help to strengthen the possibility of information sharing?
MR. TAMANINI: We talk about the macro perspective in terms of bilateral relationships. But on climate, in the past decade we’ve often seen the most progress from the subnational realm. That can mean cities, it can mean companies, it can even mean grassroots organizations and networks. So what the Abraham Accords open up are two things, in my view. The first is the very natural marriage between innovation in Israel — which has already been mentioned around water technologies — and capital in the UAE. And, by the way, the UAE is certainly not at the level yet of Israel as we measure green innovation in the index, but it’s not horribly behind either. There is some evidence in the UAE emerging, and in Saudi Arabia as well, around more vitality in green innovation. I think the marriage of innovation with capital is a huge piece that can blossom from the Abraham Accords.
But in a more nuanced way, to your question, Bassima, I think the networking effects here can be much more transparent and open. There’s something really powerful about having more openness and a free flow of people and ideas between different areas of the region. That’s always been a real impediment to market development: the political and security divisions between Middle Eastern countries. So to Congressman Moran’s point a bit earlier this is a great opening, I think, for the decade, the Abraham Accords, to be able to start to look at climate change regionally in MENA as one of sort of competitive advantage, almost.
It’s almost like, who’s good at what? Israel’s proven itself to be good at innovation. The Gulf has a huge history around energy production and may have some real leadership around carbon capture and sequestration, around fossil-fuel sectors. How do we just open things up a bit to allow for that leveraging of competitive advantage that wasn’t so possible in the past? I think the Abraham Accords are a big door opener for that.
DR. AL-SARIHI: To Jeremy’s point, I think the innovation is a very important element that could help finding solutions to many regional issues in the MENA region. But the expenditure on research and development is still under 1 percent across all of the MENA countries. And the ecosystem that supports the innovation here is still not well structured there. The policies and the regulations that support innovation are still not there.
The MENA countries should really focus on how they can enhance or build up a local innovation system. For the most part, in finding solutions for water scarcity, the renewables, all of that depends on importing technologies from abroad. While these technologies are important, they also need to be adapted to the local and specific conditions. For example, the weather conditions, the heat, the humidity and the dust. These are not really suitable for the renewable-energy technologies that are imported from abroad. So there is a lot of need to address innovation locally, while it is also important to seek the partnership of international organizations in order to enhance the flow of know-how between the MENA countries and other countries around the world.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: We have the honor of having a very distinguished guest in the audience today, the director of the Middle East Desalination Research Center (MEDRC), Ciaran Ó Cuinn. Would the director of MEDRC and the panelists elaborate on the kind of water desalination cooperation that is taking place in the GCC? An audience member recalls that Oman had hosted MEDRC in the past, and we’d love to hear more about what is happening at the organization and what the plans are now that more people are getting vaccinated and meetings can occur in person again.
CIARÁN Ó CUINN Director, Middle East Desalination Research Center
MEDRC is the only surviving institute of the Madrid Process back in the 1990s. We are a multilateral international organization headquartered in Muscat, where the Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians are co-equal partners. We use the diplomatic architecture of the Madrid Process, combined with the Irish peace process. So every member country is a joint owner of the organization. We are, as you can imagine, very quiet. I’ve done my job well if you’ve never heard of us. That’s the way I look at it.
Essentially, our mandate is to help the Middle East peace process, number one, and number two, to find solutions to freshwater scarcity. And number three, to be a model organization for states seeking to use trans-boundary environmental issues in service of a peace process. We are primarily a peace-process organization, and we use trans-boundary environmental issues as the entry point into the peace process. We work, essentially, with civil servants: Palestinian, Jordanian, and Israeli civil servants, and officials from other countries — Germany, the United States, Japan, Korea, Qatar, Oman, lots of these countries. And we’re still working away, but working with civil servants more than anything else.
It was very interesting listening to this conversation. For me, the environmental issues and the move to address climate change isn’t one of technology. Science is a global phenomenon, a global industry, a global sector. No one country has a product that other countries can’t buy. Science is a transnational thing. The biggest issue, as I see it, in the MENA region is not actually one of technology. It’s one of public-policy capacity, civil-service capacity. How does a civil-service system in the MENA region pick a new technology, roll out a new technology? Countries like Israel are very good at this, and they’re geographically small. Universities and the state work together very, very well. Other countries don’t have that culture.
They share that with a lot of European countries. Ireland, my country, wouldn’t be as good at some of these processes either, and would never actually buy a first-generation of any technology, would get a second or third because the opportunity costs of getting it wrong are so high. What we find difficult on addressing climate change are the political issues. It’s not very fair for politically complex parts of the world to say: Forget about your politics and look at climate change. Saying “ignore politics” is a deeply political statement. It helps the dominant player in any conflict. And you can’t do that; you have to do things side by side.
In the context of the peace process, based on justice and peace, people will move together on issues like climate change, but only then. Outside of that, I think we need to spend an awful lot more time in terms of our aid agencies on working out how to deliver aid. By aid, I mean, USAID. I’ve been seeing really amazing things in the last couple weeks about what they’re going to do in terms of climate change in the region. That can’t be ignored or separated from the political situation.
But I don’t think people should fetishize the technology. The solution isn’t in some new bang-whiz box that we haven’t invented. Desalination technology is essentially as old as the hills. It was invented in Berkeley 30, 40, 50 years ago. Solar panels are getting cheaper. You connect one to the other; it’s not rocket science. What we need to do is develop the public-policy scenario where states in the GCC, states across the region, can say: “We will give a feed-in tariff, we will give a cost-per-megawatt for energy. Here is the land. Private sector, go and build solar panels.” It’s not really that difficult.
If we spend our money there, the technology will happen. We have to invest in it, and having good research infrastructure, which we’re trying to support, will do. Let me just conclude by saying in our work with the Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian systems, we have had several, trilateral, week-long workshops with senior civil servants over the last couple of years on climate-change issues. And it’s really fascinating to see how the Palestinian system, without a lot of resources, is really working hard to develop these, as are the Israelis and are the Jordanians. What’s really wonderful to see is how officials from those three parties — who are experts in that area — are really willing and delighted to work with each other, and have internalized the fact that this problem doesn’t respect borders. We need the political systems and peace processes and multilateral approaches now to actually unlock these issues.
MR. MORAN: I love your accent, and even much more so I love what you’re doing, Ciarán.
But I want to ask you about desalination, because about half of the world’s desalination takes place in the Middle East. And in the GCC, about 90 percent of the water they use comes from desalination. But desalination leaves a very large carbon footprint. You have to use fossil fuels to heat it up, as I understand it, and to get the water to a more pure form. But then also, the brine that you collect you put back into the ocean. And it seems to me that’s harmful to coral and marine life. What are the long-term prospects for desalination, given some of these carbon-footprint drawbacks?
MR. Ó CUINN: First of all, my background is in diplomacy. I worked with the Irish government and the Irish peace process for many years. But I work with scientists, and they’re far brighter than me, and better. Desalination is a dirty, carbon-intensive, horrible technology in terms of the environment, as is air conditioning. If you take air conditioning and desalination out of the Gulf, you don’t have a lot of people there, very fast. There are huge geopolitical issues, huge safety issues. You have a society of a couple of million people in an area that has one or two airports and five or six desalination plants. If they disappear through war overnight, you can’t get all those people out in two, three, four, five days. There’s only a two, three, four, five-day water reserve. We wouldn’t have designed this this way had we known.
But what’s the alternative? Israel relies hugely on desalination. But what’s their alternative? Rely on the dwindling Jordan River? Rely on rain to fill up the Galilee? This is not something they can actually do. UAE just doesn’t have enough water for the people it has. It’s the same as air conditioning. If it’s 52 degrees Celsius outside, you need to have your air-con on. That air con uses up a huge amount of electricity. And we are working very, very hard and funding a lot of research on reducing the environmental impact. But there’s no way around it.
There are laws of thermodynamics and laws of physics. You have to put a certain amount of energy into a system to split the salt out of the water. That’s just the way it is. But, if you have the sun and lots and lots of space, there’s no reason why you can’t use that with desalination. What’s nice about solar desalination is, you don’t need to spend so much money on batteries. The solar plant goes on when the sun is there; it fills up the tank and when the sun is gone it’s not there. So one of the big costs in solar desalination has been the battery. It’s a huge issue. But it’s not as simple as people make out in the GCC. When you’ve lots of sand in the air in a desert, it can be quite difficult as well.
So it’s not as if countries like Israel and countries in the GCC have the option of just waiting for the rivers to fill. They really have to do this technology. I mean, in Saudi, some of the plants are still distilling water. It’s a hugely wasteful form of technology. Whereas the primary technology we use now is reverse osmosis. So there are great solutions there. We’re working with the Palestinian Water Authority on helping build a 50-megawatt desalination plant in Gaza that will help them. And the Jordanians are looking at it very seriously. Israel’s plants are among the best in the world. You look at Spain, Italy, the United States in particular, this technology is everywhere, and it’s quite easy, but it’s tricky enough.
The brine isn’t that big a problem when it’s going into an ocean. The problem is when it’s going somewhere like the Red Sea, which is pretty closed; there it can do a lot of damage, we think. These are still early technologies. But the problem is, what is the alternative?
MR. MORAN: But, Ciarán, less than 20 percent of the wastewater is recycled. If you recycle the water that you have, isn’t that a more constructive solution?
MR. Ó CUINN: Absolutely. The way you should look at water is this: What is the least-expensive way of getting it? So if you’re going to desalinate water from the sea, there are many, many thousands of bits of salt per gallon. If you have to have lots of energy, take lots of salt out. If it’s brackish water, just a little bit salty, you need to have less energy. And for wastewater, you need even less. So when you clean wastewater through desalination, you can do it for 20 percent of the cost of seawater. You’re then up against cultural issues that are very real and very good. Israel, for example, does a lot of wastewater, that water goes into agricultural. In most Muslim countries, they use that water for beautification purposes, but people won’t drink it. There is a lot of education to be done on this, and it’s not for people like me to tell people what to do regarding their religion. That’s really for them. I don’t think in any religion it’s seen as an open or shut case. It’s one of those areas for discussion and dialogue.
So you’re 100 percent right, and in addition to that, GCC countries subsidize water. They shouldn’t. There’s no real economic signal. You’ll see the maid come out in the morning and clean the car with the hose. This is just ridiculous in that part of the world. Water is highly precious. So there is no real price signal. There are public policy tools in use, but they’re quite ineffective: public service announcements like, please don’t use water. But pricing is the only real tool that will do the job.
DR. AL-SARIHI: One of the impacts of climate change across MENA is the contribution of long periods of drought. They come with the increasing frequency of dust storms. Are the dust storms considered a big problem for water desalination plants?
MR. Ó CUINN: Dust storms, not so much. When you move wholesale to large-scale solar, dust storms are a huge problem, because you need to clean plants, and things like that. But I don’t think dust storms are that big an issue. You basically take in salty water from the sea, you run it through a plant, and then run the brine out. So I don’t think it’s hugely problematic. But demand for water is going through the roof. Demand for water is linked to economic growth, social betterment and social improvement.
The Gulf is part of the world that’s changed so fast that somebody born in 1970 water was a precious, wonderful thing. And now to have it in the tap, so cheap; to say to that person, you had it bad as a kid, but you can’t have showers, or don’t wash your car. It’s such a precious thing that people like so much, it’s hard to tell them not to use it. I don’t think dust storms are that big an issue for desalination, but moving forward, if you’re going to have solar panels and a lot of solar, dust is an issue.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: One of our audience members has a question, which you touched on. Can desalinated water be used efficiently in agriculture? Does it depend which part of the world is using it? How does that work?
MR. Ó CUINN: It can. You can use desalinated water for anything. When it comes out of the plant it’s pure water. You should re-mineralize it, but it’s basically H2O. So when it goes into your system, it can make you quite sick. When you drink gallons and gallons of it, but you should re-mineralize it. But it’s water. It can be used for anything. It’s cleaner than most water.
The issue is efficiency. If you’re using a lot of energy to get water to that drinkable quality, and then you’re going to pour it on a field, it’s probably not the best use of it. You should use wastewater for that. And what’s the cheapest and most efficient way of using wastewater? In the long term it’s to do it with solar, with renewables, and use that for agriculture. You can use desalinated water for anything.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: You touched on the fact that this technology already exists and that the biggest problem is that people are not utilizing it. Why?
MR. Ó CUINN: They are using it. In the Gulf, 95-98 percent of all water is desalinated now. The issue is efficiency. That’s the key word. It’s easy: if you have unlimited energy, you can make unlimited water. Water today on planet earth is a function of energy, think of both as being exactly the same, especially in hot parts of the world. If you have energy, you can have water. It’s really easy. The problem is, that costs a lot of money, and that has huge carbon impacts on the environment.
So using fully desalinated seawater with a couple thousand parts per million of salt is so much more expensive, uses so much more energy, than desalinated wastewater. That’s water from the toilet, water that goes down the bath and from the shower. That is much, much cheaper to do. That’s what we should be doing, and that’s what people aren’t doing. The reason is that they have loads of money and don’t need to do it.
I’m in Ireland at the moment. For us Europeans and Americans, who for 200 years industrialized and destroyed a lot of the world, to turn to parts of the world that were poor 30 years ago and say, you guys need to stop now, is a bit rich. We need to work with people. We need to show people our public policy mistakes. We come not as saviors; we come as prodigal sons and daughters who have — whether we like it or not — made a far bigger negative impact on the world than the people we’re trying to help. So we should be very supplicant. We should have bowed heads. We should ask, please don’t make the mistakes we did. Let us help you and work with you.
DR ASI: Ciarán, since you work directly with local water authorities — especially in Israel-Palestine, where the political situation has seemingly not been worse in a long time — do you notice a difference in how they view the situation versus the politicians at the top are more hyperbolic, rhetorically. Are they more willing and open to work together than we see?
MR. Ó CUINN: They most certainly are. I don’t think they’re angels. We all bring our own baggage, our own politics, our own badness. God knows, I have a lot of it. But the key thing in the area we work in, environmental peace building, is that ignoring politics is political. So we would never, ever say to an engineer working in the Israeli Water Authority, the Palestinian Water Authority, Jordan: leave your politics at the door. That’s not fair. That helps the dominant party, and it’s actually in nobody’s interest in the long term.
We meet with people who have a certain mandate from their boss, their political system, and we work within that mandate. That’s all we can do. We stand back, and we have to respect that. We would have certain very basic rules. Everybody is an absolute equal, a co-equal partner. Everybody has this phrase from the Irish peace process, “a parity of esteem.” I don’t have to agree with what you say, but I do have to accept that you mean it. What we’re trying to do really is build up a longitudinal network of senior civil servants who, when the politics is right, will move and move fast. That’s how a peace process works. The politics unbundles very, very fast. I’m an Israeli civil servant; you’re a Jordanian civil servant. I pick the phone up and I say: My boss has asked for a note on this. Have you got one? Yeah. What’s the plan? OK, let’s swap notes. We need to get this done fast. This is what worked in Ireland: when the officials knew each other, when the officials worked together.
The people are often very, very far ahead of the politicians. It’s like a spring coil that’s ready to go. It seems bleak at the moment, but actually a lot of the world is looking at this now. It’s very like the early ’90s: this can’t go on. This is crazy. We’re all thinking things, and we’re all not saying things. But that will break. That will happen very, very fast. I’m quite confident for the next couple of years, to be honest with you.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: That is so encouraging to hear. One of our audience members has a very technical question. Can water be semi-desalinated to below a drinking grade for non-drinking purposes? Or is it a factor of what minerals were in the water being purified?
MR. Ó CUINN: You can do whatever you want. It’s basically a machine. If you see a desalination plant, a reverse-osmosis plant, you have a tank where dirty water comes in, you have dirty seawater in the tank that is then pumped into a filter. It could be anthracite; it could be sand. It filters out the water. Then you have clean saltwater. You then pump this water through a thing called a membrane, which separates the salt from the water. And the amount of separation is a function of the energy you put into it. So you can half do it, fully do it, quarter do it, whatever you want. Then you have a thing called the second pass, which takes out things like chlorine, nasty, smaller molecules. Then you can put minerals back into it.
It’s a very simple, wonderful technology. The Bureau of Reclamation in the United States, one of the most amazing federal agencies that doesn’t blow its own horn well enough, I think, is an amazing beacon to the world, a U.S. organization headquartered in Colorado, I think. They have led the way on this, supporting all types of wonderful technologies that the world has really caught onto and followed.
MS[RS2] . ALGHUSSEIN: Another audience question regards Japan. What about Japan’s WNA (World Nuclear Association) proposal to dump 1.2 million liters of radioactive water into the sea? What about France’s nuclear radioactive waste barrel sea dumps? Does desalination really work as nuclear energy is being claimed to be clean?
MR. Ó CUINN: Japan is a member of MEDRC, and they make fine desalination equipment and make some of the best membranes. But I don’t know anything about this issue.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: I did hear you earlier touch on the issue of battery storage, which is also something that Congressman Moran spoke about in his remarks. What can U.S. policymakers do to increase investment in lengthening battery storage?
MR. Ó CUINN: You can fund research. Your Department of Energy is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on areas like this. One of the things I would do is set targets. The U.S. has been really good. There have been some very bad examples and some good examples of prizes around the world. We have a prize for the first team to develop a handheld, off-grid device that could desalinate seawater, available for less than $25 a unit, which would be a humanitarian game changer. And USAID helped us, as well as the Omani government.
Battery technology is like loudspeaker technology, one of those bizarre technologies that hasn’t really moved a lot. A loudspeaker in your stereo is essentially the same bit of equipment since 1920. It hasn’t really moved on; I don’t know why. Fifteen years ago, I was the policy adviser to the Irish minister for energy. And every week someone came in and said: We have this newfangled battery which next week will transform the world. And it still hasn’t transformed the world. It’s getting better. Prices are coming down. The U.S. Department of Energy is brilliant. They’re really, really good. I would give them a bunch of money to say: Develop a research program to incentivize reaching the certain target of X amount of dollars. It has to be a dollar number: X amount of dollars per battery gigawatt, or whatever it is. And you have to be able to leave that gigawatt in there for a week, a month, a year, whatever it is, because it’s the big constraint.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: Yara, in your paper and in your remarks, you discuss this interesting difference between climate refugees versus traditional refugees. How climate refugees oftentimes either don’t want to go home, or it’s physically impossible for them to go home. Because of that, they need to be integrated into other countries. In terms of immigration policy, are there any treaties that discuss global immigration policy regarding climate refugees? Or are they currently just lumped into the same category as traditional refugees?
DR. ASI: I wanted to tailor my remarks to specifically touch on this because in terms of global destabilization, looking outside of the Middle East, the “climate refugee” situation is up there. As we define refugees, or asylum seekers, or internally displaced people in international humanitarian law, they are afforded certain protections when they leave their home country and arrive in a host country. Anyone who is plugged in enough to be watching this has certainly heard a lot of the controversy about these distinguishing factors: Who actually is an asylum seeker; who actually is a refugee. You know, we’re seeing Denmark, for example, sending back refugees to Syria, claiming that it’s safe now. But there are structures that have been around for decades, nearly a century, specifically targeted to these refugees. We may disagree about the policies, but the policies are there. Each state has a different way to handle it, especially the top host states, like Jordan and Lebanon.
But, I think, climate refugees is really a misnomer; nobody recognizes them as yet – as refugees. They are not protected. It’s one thing when you have a population that’s fleeing a specific natural disaster, a typhoon, a flood, something like that. They are usually afforded more protections because they are fleeing something tangible that we can see. Their home is gone; their city is gone. Of course, they need to go somewhere. But when you have these kinds of refugees that are leaving simply leaving because food is decreasing, or food prices are too high, or water availability is low, these are not clocked as crises yet. We don’t have the language in international humanitarian law, yet, to decide what we will do with these people. So we are already seeing, especially in the smaller islands in the Pacific, some of these nations will be underwater in maybe our children’s lifetimes. We don’t even have a system in place for what to do with people whose homes will literally disappear.
When we look at the Middle East, which has already been feeling the strain from water, they’re trying to use technological innovation to deal with it, I don’t see this as a priority, even to nations that are already struggling to host conflict-affected refugees. I do a lot of work on refugee populations, and we’re not doing a great job hosting these people who are fleeing obvious atrocity, war crimes, human rights abuses. So when you’re going to have tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people leaving countries because their farmland isn’t good anymore, and they’re not technically classified as refugees, and they’re not going to go back home. Their farmland will never be able to sustain life again. We simply don’t have the infrastructure for that.
That’s why I pointed to that as a place where I think the United States and other countries, especially with the Biden administration, the refugee cap notwithstanding, kind of prioritizing and centering human rights in their approach to foreign policy. This is a human-rights issue. We need to figure out now who’s going to be displaced and where are they going to go. To my knowledge, we don’t have a plan, unfortunately.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: One of the changes that I am bringing to the Middle East Policy Council is that as a former congressional staffer I have been blown away by the substantive discussion that has taken place here, and I would love to share it with my friends and colleagues on the Hill. I would like to personally put together a memo about some of the policy recommendations coming out of this discussion. So far, I have a couple points, and I would love it if you could help me wrap it up to see what else I should share with them.
One is that it’s very important for the United States, specifically the Department of Energy, to increase investment in lengthening battery storage. Two is that we should encourage our allies in the Gulf and other Middle Eastern countries —we can also do this through specified aid to these countries — to increase funding and investments for their domestic education, to develop climate-related fields in-house and to improve their education on more sustainable farming practices. Then we certainly would be able to help, from the U.S., fund programs that collect better data on climate-related metrics, which was something that Aisha also commented on specifically in her paper.
What I’m hearing from you, Yara, which is something which is obviously a hot topic right now, is on immigration and refugees — having either a separate category for climate refugees or just acknowledging that this kind of nuance exists and our public policy needs to incorporate that if we want to have more effective policy going forward. We’re going to have more and more climate refugees. So how does the world handle that? And how can the United States be a leader in that?
We have a couple minutes left, and we have Congressman Moran here who can even help me put my policy memo together for a Hill audience. Is there anything else in particular that you want me to share with my friends and colleagues on the Hill on what we can do in the United States to bolster our capacity to support these issues? Jeremy, you had some excellent business ideas as well.
MR. TAMANINI: I would just quickly build on what Yara pointed out about the lack of designation for climate refugees. To me, that’s a critical example around areas like international law and international trade. Trade agreements are critical in terms of how the United States can embed climate change as an issue and a priority that, due to the language of trade agreements and the stipulations for business relationships between the United States and other countries, requiring that some of these climate issues are just naturally defaulted as being considered. I think it’s really important to just highlight those areas where the U.S. Congress can on quite a specific basis, really embed continuing the Biden administration’s agency-wide approach to the issue of climate change with our friends and allies in the Middle East, but globally as well.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: We have just a few minutes left and I will take one more audience question. The Middle East has a legacy of conflict after six decades of turmoil and upheaval, which now imperil regional cooperation on critical initiatives, shared resources, and adaptation strategies. What sorts of interventions can the United States make to help deal with the existing climate of hostility and mistrust, especially when trying to foster cooperation on climate goals?
MR. MORAN: First of all, you lead by example. So to the extent that we’re hypocritical about climate goals and about reliance on fossil fuel, then we have no real leverage to influence other countries. So we have to first get our own act in order. We have to really, again in a far more robust way, to transform from fossil fuels to clean energy, particularly solar and wind power but also hydropower. And I think we have to go to nuclear energy as well, even though that’s controversial. We’re going to have to figure out how to use it in safer fashion, because from a climate standpoint we probably need to go there.
Second, don’t do stupid things, to quote President Obama. Don’t start wars when you don’t know how they’re going to end, and you don’t understand the ethnic rivalries and real sources of the conflict. And we have got to have consistent principles that don’t change depending upon who we’re talking with and what country we’re dealing with. If we believe in democracy and human rights and empowerment of women and rule of law, then we ought to stick with it regardless of who we’re talking with.
Fourth, we need to provide some real alternatives. The recycling of water, making water scarcer from the public perception, would be very helpful. And giving technological advice. We have a lot of advice, but it’s not necessarily the scientists that are giving it. We need more scientists and fewer politicians giving advice. But I think ultimately in dealing with the Middle East we need to have a long-term plan; the climate refugees that inundated Europe were just the beginning. Things are going to get far worse.
I’m going to finish with this; Yara brought it up and it needs to be underscored. In 2030, when all these promises we realize are undelivered by all these countries, they’re going to think: Why did we fall so far short of our goal, and what should we have been thinking of? One of the things we need to think about is the fact that you’ve got hundreds of millions of the most desperate people on this planet living on the shore of a river or a sea because they have to have access to water just to survive. They are the ones that are going to be displaced. And when that happens, it’s going to be a cyclone, or a tornado, or some kind of immediate catastrophic event that we’re unprepared for.
What we need to be doing is creating communities with infrastructure that, when this happens, people can move to it, rather than flooding other areas where people take out their guns and their machetes because they’re trying to protect their homes from people who are desperate and have no other place to go. We have to prepare now for what we know is going to happen in the future.
There’s not been any discussion of that kind of preparation. The United States doesn’t admit climate refugees. They’d laugh at you if you said you were a climate refugee. You have to wait until there’s violent chaos because of the climate, and then we’ll let you in. We need to provide now in a thoughtful, planned, humanitarian manner for what’s going to happen to these hundreds of millions of people who are going to be displaced because of sea level rise.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: Thank you so much for those passionate closing remarks and for your leadership. I was not anticipating this, but I now see that we need to send this memo to the staffers who handle foreign policy, energy, climate change, and immigration. This clearly needs to be a big part of the immigration debate. Thank you so much for shedding light on that. I look forward to sharing it with my friends and colleagues on the Hill. I want to thank all of our fantastic contributors, and our ad hoc panelist, Ciarán. If you can manage to make progress with the Palestinians and the Israelis, please give us some pro tips to share with Congress on how we can help make progress with the rest of the region and the rest of the world.
I wanted to encourage everybody, if you do not already follow us on social media, we are really ramping up our engagement and content. So please follow us on Facebook and Twitter. I also want to share with you that at the end of the month we’ll be sending around a newsletter to give everybody updates on the new initiatives that we’re launching. We’d love to have you more engaged with the Council this coming year. And next month we will be having an inaugural Facebook Live interview with one of our journal authors on a hot topic in Israel and Palestine. We look forward to doing that in subsequent months. And we hope that you will tune in and continue to be engaged with the Council.
I hope to see many of you in person as soon as it’s safe, and I wish you all a Ramadan Kareem.
Non-Resident Fellow, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
Non-Resident Fellow, Arab Center Washington DC
Creator, Global Green Economy Index
Consultant, Middle East Policy Council
Senior Policy Advisor, Nelson Mullins
Former Congressman (VA-8)
Board Member, Middle East Policy Council
Chairman of the Board and President, Middle East Policy Council
Former Ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman
Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council