1. Introduction
    Frederic Wehrey
  2. Beyond “Green Pledges”: Saudi Arabia and Society-Centered Climate Reforms
    Justin Dargin
  3. Preserving Iraq’s Mesopotamian Marshes in the Face of Climate Challenges
    Zainab Mehdi
  4. Costs of Delaying Improvements in Climate Change Governance in Jordan
    Marwan Muasher
  5. Lebanon: Can a Green Economy Pave the Way out of Economic Collapse?
    Maha Yahya and Issam Kayssi
  6. Palestine and U.S.-Supported Regional Approaches to Address Climate Change and Water Scarcity
    Zaha Hassan, with Madison Andrews and Mathew Madain
  7. Rural Vulnerability and Resource Governance in Water-Scarce Egypt
    Mohammad Al-Mailam and Amr Hamzawy
  8. Federal Barriers to Tunisia’s Climate Momentum
    Sarah Yerkes and Haley Clasen
  9. Libya’s Climate Fragility: Adaptation Through Decentralization
    Frederic Wehrey
  10. Climate Change and Migration Prospects Between West and North Africa
    Gilles Olakunlé Yabi


Frederic Wehrey

Climate change and its effects—such as extreme temperatures, droughts, and floods—have been preoccupations of Middle East peoples for millennia, as have the related perils of human-caused environmental devastation and ravenous resource extraction. Consider, for example, the place of these phenomena in that most reliable mirror of the region’s realities: fiction.

“My friend, we have reduced the forest to a wasteland, how shall we answer Enlil in Nippur?” asks the protagonist of the 4,000-year-old Mesopotamian poem “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” the oldest piece of literature on record. Five hundred years later, another fragmentary ballad called the “Curse of Akkad” mythologizes the real-world decline of the Akkadian empire based south of Baghdad, which some scientists have partly linked to a climate-driven “megadrought,” whose deleterious effects on Akkadian society were worsened by poor governance, centralization, and crop mismanagement. “The great agricultural tracts produced no grain. . . . The gathered clouds did not rain,” the text laments.

Fast forward again to the Mesopotamia of 2103, a century after America’s invasion of Iraq, the setting for Hassan Blasim’s speculative novella The Gardens of Babylon. The oil era has ended, rivers and fields have dried up, and the desert has “advanced and obliterated the city” because of global warming and poor policy responses. “How puzzling and painful is the march of man!” exclaims the Iraqi narrator. A Chinese corporation has come to the rescue, building and operating a smart city—a domed metropolis, replete with “cyber-gardens,” air purifiers, and Iranian-built “fast trains” that haul precious water from northern Europe. A puppet Iraqi autocrat presides over the reborn Babylon, which has become a hub of digital innovation, exporting “the cleverest software” to the rest of the world. But all is not well in this supposed “Age of Peace and Dreams.” Automated and heavily armored trucks deliver rationed water to citizens, but “people hardly seem to have enough e-credit to pay for their quota, while in rich areas you see special trucks filling swimming pools.” An insurgency breaks out by the so-called Water Rebels, who use the Chinese company’s cyber tools to hack into the water infrastructure system.

Frederic Wehrey
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where his research focuses on governance, conflict, and security in Libya, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf.
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It’s an unsettling vision and a vivid example of the emergent “cli-fi” genre in Arabic literature—all the more so because it warns of the dangers of an exclusively techno-solutionist response to climate change, especially in societies already suffering from authoritarianism and deep inequalities. Secondarily, it also gestures toward a future in which China’s seemingly benign economic engagement with the Middle East has devolved into neo-imperialism—a cautionary note against the Sinophilia gripping parts of the region today. And if elements of this conjured dystopia—admittedly over-pessimistic, as such exercises are bound to be—seem familiar, it is because some of them are already upon us. 

The countries of the Middle East, especially Arabic-speaking ones, are among the world’s most exposed states to the accelerating impacts of human-caused climate change, including soaring heat waves, declining precipitation, extended droughts, more intense sandstorms and floods, and rising sea levels. But the consequences will be felt unevenly across the region. Resource-poor countries that lack in adaptive capacities like infrastructure, technology, and human and physical capital will suffer more acutely, especially as global warming contributes to the degradation of rural livelihoods and jeopardizes food security. The effects will magnify preexisting inequities and decades of unsustainable government policies, particularly those related to water and land management.

In contrast, richer, oil-exporting states are better equipped to withstand the climatic shocks through measures like desalinization, investment in agricultural projects (often outside the Middle East), and the importation of foodstuffs. However, these states’ long-term resilience, which rests on the distribution of hydrocarbon rents to their citizens in the form of subsidies, jobs, and social benefits, will be tested under the fiscal strains imposed by the global transition to green energy. That transition forms the centerpiece of these states’ net zero pledges and plans for renewable energy, carbon capture, and the export of clean hydrogen. But absent changes to the underlying incentive structures in these states through more holistic economic, regulatory, and political reforms, the feasibility of such plans remains questionable.

Relatedly, and more importantly, both oil-exporting and -importing states have so far privileged climate change mitigation over adaptation, defined by the United Nations as the “process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects, in order to moderate harm.” The prioritization of and funding for adaptation have been lacking at a global level as well, but in the Arab world, this inadequacy is more closely tied to the specificities of Arab governance. Most crucially, a longtime preference for centralized, top-town policies by insular, autocratic, and repressive Arab regimes—ubiquitous, in varying degrees, despite the initial hopes of the 2011 Arab uprisings—has translated into a reluctance to permit or encourage the sort of grassroots, bottom-up activism that is necessary to build effective climate resilience.

As a result, population segments acutely vulnerable to climate impacts because of geography, but more importantly because of years of governmental neglect, failed socioeconomic policies, and political marginalization, are being shut out of climate conversations. The consequences of this exclusion will be profound, not only for the human security and well-being of these affected communities—who in many cases can also contribute valuable local knowledge to climate adaptation and mitigation—but also for the development and even stability of certain countries.

To be clear, climate change is not the main driver of or even a major contributing factor to violent conflict, protests, or riots. The popular theory that posits a direct causal link between global warming, droughts, rural-urban migration, and the 2011 social unrest that led to the Syrian Civil War has been convincingly discredited by multiple scholars based on careful scrutiny of other factors, including the malignant effects of Syrian regime policies and ideology and the absence of so-called climate migrants in the initial demonstrations. Drawing on other cases, a number of other studies reach the same conclusion: any progression from a climate change event to war or unrest has been tempered or offset by a number of intervening factors—especially the choices of its political authorities. 

Relatedly, the policy-favored description of climate change as a “threat multiplier”—an accelerant or amplifier of existing security risks and stressors—has also been criticized as too fuzzy and too narrow given its definition of security as simply the absence of violent conflict. Similarly, predictions of climate-induced migration, especially between countries, have been deemed over-speculative, unsupported by data, and, again, prone to securitization by xenophobic governments, who instead of blocking human movements should consider them forms of climate adaptation. Even the much-hyped prediction that climate change would increase the likelihood of “water wars” breaking out has been challenged in studies that point to the absence of such conflicts in the historical record and to the possibilities for future “hydrological cooperation” and diplomacy.

In sum, these various critiques of an overly securitized and deterministic reading of climate change have important policy implications for the Middle East and especially the Arab world. Such a reading tends to obscure the root causes of climate change vulnerability and absolves the region’s rulers from acknowledging that their deficient policies—related to meager social safety nets, bloated public sectors, corruption, poor environmental stewardship, and civil and interstate war—play a significant role in worsening the injurious impacts of climate change on the welfare of their citizens. This reading could also lead to a disproportionate focus on technological solutions both to the energy transition and to adaptation at home, which would conveniently allow a business-as-usual approach to preserving rentier economies and the timeworn ruling arrangements that underpin them.

Put differently, politics, governance, and human agency matter in mediating the exposure of societies to environmental hazards and climate change, and they always have—more so than both climate determinists and apologists for the current Arab order care to acknowledge.

* * *

The essays in this collection aim to counter the overly securitized and deterministic thinking around climate change by bringing issues of governance and politics into the climate conversation of the Arab world.

Drawing on Carnegie’s field-based expertise across the region, the collection focuses on how regimes and local actors can better build climate resilience through socioeconomic and political reforms and not just technical fixes. It spans a broad geographic sampling of cases and a wide variety of contexts. It also devotes special attention to marginalized and at-risk populations and communities, including, but not limited to, migrants and refugees; lower-income citizens; women; workers in the informal, agricultural, and tourist sectors; and inhabitants in the rural interior and coastal regions.

The essays are not intended to be exhaustive but rather aim to advance some preliminary analytical frameworks and policy ideas for addressing the vulnerabilities of communities through local-level inclusion and through administrative, economic, and political reforms like decentralization. 

The authors extend their appreciation to the numerous interlocutors in the region who provided their views, in person or remotely, and who in many cases must remain anonymous. We wish to thank Haley Clasen, Lori Merritt, Anjuli Das, and Natalie Brase for expertly editing the pieces and Aya Kamil and Joy Arkeh for their research assistance. We are also grateful to Carnegie’s executive management for the internal funding that enabled this research. 

Beyond “Green Pledges”: Saudi Arabia and Society-Centered Climate Reforms

Justin Dargin

The Gulf region is facing a formidable challenge as it tackles the adverse effects of climate change alongside a host of complex and interrelated issues. After years of denial, Gulf countries have come to recognize the devastating impacts of climate change on their stability, security, and viability. However, what is needed to mitigate these impacts—a resolute political will and collaborative efforts across all sectors of society—is still coalescing.

Saudi Arabia, much like other countries in the region, is particularly vulnerable to climate change, as it severely threatens the nation’s physical environment, society, and governmental institutions. Among the greatest concerns are temperature rises. The region’s temperatures are already well above the global average, with extreme heatwaves reaching over 50 degrees Celsius in 2021 in Iran, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. If the trend continues, large portions of the region are expected to become uninhabitable by the end of this century. Climatologists have warned that, in the near term, the region is on track to be 4 degrees warmer by 2050, far exceeding the 1.5-degree limit needed to prevent global ecological collapse.

Flash floods are another major concern. Despite being an extremely arid country, Saudi Arabia is often subject to periodic intense and heavy rainfall. When coupled with the presence of unplanned settlements and the lack of proper rainwater diversion infrastructure in several major cities, this rainfall can lead to flash floods. Flooding is a notable and common occurrence in Saudi Arabia’s mountainous southwestern region and has led to significant loss of life and major property damage over the past several years.

Paradoxically, droughts are also a worry. Despite the increase in extreme and episodic heavy rainfall, climate change is predicted to cause a general decrease in national rainfall patterns and an increase in evaporation rates. Climate change forecasts indicate that the country will endure more extensive dry periods, resulting in the rapid depletion of groundwater reservoirs and the worsening of water scarcity for vulnerable and marginalized populations. Saudi Arabia is classified as one of the most water-scarce countries on the planet, with its per capita water demand levels double the global average at 265 liters per day.

Justin Dargin
Justin Dargin is a nonresident scholar in the Middle East Program who has extensive experience working on a multitude of issues relating to the global and Middle East/North Africa energy sectors, geopolitical affairs, climate change, emergent carbon markets, and regional industrialization.
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The country’s growing groundwater consumption has led to a stark decline in national aquifer levels, causing severe land subsidence in some parts of the country. And Saudi Arabia’s water crisis is by no means limited to its national jurisdictions. By 2050, the entire Gulf region could face a 50 percent reduction in water availability per capita, posing significant risks to food security and economic stability, as well as potentially sparking a rise in carbon emissions for Saudi Arabia as the country resorts much more to the energy-intensive desalinization process to meet its water requirements.

Rising sea levels also present a critical threat to the coastal regions of Saudi Arabia, including major cities such as Jeddah and Dammam. The impacts of sea-level rise on infrastructure, economic activity, and the social fabric of these regions could be catastrophic, with nearly 200,000 people expected to be exposed to persistent coastal flooding by 2050.

The interrelated effects of desertification, sea-level rise, and water scarcity will likely have serious implications for the country’s agricultural production and overall food security. Saudi Arabia already imports 80 percent of its food, and these climate-induced events may increase the country’s reliance on food imports. If the Kingdom continues down a high–carbon emissions pathway, it will likely witness an 88 percent increase in agricultural droughts by 2050, and its already miniscule domestic food production will collapse as a result.

Beyond the Pale: Saudi Arabia’s Marginalized Communities

While the effects of climate change in Saudi Arabia pose a significant threat countrywide, some demographic groups will increasingly carry a much heavier burden, such as migrant workers, sectarian minorities, and the so-called “stateless” Bidoon population (in Arabic, the term is bidoon jinsiya).

Migrant workers in Saudi Arabia are particularly vulnerable because they are often subject to substandard living and working conditions, exploitation, and abuse. They also lack legal protections and adequate access to social services such as healthcare and education, making them even more susceptible to devastating climate change effects. As extreme weather events become more frequent, migrant workers will often be the first to bear the brunt of their impacts.

The hazardous and physically demanding conditions in which migrant workers often work in Saudi Arabia expose them to higher levels of heat stress, air pollution, and other climate change–related risks. Long working hours, low pay, and suboptimal safety and health training exacerbate their challenges in adapting to the impacts of climate change. Moreover, their lack of legal protections, inability to unionize, and limited access to social services makes it difficult for them to assert their rights and advocate for improved working conditions.

Sectarian minorities, particularly Shiites, also face significant adaptive challenges. They often have limited access to information and education resources on climate change adaptation and, even though the situation is improving, are still generally excluded from important decisionmaking processes. Dismal economic opportunities further hinder their adaptive capacity, particularly if they are employed in agriculture or fishing, where climate change impacts such as droughts and ocean acidification can reduce their income and employment opportunities. Discrimination and social exclusion also exacerbate their climate change vulnerability.

Preserving Iraq’s Mesopotamian Marshes in the Face of Climate Challenges

Zainab Mehdi

The Mesopotamian Marshes, also known as the Ahwar of Southern Iraq or the Iraqi Marshes, make up a well-known United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) world heritage site. The organization states that the Ahwar of Southern Iraq “are unique, as one of the world’s largest inland delta systems, in an extremely hot and arid environment.” Recently, however, the Iraqi Marshes have been connected with news headlines like “Death in the Marshes,” as the worsening conditions in the marshland are threatening the livelihoods of already struggling ecosystems and communities. Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources estimates that 25 percent of the fresh water in the country could be lost in the next ten years—which would put the marshes on the brink of disappearing.

Given this dire prediction, awareness about the current state of the Iraqi marshes needs to increase and the Iraqi government must identify and prioritize urgent interventions in the coming years, especially as temperatures continue to soar during the summer months. This essay aims to provide a useful overview and analysis of the Iraqi Marshes, focusing on both their destruction throughout Iraq’s contemporary history and their current state, as well as a brief discussion of the key projects being carried out to preserve the marshes, particularly a wastewater initiative called Eden in Iraq.1

The Evolution of the Iraqi Marshlands

The Ahwar consists of three archaeological sites and four wetland marsh areas. The ruins of three ancient cities within the Ahwar— Uruk, Ur, and Eridu—are remnants of the Sumerian civilization of Southern Mespotamia, dating back to between the fourth and third millennium BCE. The four wetland marsh areas of the Ahwar are commonly known as the Huwaizah, East Hammar, West Hammar, and Central Marshes. All areas are predominantly fed by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

Zainab Mehdi
Zainab Mehdi is a freelance journalist specializing in governance, development, and conflict, society, and culture in the Middle East.

The destruction of the Iraqi Marshes began with the drainage of some areas for oil development in southern Iraq. The oil was first discovered in the 1950s, but full-scale production did not commence until the 1970s. Production reached its peak in 1979. Later, activities during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988) caused severe damage to Huwaizah (the transboundary marsh) and the Central Marshes (situated between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers). Then, after the 1991 Gulf War, the administration of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein pursued a large-scale drainage campaign against the Iraqi Marshes for so-called economic purposes. But as stated in several sources, the draining of the marshes mainly stemmed from Hussein’s determination to retaliate and deprive enemies of the state of their hiding place. Former U.S. president George H.W. Bush had “encouraged the Kurds and Shiites to rebel against” Hussein after the U.S.-led coalition defeated the Iraqi army in March 1991. But when they did rebel, the United States did not support them in terms of military backing. Hussein went on to reassemble his revolutionary guard, send in helicopter gunships, and kill tens of thousands of civilians. Shiite rebels in particular fled to the marshes. By the mid-1990s, the drainage campaign had caused the Iraqi Marshes to shrink to less than 10 percent of their former area, and the United Nations Environmental Programme called the drainage the worst human-caused environmental disaster of the late century.

It was not until the 2003 Iraq War that parts of the marshlands were reflooded, predominantly through local action. Restoring other parts has been a slow process, but by 2007, approximately 70 percent had been reflooded.

Over recent years, however, additional restoration—and even the maintenance of restored areas—has been severely hindered by declining water levels due to the construction of upstream dams and diversions, both within Iraq and in upstream countries; poor management of water resources overall; deteriorating water quality; and climate change. Several times, low water levels have compelled Marsh Arabs to migrate to more urban environments (for example, the southern city Basra). But in moving to complex urban settings, migrants have faced other struggles, such as limited access to financial and social capital, that have constrained their ability to receive the services and rights needed to maintain adequate livelihoods.

Fortunately, in July 2013, the government chose the marshes to be the site of Iraq’s first national park. In 2017, it was reported that the Ministries of Water Resources and Environment are still actively engaged in this initiative, dedicating the water resources needed as part of the country’s twenty-five-year water resources management plan.2

A few years later, the Iraqi government proposed that the marshes, as well as some archaeological sites located around the drained part of the marshes, be designated world heritage sites. UNESCO approved the proposal in early July 2016 on the condition that Iraq present adequate management plans given the limited water supply in the region. This designation more or less guarantees the survival of the restored marshes for future generations, as Iraq’s government made the proposal voluntarily.

But regardless of these positive developments, the Iraqi Marshes are under severe threat in today’s day and age. During an interview in January 2023, Jassim Al-Asadi, the managing director of the Chibayish office of Nature Iraq, cited a number of significant factors that are contributing to the marshes’ deterioration, including upstream damming and climate change.3

Costs of Delaying Improvements in Climate Change Governance in Jordan

Marwan Muasher

Faced with a wide array of economic and geopolitical challenges, Jordan may not always place climate change high on its list of strategic threats. However, the deep and long-term impacts of climate change, if inadequately addressed, may cause an existential threat to the country’s stability.

Climate change is a major issue in Jordan, as the country is particularly vulnerable to the effects of global warming. Jordan is already experiencing higher temperatures, more frequent and intense droughts, increased evaporation, and more extreme weather events. It is also still heavily dependent on imported fossil fuel. Without quick and concrete action, these changes are expected to worsen, leading to greater water scarcity, reduced agricultural productivity, and increased health risks. Climate change will also likely have negative effects on the competitiveness of Jordan’s major tourism sites, including its treasure of coral reefs, and safety conditions in Petra. While the country has a negligible effect on global carbon emissions, Jordan is certainly affected by such emissions.

Marwan Muasher
Muasher is vice president for studies at Carnegie, where he oversees research in Washington and Beirut on the Middle East.
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Despite these challenges, and the fact that Jordan is one of the most water-scarce countries in the world, the country’s response has so far lacked an integrative approach that addresses the intertwined issues of water, energy, and food security—in terms of both planning and implementation. National strategy plans do exist, but there is still insufficient political will to put them into efficient action. The government also seems to lack the needed capacity to apply for and make use of international climate change funds. Finally, and not unlike many other states, Jordan’s strategic policy decisions in the relevant sectors appear always to prioritize short-term economic problems over long-term environmental ones.

Climate Policy Framework

In support of the international climate governance system, Jordan has a robust set of national climate policies that provide an ambitious pathway toward low-carbon and climate-resilient development. However, momentum in implementation and institutional excellence is lagging.

Jordan’s current climate policy framework consists of the following:

  • Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC, 2021): The NDC is the main policy requirement of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change (2015), which asks signatories to submit, every five years, their national plans and targets for climate change adaptation and mitigation. As part of a global climate change regime, NDCs define countries’ responsibilities in, for example, improving resource management, reducing carbon footprints from burning fossil fuels, increasing energy efficiency, and using renewable energy sources. Jordan’s updated NDC for 2021 includes a target to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 31 percent by 2030, compared to a business-as-usual scenario. This target was raised from the 14 percent identified in 2015.
  • National Adaptation Plan (NAP, 2021): The NAP sets clear objectives and a programmatic approach to address climate change impacts on the key sectors of water, agriculture, health, and tourism and on ecosystems, coastal areas, and socioeconomic conditions.
  • National Climate Change Policy (NCCP, 2022): This recently updated policy now includes a target to reach carbon neutrality at a macroeconomic level by 2050.

In 2022, Jordan issued its Economic Modernisation Vision, a major development and economic growth plan that is the culmination of a huge effort conducted by hundreds of experts in different economic sectors. The plan identifies eight growth drivers for the next ten years, including a “Green Economy” and “Sustainable Resources.” It is also notable that Jordan was among the first countries in the region to issue a National Green Growth Plan (in 2017) and a follow-up Green Growth National Action Plan (in 2021) for six key sectors: water, agriculture, energy, transport, tourism, and waste.

At the legal level, Jordan passed a climate change bylaw in 2019 to ensure the engagement of all partners and define the roles and responsibilities of the different line ministries. Impressively, the government’s policy has already resulted in more than 20 percent of electricity being generated through solar or wind energy, although the momentum to increase that percentage has slowed down due to conflicting policy objectives. Also remarkable is the government’s stated intention to address—within climate change adaptation and mitigation policies—gender inequality issues and the needs and rights of the country’s most vulnerable groups.

To boost policy momentum in four key interrelated sectors—water, energy, agriculture, and transport—the government and supporting climate actors in Jordan should enhance the effectiveness of their climate change governance efforts, as well as their responsive measures at the socioeconomic level. Following an overview of each sector below are broad recommendations for action.


Water scarcity in Jordan has a long history. The country has been experiencing water shortages since the 1950s, when the population rapidly began to increase. The influxes of Palestinian refugees in 1948 and 1967, Iraqi refugees in 2003, and Syrian refugees starting in 2011 have all exacerbated the problem. Since 2015, foreigners and/or refugees have accounted for almost a third of Jordan’s population of more than 10 million, putting further strain on the country’s limited water resources.

In the 1990s, a prolonged drought caused Jordan’s water table to drop significantly and worsened the water crisis. To conserve water, the government implemented several measures, such as the construction of dams and the introduction of water-saving technologies. But despite these efforts, Jordan remains one of the most water-scarce countries in the world, with water levels significantly lower than the “absolute water scarcity” threshold. 

Jordan has tried to build a pipeline from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, an idea the government first proposed in the early 1950s. As most of the water from the Jordan River to the Dead Sea is diverted by Israel for its domestic use, the project was designed to (1) provide a reliable source of fresh water to Jordanians (as well as to Palestinians and Israelis), (2) generate hydroelectric power, and (3) stop the decline in the level of the Dead Sea due to evaporation and limited intake of fresh water. Although the project was revived after the Jordan-Israel peace treaty in 1994, the Jordanian government ultimately abandoned it in 2021 because of a lack of interest by Israel, whose consent as a riparian was necessary to implement the project, as well as environmental issues raised by a World Bank feasibility study.

The government is instead attempting to build a national water conveyor from the Red Sea to other parts of the country. This Aqaba-Amman Water Desalination and Transport Project is intended to provide a sustainable source of fresh water to Jordan alone and will not aim to raise the Dead Sea level, owing to the environmental concerns mentioned above. A pipeline will be constructed to transport water from the Red Sea to Amman; the water will be desalinated at the Red Sea end of the pipeline, and the brine produced from the desalination process will be returned to the Red Sea.

More recently, in 2021, Jordan signed a controversial memorandum of understanding with Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to generate electricity through solar energy in Jordan and then sell it to Israel, which would use it to desalinate water and send the water back to Jordan. The UAE is supposed to finance the project, and the three countries are to collaborate on the development of solar and wind energy projects, as well as the construction of a regional electricity grid. 

The Jordan-Israel-UAE plan has generated a lot of opposition from civil society, which has cast doubt on many of its aspects, including the need for UAE funding and the need to get water from Israel rather than use the energy generated in Jordan to desalinate water sourced locally from the Red Sea. The lack of transparency surrounding the project has also led civil society groups to accuse the government of implementing a political deal that would make the country partly dependent on Israel in one of its key sectors, even though local options might be available.

Proponents of the deal minimize its effect on the overall supply of water to the country and place more emphasis on the success of the national water carrier project. Regardless of the point of view, the project is clearly not a purely technical effort, with many political angles being contested by several civil society actors.

Given that Jordan has chronic water scarcity issues and most of its water resources are transboundary, water should be considered a key security priority instead of merely a technical or sectoral challenge. Water shortages caused by prolonged phases of drought have contributed to social unrest in many governorates and to a perception that the majority of groundwater resources located in the south of Jordan are being used mostly by residents in Amman and Zarqa.


Jordan has traditionally imported more than 90 percent of its energy needs, mostly in the form of oil. As a result, it faces daunting tasks in diversifying its energy mix and encouraging private sector investment in renewable sources such as solar and wind energy.

The Jordan Energy Strategy (2020–2030) aims to increase the share of renewables in the country’s total power generation capacity by 31 percent by 2030. But while Jordan is close to achieving this goal (having recently reached a share of 29 percent), the momentum is slowing down. In addition, the National Electric Power Company’s (NEPCO) debt is over $7 billion, largely owing to historically subsidized energy prices and the cutoff of Egyptian gas that used to be acquired at preferential prices. NEPCO has had no incentive to push the private sector to generate electricity from renewable energy sources; instead, it wants customers currently paying a significant portion of their electricity bill to cover the company’s debt. As a result, the government is now doing less to decrease dependency on fossil fuel; for instance, it has imposed a ceiling on renewable energy generation per generator according to an-ex senior official. (NEPCO claims that structural grid problems and the inconsistent generation of renewable energy are major causes for the ceiling.) At the same time, however, industries, services, and households are increasingly demanding solar panels and other renewable energy measures, and this demand will keep growing in response to high electricity prices that constrain competitiveness in the industrial sector. 


Water distribution has always been a contested issue in Jordan. The government has been trying for decades to reduce the amount of water that goes to agricultural production versus household use. Although the share going to agricultural production has dropped over this period, it is still 51 percent, even though agriculture contributes only about 5 percent to Jordan’s gross domestic product and employs merely 3 percent of its workers.

The latest government policy on agricultural development is the National Strategy for Sustainable Agriculture (2022–2025). Its overall goal is to preserve the country’s animal and plant biodiversity, encourage investments in the sector, provide greater food security, and help reduce the migration rate from rural to urban areas, although its prospects for success are still unclear.

Yet, as already noted, climate change events will lead to more frequent water shortages, and thus, vegetable production could drop by as much as 50 percent. Given efforts to reduce water distribution to agriculture, attempts to improve irrigation systems and reduce water evaporation must take a more integrative approach and be efficiently managed. Otherwise, people from the Jordan Valley will continue to migrate to urban centers, a phenomenon the government has been trying unsuccessfully to reverse.


The transport sector alone contributes about 28 percent of Jordan’s total greenhouse gas emissions, but unfortunately, related climate mitigation measures have been mired by inefficient management, inconsistent public policy, and frequent turnover in the responsible ministry. Although the country has a National Transport Strategy (2016­–2030), transport service conditions are extremely poor. The road network has been unable to cope with the large increase in Jordan’s total population, and the railway system is badly outdated.

In addition, successive governments’ policies on the use of hybrid and electric vehicles have been incompatible. For example, they have alternated between reducing and reinstating taxes on such vehicles, largely because of the lack of a clear policy on whether to promote clean energy or increase government revenues. There are plans to introduce an electric bus fleet and intelligent transport systems, but these plans have yet to be implemented.

Broad Recommendations

According to the World Bank’s recently published “Climate Change and Development Report,” climate-responsive development in Jordan can bridge inequalities, protect livelihoods, and promote cohesion. Although climate change is clearly considered a developmental problem and even a security threat, it is creating opportunities for Jordan to diversify its economic growth structure and apply a climate justice perspective to its human and economic development policies.

The country needs to address climate change as astrategic national security threat, not only as an environmental challenge. And this requires elevating the issue to the highest level of decisionmaking and integrating it in all economic and developmental sectors.

Many experts believe that Jordan needs to enter sustainable partnerships with the private sector and civil society because addressing the impacts of climate change should not be the exclusive role of governments. Indeed, global evidence suggests that the roles of the private sector and civil society are essential for tackling climate threats. In the words of one civil society activist,4 “the role of civil society in supporting development activities should be relaxed while incentives should be provided for the private sector to engage in technology transfer, application of resource efficient measures, and contribution to climate friendly socioeconomic development.”

There is also a clear and urgent need for enhanced inter-ministerial coordination. Climate change is a multisectoral challenge that requires the collective actions of many ministries and public institutions, including the ministries of planning, environment, water, energy, agriculture, transport, health, and social development. Currently, Jordan’s policy decisions seem to be taken mostly for economic reasons rather than for climate change adaptation and mitigation reasons. While this is somewhat understandable in a poor country with limited financial resources, a transition toward long-term environmental and climate resilient strategic outcomes should be prioritized over short-term economic gains. Fortunately, the recent Economic Modernization Initiative shows that efforts to adopt an integrative approach are now being attempted. Shada El-Sharif, an expert on green economy issues and a participant in the initiative, describes climate-responsive economic development as a “strategic approach that can strengthen the country’s water, energy, and food security.”

Social inclusion must also be addressed to achieve and maintain a sustainable and publicly supported green transition. The shift toward a climate-resilient and low-carbon economy will likely be more painful for some vulnerable groups, especially low-skilled workers, farmers, end-use consumers of energy, rural populations, and poverty-stricken communities. The transition should include creating opportunities for new jobs and ensuring access to high-quality services at reasonable costs.

Finally, it is important to create a political balance while considering regional cooperation options. In Jordan, some decisions around climate change have been driven largely by political considerations—in particular, decisions that involve Israel. Climate change should not be used as an excuse to promote political decisions that are highly unpopular among the public.

Leveraging global climate change finance opportunities will be essential for Jordan as well. But so far, government departments seem to lack the needed capacity to make use of global funds in a way that is proportional to the increasing threats and impacts resulting from climate change. Access to funding requires securing national co-financing, drafting proper technical proposals, and launching strong international diplomacy efforts.


Because of being continuously dragged into the day-to-day economic and political struggles of the Middle East, Jordan may not have climate change high on its priority list. This is not surprising, but the deep, nonreversible changes that are impacting climate conditions and development sectors cannot be ignored. A climate-proofing lens should be applied to all political, economic, and infrastructure decisions to make sure that proper adaptation to climate change is taking place early on. Jordan remains in a key position to benefit from the opportunities created by climate change global governance, with special emphasis on economic diversification. As painful as they may be, the financial, social, and political costs of early climate action will still be much less than the accumulated costs of no action.

The author is grateful for the contributions of Batir Wardam, a Jordanian climate and environment specialist, who made helpful edits and additions in this essay.

Lebanon: Can a Green Economy Pave the Way out of Economic Collapse?

Maha Yahya and Issam Kayssi 

Since October 2019, Lebanon has been reeling from a perfect storm of crises, including the debilitating collapse of its economy and institutions. As a result, addressing climate change concerns has not been a high priority. While somewhat understandable, this lack of attention—combined with political deadlock and chronic mismanagement of resources—has aggravated the effects of climate change and made Lebanon even more vulnerable to future crises. Combating the impact of climate change therefore needs to be a central tenet of public policy, and shifting to a green economy must be a clear part of any economic recovery plan. 

Cascading and Interlinked Crises

Lebanon has been dealing with cascading and interlinked crises, including political instability, economic collapse, institutional and resource mismanagement, infrastructure deterioration, and large inflows of Syrian refugees. Some crises, such as political instability and institutional and resource mismanagement, have been gradually worsening over recent decades, while others, such as the economic collapse, have been rapidly deteriorating in the last three years. The economy has all but collapsed and the Lebanese pound has officially lost 90 percent of its value since fall 2019, leading to a dramatic drop in incomes and pensions. Meanwhile, inflation has exceeded 200 percent, and service provision has become even more intermittent. Power outages and water shortages have compounded the economic and social challenges faced by Lebanon’s population. The arrival of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees has placed an additional strain on the country’s resources and infrastructure, further fueling social discontent. 

Maha Yahya
Yahya is director of the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, where her research focuses on citizenship, pluralism, and social justice in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings.
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In this context, addressing the socioeconomic impacts of climate change presents another major challenge. According to Lebanon’s Ministry of Environment, the cumulative effects of climate change could result in a 14 percent decline in Lebanon’s GDP by 2040 and a 32 percent decline by 2080. Yet the country’s climate policy framework remains highly deficient, as poor governance and resource mismanagement continue to hinder meaningful climate change action. Unless the situation is addressed, Lebanon’s economic and social suffering will only be heightened by the unmitigated consequences of climate change. 

Contextual Challenges 

Eighty-nine percent of Lebanon’s population lives in urban areas. And urban areas, particularly those with pockets of poverty, tend to have a greater demand for infrastructure and services. Unfortunately, meeting this demand is becoming more and more difficult given the government’s mismanagement of already limited resources.

Dwindling Water Supplies

The most salient repercussion of climate change for Lebanon is its decrease in snow cover. A year-on-year increase in temperature, leading to less snow on Lebanon’s mountains, has reduced groundwater, the country’s main supply of water for consumption and agriculture. The resulting shortages have put pressure on the country’s water infrastructure and management systems, causing the cost of water consumption and distribution to increase and the reliability and quality of water to decrease. In July 2021, the United Nations Children’s Fund warned that Lebanon’s water system was at a breaking point. The average cost for 1,000 liters of trucked water increased almost sixfold between 2019 and 2022. 

Issam Kayssi
Issam Kayssi is a research assistant at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center.
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Water shortages have hit agricultural production hard (for example, production decreased from around 7 percent of GDP in 1995 to 1.4 percent in 2021). Shortages have led to lower crop yields, making it more difficult for farmers to maintain their livelihoods. A recent study showed that major agricultural areas are seeing reduced productivity due to a decrease in chilling hours (when crops are exposed to favorable temperature conditions) and in precipitation. This has affected productivity especially in coastal regions, where mostly citrus fruits and olives are grown, as well as at higher elevations, where deciduous fruit trees are found. Areas reliant on irrigation systems in the Beqaa Valley, the principal agricultural region in Lebanon, are being impacted through an increase in groundwater stress levels and a depletion of water sources. Farming communities in these areas have already been feeling the negative ramifications, such as unstable domestic food supplies. The reduced water supply has also shrunk Lebanon’s capacity to generate hydropower, leading to more reliance on less environmentally friendly means of power generation. 

The impact on local communities has been further exacerbated by the inflow of more than 1 million Syrian refugees. Recent figures suggest that they make up between 20 and 22 percent of Lebanon’s total population and have prompted a 20 percent increase in domestic water use. This increase, coupled with the higher demand for other scarce resources and employment, has caused tensions between host communities and refugees to rise significantly. 

Soaring Air Pollution

Lebanon’s mismanagement of resources has also contributed to an increase in air pollution and concomitant health effects. The country now has one of the highest air pollution costs in the region at close to 3 percent of GDP. Recently, the Lebanese caretaker minister of environment estimated the health costs from air pollution to be $900 million annually. Lebanon also has one of the highest estimated (weighted) premature death rates due to fossil fuel air pollution.

In addition to waste mismanagement, two main sources of air pollution in the country are energy production (diesel generators) and transportation (light duty vehicles).

Waste mismanagement in Lebanon has led to the frequent burning of trash, which when done without treatments releases a significant amount of toxic chemicals. And as evidence suggests, human exposure to an air pollutant or combination of air pollutants (such as PM2.5, NO2, or ozone) is linked to an increased incidence of diseases like asthma, type II diabetes, ischemic heart disease, lung cancer, lower respiratory infections, and premature birth (preterm birth). Lebanon’s continual mishandling of waste—facilitated by corruption, neglect, and inefficiency—has made the public less trusting of both the public and commercial sectors. “Not in my backyard” sentiments—held by locals opposed to the construction of solid waste management facilities in their areas—have intensified in response to open burning, the dumping and landfilling of 80 percent to 90 percent of waste without treatment, odors coming from composting facilities and marine landfills, and the failure to treat leachate produced by landfills.

Another key culprit of air pollution in the country is the diesel generator, largely used because of the lack of government-provided electricity. These generators are prevalent because Lebanese authorities have poorly managed Électricité du Liban (EDL), the government-run electricity utility, for close to thirty years. Blackouts remain frequent, negatively impacting everything from the standard of living to education, health, and freedom of movement. In 2011, an estimated 93 percent of Beirut’s population was exposed to high levels of air pollution, mainly caused by diesel generators.

Since the 2019 economic collapse, this situation has only gotten worse. Between November 2021 and January 2022, the average household received power from EDL for around just 10 percent of the day, with the median household receiving two hours. And access to private generators to supplement the lack of public electricity heavily depended on household income.

A silver lining perhaps is that Lebanon’s financial crisis forced the government to end its highly expensive subsidies regime, which caused diesel prices to skyrocket. This, in turn, forced people—who already preferred to invest in renewable energy sources such as solar panels—to seek a supply of cheaper power. Between 2021 and the end of 2022, ordinary citizens and businesses spent $350 million on new 250 megawatt–maximum solar energy systems, in addition to current 100-megawatt systems. In September 2022, the cost of solar energy was more advantageous than the cost of diesel generators at $0.06 per kilowatt hour (kWh) without batteries and between $0.25 and $0.30 per kWh when including the cost of battery storage. By comparison, the price for generators was $0.55 per kWh when accounting for the Ministry of Energy’s official tariffs.

The downside is that this collapse-driven turn toward greener energy sources, namely solar and wind power, has been haphazard, with little to no oversight or coordination by state institutions. Solar panels are an excellent way of generating energy without the use of fossil fuels, but their installation and operation must be monitored to avoid potential environmental problems. In Lebanon, the lack of oversight could lead to environmental problems in the future. At the end of their lifespan, solar panels need to be disposed of carefully; otherwise, they could release toxic substances into the environment. Moreover, the installation of solar panels can require significant space, which, if not regulated, could lead to deforestation or land degradation. 

Beirut’s transportation system is yet another source of air pollution. It relies on traditional fuel-powered cars and diesel-powered buses, which emit high levels of greenhouse gases and in turn contribute to climate change. The burning of these fuels leads to the release of pollutants with harmful side effects for health and agriculture. Additionally, transportation can degrade urban environments, resulting in a decline in quality of life and economic productivity due to congestion-related delays and the stress caused by traffic noise.

Expanding Wildfires and Deforestation

Mismanagement in Lebanon extends to its forests as well. Home to the largest pine forest in the Middle East, the country is losing 1,500 to 2,000 hectares of land to wildfires and deforestation every year. Wildfires will naturally occur, but when temperatures rise to a level that green areas are not used to, they become more frequent. This has been the case in recent years in Lebanon, and the resource-strapped country has struggled to contain them. In June 2022, the Ministry of Environment launched a “National Week for the Prevention of Forest Fires” to raise awareness about the issue. 

Making matters worse, as a result of the economic and energy crises, many people have resorted to cutting down trees to make firewood or to earn income. Deforestation, however, exacerbates the effects of climate change by reducing the ability of forests to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and by increasing the risk of soil erosion and landslides.

Rising Sea Levels

Finally, most of the Lebanese population lives in coastline cities that are vulnerable to rising sea levels. Although the exact increase is still being debated among scientists, global sea levels could rise by up to more than 1 meter by the end of the century. This could have significant impacts on Lebanon’s population due to coastal erosion, flooding, saltwater intrusion, the loss of beaches, and population displacement.

Climate Policy Framework

To prevent a vicious cycle, Lebanon’s leaders need to take immediate action to address both the near- and long-term effects of climate change, as well as the root causes of the country’s political and economic instability. 

While the government established an interministerial committee in 2017 to address climate change, more coordination is needed between ministries. The committee is chaired by the Minister of Environment and includes nominated representatives from a number of other ministries and bodies, but thus far, coordination appears to be minimal in practice.

Lebanon is a party to the Kyoto Protocol (which operationalizes the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) as well as to the Paris Agreement. Yet, apart from the nationally determined contribution (NDC) required by the Paris Agreement, Lebanon has no significant and binding legislation that addresses climate change. In compliance with Articles 4.9 and 4.11 of the Paris Agreement, Lebanon presented its initial NDC in 2015 and its updated version in 2020.

The country’s NDC aims to integrate climate mitigation and adaptation strategies into the nation’s efforts to revive its economy. While Lebanon’s global carbon footprint is negligible, the NDC also aims to reduce emissions by 20 percent by 2030. Supporters of this ambitious, unconditional target argue that reducing emissions will help improve the overall air quality in Lebanon. 

The Ministry of Environment has identified six climate action enablers that are crucial to meeting the NDC’s objectives and has acknowledged that effective climate action must be supported by strong governance systems, rules, and partnerships. The six enablers include improved governance and institutional capacities; incentivized action and fiscal reform; strengthened partnerships; innovative research and development; comprehensive integration of gender institutions, youth groups and vulnerable communities; and enhanced monitoring and transparency.

Yet Lebanon’s adaptation procedures are not sufficiently funded, articulated, or coordinated by the various ministries, which makes pursuing these enablers difficult. The Ministry of Environment has at least identified the gaps and what is required to accelerate the planning and implementation of climate action. These gaps include a lack of strategy, vision, and direction; a lack of awareness and common understanding of what qualifies as climate action; a lack of financing mechanisms to support private investments; a lack of technical information on available technologies; scattered nonstate actors and initiatives; and uncaptured achievements, scattered information, and unclear progress against targets of action plans. The latter two gaps point to the current limited coordination on agendas.

What Can Be Done?

Addressing the impact of climate change on Lebanon should be a key priority, particularly in the context of dealing with multiple economic, political, and social crises. This will require short-term, quick fixes, as well as more medium- to long-term efforts that involve improving the government’s management of resources and its implementation capacities.

In the short term, Lebanon’s policymakers can focus on low-cost initiatives and behavioral changes. To achieve the latter, the government should spread awareness of the impact of climate change through public awareness campaigns and the enhancement of ongoing research programs at universities. The government should also create incentives for its citizens and the private sector to adopt more sustainable behaviors, including the use of energy-efficient appliances and the use of cycling or carpooling to travel to work. Both behaviors could significantly reduce emissions. In addition, the government should bolster the enforcement of environmental protection laws, such as those that halt illegal tree-cutting, and draft a comprehensive regulatory framework for alternative energy sources, such as solar panels. For their part, Lebanon’s institutions could support the resilience and adaptability of farmers by ensuring that agricultural communities have the knowledge, resources, and funding they need to continue offering sustainable food options. This can be done by giving (possibly through international funding) these communities access to the technologies and finance required to sustain their agricultural output, as well as by training them on how to use these technologies properly. Various nongovernmental organizations and the government could also work together to intensify the processes of reforestation. Finally, the interministerial committee for climate change could more actively address the fallout that is occurring.

In the medium to long term, the government must produce an economic recovery plan that incorporates green policies but mitigates the potential negative impacts that these policies may have on Lebanon’s most vulnerable communities. If successful, the effort could not only create a healthier and cleaner environment but also contribute to the country’s long-term economic stability and overall quality of life—by, for example, creating new job opportunities, promoting energy efficiency, and reducing carbon emissions. In support of establishing a green economy, Lebanon should pursue various opportunities to receive financial assistance for climate action and environmental projects. In September 2022, a regional climate finance forum was held in Beirut, but the country has yet to capitalize on this opportunity or others that may exist in the aftermath of the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27). While some of these asks seem utopian in the context of ongoing political deadlock in Lebanon and its economic and institutional collapse, these policies can become key tenets for the country’s long-term recovery.

Finally, combating the impact of climate change requires a broad-based societal effort. Central to the effort should be establishing partnerships among the private sector, civil society, and universities, especially green entrepreneurship initiatives that seek to develop sustainable and climate-resilient technological innovations. Given the immense challenges Lebanon faces, this will only happen if businesses have access to incubators and accelerators, business training and mentoring focused on sustainability, financial and tax incentives, and other forms of assistance.


Although these recommended actions may not produce immediate visible results, they could make significant contributions to Lebanon’s recovery and long-term prosperity. They could also help the country’s leadership overcome its past mistakes and ensure that Lebanon plays an active role in mitigating the impact of climate change globally while addressing its own needs. 

Palestine and U.S.-Supported Regional Approaches to Address Climate Change and Water Scarcity

Zaha Hassan, with Madison Andrews and Mathew Madain

The climate outlook for Palestine is daunting, particularly when it comes to the potential impact on water resources. Under a high emissions scenario, the mean annual temperature in Palestine is set to rise by about 4.4 degrees Celsius on average by 2100, at the higher end of global predictions. An estimated 20 percent decline in rainfall in the eastern Mediterranean by 2050 would result in more frequent episodes of drought, directly impacting food systems and exacerbating existing vulnerabilities. Given its proximity (and the blurred boundaries between occupied state and occupying power), Israel stands to face similar challenges.

Though the climate destiny of Palestinians and Israelis is a shared one, little cooperation exists around climate mitigation and adaptation. The land mass encompassing Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories is small, comparable to the U.S. state of Maryland. The Palestinian Authority (PA) exercises administrative jurisdiction over only the people living in a third of the West Bank (amounting to around 2,000 square kilometers). The Hamas authority in Gaza has more say over the tiny strip of land (365 square kilometers) it governs and the approximately 2.2 million Palestinians there, but the coastal enclave is under a complete Israeli-enforced blockade and has virtually no drinkable surface or groundwater. Given Israel’s fifty-six-year-old occupation and the fragmentation of Palestinian governing bodies, the PA has been forced to offer different scenarios for calculating its National Determined Contribution (NDC) to address climate change: one where Israel maintains its military occupation and another where Palestine is a fully sovereign state (including Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem). In contrast, Israel’s NDC-defined territory includes 24,000 square kilometers—virtually all pre-1948 Palestine—which means that Israel contemplates a future in which it maintains its occupation over most of the land but is not responsible for Palestinians.

Zaha Hassan
Zaha Hassan is a human rights lawyer and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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Without prospects of a Palestinian state emerging anytime soon, the United States has prioritized regional water cooperation as a tool for peacebuilding. But in evaluating regional water initiatives, particularly those involving international donor support, due consideration must be given to the impact that Israeli occupation has on Palestinian capacities and the associated legal obligations of third states. Failing to do so will entrench Israeli occupation and hydro-hegemony rather than build the necessary foundation for a comprehensive, just, and durable peace.

Water Competition and Conflict in the Shadow of Climate Change

Water competition has long been a source of conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The 1965 Palestinian attack on Israel’s water carrier that launched the Fatah movement aimed to prevent Israel’s diversion of the waters of the upper Jordan River. And among the Israeli objectives during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War was to take the hydro-strategic advantage from river riparians—states with rights in a watercourse because it is within their territory or along their borders—and control exploitation of the Mountain Aquifer in the West Bank. The Israeli military seized virtually all West Bank water, destroyed or confiscated irrigation pumps, prohibited Palestinian access to the Jordan River, barred the development of water infrastructure, and denied Palestinians permits to dig new wells.

Madison Andrews
Madison Andrews is a program administrator in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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Though Israel recognized Palestinian water rights in the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (Oslo II), it did so only with respect to groundwater “in the West Bank,” referring to the Mountain Aquifer where Palestinians are upper riparians and have the advantage. The contours of Palestinian water rights in that aquifer and in the other two major water sources, the Coastal Aquifer (partially underlying Gaza and Egypt) and the Jordan River, were left for final status talks, which were supposed to be concluded by 1999. Drawing out negotiations for decades has allowed Israel to exploit transboundary waters without consideration for the needs of Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip or the West Bank, where the population has substantially increased since the Oslo II water allocations were set nearly a quarter of a century ago. The interim agreement essentially legitimized previous restrictions on Palestinian water exploitation, enabling Israel to seize 80 percent of the groundwater in the West Bank.

The PA’s NDC submission calls for improving water quality and networks and infrastructure to reduce leakages, increasing the reclamation of wastewater to 70 percent, and rehabilitating 100 percent of identified wells and springs by 2030. Given its lack of effective control over the land, however, the PA’s submission may be an assertion more of Palestinian national aspirations than of commitment to policy change. As for Israel’s NDC, none of its adaptation and mitigation goals address the needs of Palestinians under its military control, despite Israel’s claims that it is a net–water producer and leading water technology innovator.

Previous U.S. Approaches to Address Regional Water Scarcity

Previous U.S. administrations have supported regional approaches to addressing water challenges facing the arid Middle East, both to mitigate conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors and to lay the foundation for broader Arab-Israeli peacemaking. However, the 1953 Johnston Plan proposed by the United States—as well as discussions among the U.S.-chaired Multilateral Working Group on Water Resources, created during the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference—mainly focused on joint management of resources. Although there was no signed agreement between the relevant stakeholders, the Johnston Plan did inform the water-related provisions in the 1994 Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty. The Multilateral Working Group’s activity, which ended in 1999 when Israeli-Palestinian negotiations ceased, was not as successful because it did not include the other key stakeholders, Lebanon and Syria, who were concerned about normalizing Israeli occupation of Arab land ahead of a comprehensive peace treaty, and because Israel had banned any discussion of riparian rights. As noted earlier, the focus on joint management—to the exclusion of what international water law and humanitarian law might have to say about rights or the duty an occupying power has over the natural resources of an occupied people—was also a feature of the Norwegian-brokered Oslo II agreement.

Mathew Madain
Mathew Madain is a former research assistant in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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With little prospect for a comprehensive peace deal, U.S. support for regional water initiatives has included garnering commitments from Israel to increase commercial sales to Palestinians. One such project, the Red Sea–Dead Sea Conveyance Project, involves the construction of a Jordanian desalination facility on the Red Sea, water swaps between Jordan and Israel to more efficiently distribute water to the parched areas of each country, mitigation of the declining water level in the Dead Sea, and potential Israeli water sales to allow the PA to meet the current needs of the growing population under its administrative control. Yet despite the U.S. Congress allocating $100 million for the initial work, Jordan announced last year that it was abandoning the project, citing Israel’s lack of commitment. Internal Israeli politics may have played a role, but allowing for greater Jordanian hydro-independence is not in Israel’s interest if it wants to sell its surplus water to the Kingdom. Israel may also have decided that if there is international donor support to be had for a water conveyance initiative, then a desalination plant in Israel on the Mediterranean Sea that allows Israel to profit from additional water sales to Jordan (and Gaza) is more advantageous.

Whatever the case, critics argue that such regional water projects are overblown as mechanisms for peacebuilding in order to entice funders. Certainly, the Trump administration’s Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People involved such a strategy when it marketed a laundry list of regional infrastructure projects, including some related to water and energy. No new water infrastructure projects were listed in the plan for Palestinians, however, even though a new desalination facility in Gaza—where 97 percent of the water is undrinkable—is badly needed and could serve Palestinians more cheaply than sales from Israel. A Palestinian facility on Palestinian land would also better support Palestinian sovereignty. As under previous plans, most of the new water that was envisioned for Palestinians would come from Israel.

The Current U.S. Administration’s Approach

President Joe Biden’s administration continues to prioritize regional solutions to water scarcity (and, relatedly, to food insecurity) through a multilateral mechanism called the Negev Forum. Though Jordan and Palestine are not currently members, the administration is keen to bring them on board and seeks to leverage a dedicated U.S. fund to encourage international support for regional endeavors, including on climate resilience and water security. The hope is that participation in such a regional mechanism may lead to Palestinian-Israeli peace talks at some point down the road. Relatedly, through the offices of the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, a trilateral memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Israel, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was renewed at the COP27 climate conference in November 2022 toward advancing “Project Prosperity,” a regional water and clean energy cooperation initiative. The MOU stipulates that Israel will sell desalinized Mediterranean Sea water to Jordan (doubling the amounts Israel already sells to the Kingdom) and that Jordan will sell solar energy financed by the UAE to Israel. Though the MOU does not include Palestinians, it was originally based on a proposal from an environmental NGO for a water-energy-nexus agreement that envisioned Palestinian participation.

The reasons behind linking these otherwise standalone water and energy agreements, and how they may facilitate peacebuilding, including with Palestinians, are not entirely clear. Regional or joint initiatives involving Israel are deeply unpopular in neighboring Jordan, because of how resource dependency on Israel impacts Jordanian national security and can undermine Palestinian rights and sovereignty. As noted above, Israel already has every incentive to sell its surplus water to the Jordanian market. Though Israel would like to meet its NDC commitments by decreasing reliance on fossil fuels, it is not under pressure to do so, particularly given its considerable natural gas reserves offshore in the Mediterranean (part of which it is under contract to sell to Jordan). More than 90 percent of Israel’s electricity is generated from fossil fuels. And given that Israeli electricity consumption was 73 terawatt hours in 2021, the 600 megawatts of solar power promised from Jordan will hardly make a dent in Israel’s goal to decrease fossil fuel reliance by 27 percent by 2030 (relative to 2015). So, while Jordan has an immediate need for water, Israel has no similar need for the modest solar energy offered in the MOU with Jordan; the dependency that Project Prosperity would create is strictly one-way.

The MOU ultimately allows Israel to lock a financially strapped and aid-dependent Jordan into plans for Israel’s regional integration and normalization. With the Biden administration announcing its intention to give Jordan over $7 billion across a seven-year period, including to help Jordan address its water and climate change challenges—after the initial MOU was signed—Jordan’s King Abdullah II is undoubtedly feeling pressure to buck domestic opposition to the deal. From Israel’s perspective, such regional agreements give it the opportunity—with political cover, wittingly or not, from the United States, the UAE, and, by default, Jordan—to blur distinctions between Israel and the occupied West Bank, which at least some of the infrastructure for delivering the solar power and water is likely to traverse. Palestinian sovereignty is thus undermined while the entrenchment of Israeli settlements is facilitated. Compounding matters are Israel’s practice of denying permits for Palestinian structures and its destruction and confiscation of Palestinian solar panels, including those funded by the European Union and its member states in Area C, inside the West Bank. Area C is the only land reserve Palestinians have for water and energy infrastructure, but it is where Israel is expanding settlements, thus making it impossible for Palestinians to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, and, relatedly, on Israel.

A better approach for the United States and donors is one that comports with UN Security Council obligations to avoid expanding Israeli illegality. For instance, international donors could support large-scale desalination facilities in Gaza and the Sinai in partnership with Egypt, which could meet Gaza’s current and future needs and help rehabilitate the Coastal Aquifer shared with Israel. Alternatively, the UAE could finance renewable energy located in the West Bank and Jordan that could serve Palestinians and Israelis within Israel’s recognized borders. Such initiatives are much more consistent with regional peacebuilding and international law than unidirectional commercial sales. They are also far less offensive to Arab sensibilities.


Regional solutions to climate change and water scarcity involving Israel cannot ignore the underlying political context and power asymmetries. The United States and other international donors should work to alleviate inequities by determining their support for initiatives based on compliance with international law. Such a rules-affirming approach will require policymakers to see Palestinians as more than a captive market for commercial sales. It will also require a willingness to leverage political capital in the service of peacebuilding.

Rural Vulnerability and Resource Governance in Water-Scarce Egypt

Mohammad Al-Mailam and Amr Hamzawy

Even without accounting for climate change, Egypt’s arid environment already constrains its water security and food production. Much of the country consists of uninhabited desert, with the area south of Cairo hardly receiving any rain. As a result, agricultural production is confined to about 4 percent of Egypt’s total land, concentrated in and around the Nile Delta. This makes irrigation from the Nile River indispensable to agriculture, providing Egypt with virtually all of its freshwater needs. Though this dependence on the Nile has allowed Egypt to overcome environmental limitations and manage its food and water security in the past, existing policies will not be sustainable in the face of climate change and demographic developments.

Mohammad Al-Mailam
Mohammad Al-Mailam was a James C. Gaither Junior Fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program.
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Climate change will exacerbate existing water scarcity, aggravate ongoing resource and system challenges, and deepen the vulnerability of many rural and urban Egyptians—albeit to varying degrees. Egypt must therefore overhaul its water management practices and pursue more robust climate governance if it is to avoid severe damage to the country’s economy and human security.

Demographics and Development: More People Need More Food and Water

Since the 1990s, Egypt’s explosive population growth and rapid economic development

have escalated water demands, straining the country’s already scarce water supply. Egypt’s population has grown at a breakneck speed of around 2 percent annually on average, while its GDP has risen about 4 percent on average (with some fluctuations due to global shocks). Though successive governments have attempted to manage fertility rates, the population is nevertheless expected to increase from 104 million in 2021 to 160 million by 2050. Thus, even without considering the impacts of climate change, Egypt is set to contend with compounding pressures on diminishing water reserves.

But this is not a new problem. Egypt has long struggled to overcome the fallout of its demographic changes. Egypt has seen its water stress levels skyrocket and its per capita supplies plummet. In the early 1990s, the country’s annual renewable water supply fell below the Falkenmark threshold for water scarcity. And since then, Egypt’s per capita water supply has declined even further and may dip below the “absolute water scarcity” mark as early as 2025. 

Yet demographics do not tell the full story. Household and municipal consumption only account for a meager 14 percent of the country’s total annual freshwater withdrawals, while industry use accounts for a measly 7 percent. It is actually the agricultural sector that uses the lion’s share of national water supplies—about 79 percent—despite the relatively small area under cultivation. In other words, Egypt’s constricting water supply is more directly the consequence of its decades-long policy of expanding agricultural output. 

Amr Hamzawy
Amr Hamzawy is a senior fellow and the director of the Carnegie Middle East Program. His research and writings focus on governance in the Middle East and North Africa, social vulnerability, and the different roles of governments and civil societies in the region.
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Since the 1960s, the Egyptian government has actively promoted the reclamation of “New Land” in the delta desert. In contrast to the smaller-scale farming of Egypt’s historic Nile Valley lands, cultivation in the New Land is dominated by large-scale commercial farming—which is more rapidly exhausting precious water resources, as the soil is significantly less fertile than in the “Old Land.” In this way, Egypt’s demographic changes, rising water demands, and swelling agricultural sector have together resulted in inefficient irrigation practices and ill-considered policies, stretching Egypt’s strained resource systems even thinner. 

Egypt must urgently reconsider its water use practices, especially given the increasing impacts climate change will have on the country’s water supply.

Costs of Climate Change: Resources and Communities

Though Egypt’s water scarcity largely stems from its environmental limitations and burdensome agricultural policies, climate change will place additional pressures on its precarious water systems. Extreme temperatures, irregular precipitation, and drought present acute threats to Egypt’s water supply. Because water is mostly directed to agriculture and livestock grazing, climate-exacerbated water scarcity will in turn constrain Egyptian food production and jeopardize the livelihoods of Egyptian shepherds and farmers.

For starters, climate change will limit Egypt’s already scarce rainfall, most of which is concentrated around the Mediterranean coast in Lower Egypt. As climate change disrupts weather patterns and pushes rainfall southward, Egypt’s minimal precipitation will become even less dependable. For a country as water-starved as Egypt, this can prove ruinous, especially for the food security and economic livelihood of subsistence dry-land farmers, who depend on rain-fed irrigation for agriculture and livestock grazing. Considering “most farmers in Egypt are categorized as smallholders, with more than 80% of them owning less than 2 [hectares] of cropland and 50% holding even less than 0.4 [hectares],” climate change will deepen existing economic inequality between rain-reliant subsistence farmers and better-resourced, large-scale commercial growers.

Extreme temperatures will further restrict Egypt’s water supply and damage food production. This is concerning for a country that has already been warming for decades, at an accelerating speed. Warmer temperatures mean Egypt will face greater surface water evaporation and plant evapotranspiration, decreasing the amount of water available for agriculture. Egypt’s climate outlook appears especially grim under business-as-usual projections, with its average annual temperature climbing by a steep 2.1 degrees Celsius before the mid-century and by 4.4 degrees Celsius before the end of the century. Agricultural water demands will rise accordingly, with winter crops requiring as much as 7.1 percent more water by 2050 and 13.2 percent by 2100. To survive in the heat, summer crops will also demand nearly 11 percent more irrigation water by that year.

In still other ways, extreme temperatures may destabilize Egypt’s food supply chains, spike grain prices, and harm rural economies reliant on agriculture and livestock. This is because higher temperatures would impact the length of growing seasons, decrease crop yields, and even change the areas suitable for the cultivation of certain crops. For example, Egypt’s hotter climate may push wheat and deciduous fruit cultivation northward, where temperatures will be slightly cooler and more hospitable. In this sense, heat-induced shorter growing seasons, reduced crop yields, and the displacement of cultivation areas will likely fuel surges in food prices and may even cause food shortages. Livestock heat stress may also limit milk production, restricting rural communities’ food and income sources. In sum, rising temperatures will literally alter Egypt’s agricultural landscape and disrupt food production in the country.

Collectively, decreased rainfall and rising temperatures will destabilize Egypt’s large and water-intensive agricultural sector with more frequent hot and dry spells. Warmer temperatures will increase surface water evaporation, while scarce rainfall will lower groundwater recharge rates, diminishing Egypt’s freshwater supply. As soil moisture content and groundwater storage plummet, Egypt faces greater risks of drought in the coming decades.

Agricultural loss will impact rural and urban Egyptians alike. In 2021, the sector accounted for almost 12 percent of Egypt’s overall GDP, formally employing a fifth of Egypt’s workforce and involving 55 percent of Egypt’s labor force in agricultural activities of some kind. Thus, while rural smallholders will be the hardest hit, urban Egyptians will also have to contend with skyrocketing food prices and deepening water deficits. To address these difficult policy challenges, Egypt must revise and reinvigorate its lagging water governance.

Whither Water Governance?

In past decades, Egypt was able to reconcile the widening demand gap between its freshwater supply and its accelerating consumption rates in two key, unsustainable ways: through “virtual water” imports and the over-withdrawal of water resources.

Egypt’s primary strategy since the 1970s has been to turn to greater virtual water imports. Virtual water trade does not refer to the purchase and sale of actual fresh water. Instead, it describes trading in water “embedded” in goods. While these implicit production costs may seem hypothetical, virtual water trade has tangible consequences, allowing states like Egypt to sidestep the resource costs of producing and cultivating water-intensive crops and goods. Indeed, this appears to be a region-wide strategy, as the Middle East and North Africa has been “importing at least 50 million tons of grain annually” since 2000, saving the region 50 billion cubic meters of fresh water that would have otherwise been expended on irrigation. To put this into perspective, that amounts to 30 percent of the region’s freshwater resources or approximately Egypt’s entire annual allotted water supply from the Nile. Theoretically, this allows states like Egypt to off-load water costs onto other countries, conserving their own water resources. 

While this may seem like a prudent resource-saving strategy, that may not be the case. Indeed, increasing virtual water imports is neither sustainable nor free from its own steep costs. Egypt’s wheat imports offer a clear example. Despite spending $3.2 billion to become the world’s largest importer of wheat in 2020, Egypt still grew about 9 million metric tons of wheat locally. Instead of saving water by purchasing wheat from abroad, Egypt’s wheat imports appear to have actually left domestic cultivation intact. Some domestically grown wheat is further directed for export regionally, raising questions as to whether virtual water imports have meant water is being used more efficiently. Draining fiscal resources at a time of economic crisis, Egypt’s virtual imports warrant serious reconsideration. 

The dependence on wheat imports has also left Egypt at the mercy of global food supply chains, jeopardizing its domestic food security and sovereignty. The consequences of the coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s war on Ukraine have clearly demonstrated the risks of the strategy: Egypt’s reliance on the two warring countries for as much as 85 percent of its wheat imports sent food prices and core inflation skyrocketing immediately after the war’s outbreak, hitting women and lower-income citizens the hardest. Because as many as 70 million Egyptians depend on cheap, state-subsidized baladi bread, the Egyptian government was compelled to turn to the World Bank for a $500 million emergency loan to pay for costly wheat imports. Essentially, Egypt’s focus on virtual water imports is a double-edged sword because the dependence risks food security and national economic stability. By 2030, Egypt is expected to become even more reliant on virtual water imports than on fresh water supplied by the Nile, making serious water governance reform all the more urgent

Egypt’s second strategy for meeting demand is comparatively straightforward, albeit no more sustainable: persistent over-withdrawals of water resources. Consuming well beyond its legally allotted shares for decades, Egypt has been relying on unsustainable over-withdrawals from the Nile and groundwater aquifers as a way to consume in excess of its renewable water resources. With Nile withdrawals struggling to keep up with demand since the 1970s, Egypt has pivoted to over-consuming groundwater, drying out its aquifers faster than they can be recharged. This has caused water stress to climb from almost 104 percent in 2000 to a staggering 141 percent over a period less than twenty years.

Though this depletion of nonrenewable water reserves may have bought Egypt some time, this temporary fix comes with unexpected costs. Over-withdrawal from aquifers exacerbates saltwater intrusion, worsens soil salinity, and damages crop productivity. Acknowledging this, Egypt has moved to rationalize its water use in recent years.

Since agriculture consumes four-fifths of freshwater withdrawals, Egypt has begun aligning its water management policies with its Sustainable Agricultural Development Strategy Towards 2030. A key outcome is its prioritization of agricultural water reuse. While this is intended to conserve water, recycling fertilizer-heavy water risks deteriorating water quality and soil salinity in the long term, jeopardizing crop health and agricultural yields. Once again, these well-intended attempts at reducing waste could backfire without tackling the root causes of the water crisis.

Still, these policy challenges have not deterred Egypt from staying its course. Rather than grapple with the demand side of its water crisis, Egypt has insisted on the technocratic optimization of its water use and the unsustainable inflation of its water supply. The country has made endless announcements about environmentalmegaprojects, which tend to entrench rather than resolve this issue.

By earmarking $50 billion to upgrade Egypt’s water infrastructure by 2037, the government framed water desalination as a cornerstone of its long-term governance strategy. Egypt hopes that adding fourteen new desalination plants to its existing eighty-two facilities will significantly increase its daily water desalination capacity. While this artificial expansion of Egypt’s water supply is a welcome first step, it will hardly make a dent in the water demand gap in the long run.

Egypt cannot exclusively rely on water use adjustments; improved irrigation, treated wastewater, and more desalination are not structural solutions to Egypt’s water crisis. Instead, policymakers need to fundamentally reexamine the objectives underpinning their national resource management strategies.

Big Problems Require Bold Choices

Sooner or later, if Egypt is to overcome the challenges of accelerated population growth and climate change, it will have to confront the reality of its finite resources. This will require serious reductions in water consumption and the rightsizing of its agricultural sector.

The good news is that integrated water resource management can help. A “nexus” approach to resource governance would allow Egypt to recognize and act on the inherent trade-offs between water security, food production, and energy generation. For example, a nexus perspective accounts for the water cost of reclaiming desert lands for agriculture. Equally, it recognizes how efforts to expand Egypt’s renewable energy by building one of the world’s largest solar panel parks exhausts more water to cool and clean power plants. By bringing these tensions and difficult trade-offs to the forefront of decisionmaking, nexus governance offers a road map toward more effective resource management.

Moreover, considering that Egypt’s industrial and domestic water use collectively account for less than a quarter of national water demand, it is clear that Egypt’s water scarcity crisis is partially self-inflicted. Coordinating the governance of interrelated resource systems—including water, food, land, and energy—would therefore go a long way toward reconciling Egypt’s water demand gap while still feeding its population, pursuing its economic development, and mitigating its vulnerabilities.

Of course, significant progress on this front will require increased governance capability and political will. With so many Egyptians reliant on agriculture for food and employment, the government faces a difficult road ahead in managing its resources while still mitigating rural and urban population vulnerabilities. Though there are no easy answers, an integrated approach to resource governance would better equip both government and civil society to ask the right questions and to devise more sustainable policy solutions.

Federal Barriers to Tunisia’s Climate Momentum

Sarah Yerkes and Haley Clasen

In Tunisia, the effects of climate change are exacerbating existing socioeconomic inequalities and hitting the traditionally marginalized interior and southern regions the hardest. While the Tunisian government has been working to address environmental concerns since 1975, through a wide variety of laws and reports, in reality, the government has failed to prioritize climate change in terms of resources and political will. According to its own estimates, implementing the country’s mitigation and adaptation strategy will require $19.3 billion in financing over the period 2021–2030, including more than $11 billion in international support, at a time when Tunisia is struggling to convince donors to provide support. The price tag is certainly high, but in the long run, the costs associated with climate change consequences—including decreased agricultural production, lower tourism revenues, increased regular and irregular migration, and higher unemployment—could be even higher.

Some observers say that because Tunisia’s political stability remains precarious, the conditions are not right to support such a massive endeavor, but addressing climate change concerns in the country is a potential win-win for the international community. It would allow donors such as the United States and Europe, who are reticent to support President Kais Saied’s government in the wake of his July 2021 coup, to make a real difference in the lives of the Tunisian people. Supporting both civil society and local government efforts to address climate change provides an opportunity for donors to help Tunisians make progress on some of the country’s most urgent challenges, including rising unemployment, food scarcity, and water mismanagement.

Sarah Yerkes
Sarah Yerkes is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, where her research focuses on Tunisia’s political, economic, and security developments as well as state-society relations in the Middle East and North Africa.
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Tunisia’s climate challenges have been well documented and range from water scarcity to hotter temperatures to food insecurity. According to the World Bank, due to a combination of political, geographic, and social factors, “Tunisia is considered to be one of the Mediterranean countries most exposed to climate change.” Two of the country’s biggest economic sectors—tourism and agriculture—are especially vulnerable to climate change. Increased heat stress and decreased water supplies could impact the operations of Tunisia’s tourist sites. And further drops in precipitation could impact the livelihoods of the vast majority of Tunisians, who rely on the agricultural sector. Populations in the country’s interior regions are particularly at risk, as they “earn a significant portion of their income from agriculture, ranging from 13.7 percent of the active population in Tataouine to 30.4 percent in Kasserine, compared to a national average of 16.5 percent.”

Yet despite the clear threat climate change poses to Tunisia’s economy and stability, the Tunisian government has failed to prioritize this issue. In a recent Arab Barometer survey, 64 percent of Tunisians say the government should be doing more to address climate change and 72 percent say the lack of government initiatives contributes to climate change to a great or medium extent. And a recent Afrobarometer survey found that 83 percent of Tunisians believed that there needs to be additional environmental regulation. While local governments and civil society organizations have often stepped up to fill in government gaps, adequately addressing climate change will require a coordinated effort of the national government, local government, and civil society, supported by financing from the international community.

The Tunisian Government’s Role

On paper, Tunisia places a high priority on addressing climate change. Tunisia was the third country in the world to include climate change in its constitution. The 2014 constitution, in its preamble, notes the “necessity of contributing to the preservation of a healthy environment that guarantees the sustainability of our natural resources and bequeathing a secure life to future generations.” It contains two articles related to the environment: article 44, which guarantees the right to water and states that “conservation and rational use of water is a duty of the state and of society,” and article 45, which states that “the state guarantees the right to a healthy and balanced environment and the right to participate in the protection of the climate.” The 2022 constitution preserves much of the 2014 language, noting the government’s role in providing drinking water for all and in fighting pollution.

Tunisia is, in many ways, ahead of the region in both recognizing and responding to the impending challenges of climate change. The country has established several government bodies to mitigate climate change and is actively seeking a shift toward renewable energy. However, compared to its regional neighbors, Tunisia lacks the financial and human resources necessary to carry out its climate adaptation and mitigation strategy. One report estimates that Tunisia needs $20 billion to achieve its goal of reducing carbon use by 46 percent by 2030. Furthermore, many of the impacts of climate change are hyperlocalized, requiring an overarching national strategy as well as locally designed and driven policies. But Saied has deprioritized the country’s decentralization process by eliminating the position of minister of local affairs (who was dual-hatted as the minister of local affairs and the environment in previous governments) and by failing to provide municipalities with the resources needed to address climate change at the local level.

Haley Clasen
Haley Clasen is an associate editor at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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Tunisia also has yet to capitalize on the significant potential for wind and solar power. The country only has three wind farms and one solar power plant. Due to various political and budgetary factors, not much progress has been made toward the official goal of increasing the share of domestic energy from solar and wind power from 2 to 30 percent by 2030. One impediment is the state utility Société Tunisienne de l’Electricité et du Gaz (STEG), whose massive bureaucracy can slow down the approval process for tenders. Other observers have pointed to the reluctance of STEG to allow the private sector to enter the energy market as well as the lack of an effective public information campaign to educate local communities on the benefits of renewable energy.

According to interviews with Tunisian civil society actors working on climate change, regional and local government officials lack the political will and competence to carry out an effective climate change strategy. And while civil society activists have often put forward local solutions to their local problems, implementation of these efforts is commonly blocked by the central government, which chooses to prioritize other issues. As two scholars argue, the “abstract and distant nature” of climate change makes it harder to push for implementation, and, therefore, more immediate concerns such as unemployment and regional tension remain at the forefront. Furthermore, while Tunisia has developed several national strategies to address climate change since 2011, implementation of these strategies has been slow, if not nonexistent. It requires local and national governments to work together and various ministries to cooperate—and both have been lacking under Saied’s rule.

Civil Society Efforts With Local Government

To help develop effective climate mitigation strategies, Tunisia’s civil society has pushed different proposals for solid waste management and water availability and quality, the top two issues that Tunisians identify in public opinion polling as their biggest environmental concerns. Grassroots movements—like the national youth movement or Manish Msab (I am not a landfill)—have shifted the conversation, reminding policymakers that climate change is not an abstract issue for Tunis but is embodied by Tunisians on the front lines of the country’s climate disaster.

Waste mismanagement is exacerbating inequality in Tunisia, directly impacting Tunisians who live in the already marginalized areas where landfills are commonly located, such as the country’s exterior regions and urban working-class neighborhoods. As civil society mobilizes around solid waste, activists continue to be impeded by a lack of coordination, resources, and political will at the federal level. Apparent corruption is another obvious barrier—most recently illustrated by a high-profile case regarding the illegal import of solid waste, which led to the arrest of Tunisia’s former minister of environment. And at the municipal level, officials do not have the federal support they need to work with civil society to address citizen grievances.

For example, in the coastal town Agareb, the municipality worked with Manish Msab to close a toxic waste management facility, but the municipal decision was reversed by the state government, which argued the municipality didn’t have the mandate. And in the town of Maamoura, effective coordination between local government and civil society led to a significant win in the closure of an unregulated dumpsite that was encroaching on the city limits. But, unfortunately, municipal costs increased as a result of higher fuel costs to divert the waste to managed landfills, and there was no federal support to offset these costs. Furthermore, citizens’ efforts to sort trash were ultimately futile, because the waste was diverted to a federally managed site that did not carefully sort the trash it received. In sum, while civil society engagement with the municipality led to a concrete environmental win, the final impact was limited by the lack of a federally cohesive environmental strategy.

Similar issues have affected civil society efforts to address water availability and quality. Water scarcity is expected to increase as climate change leads to hotter temperatures and decreased precipitation. Furthermore, much of Tunisia’s water infrastructure is inefficient, and water resources are distributed unevenly across the country, exacerbating regional inequalities. Lack of federal support is also a problem, as illustrated by one Tunisian civil society leader’s work on fee structures for water in the southern city Tataouine.5 The activist successfully organized civil society and municipal leaders to develop a new proposal to improve the way utilities charge water fees and presented it to the regional council. But, he said, without “pressure or priority” from the federal government, “everything stayed the same because the local government didn’t have any power.”

Recommendations for International Supporters

Tunisian activists mentioned some success in implementing projects with international supporters, including the United Nations Development Program and the German Agency for International Development. But in general, mitigating climate change is not a high priority for most of Tunisia’s funders. Although climate change effects have a direct impact on the types of development outcomes international donors are seeking, addressing climate change is rarely a key component of development projects. As Amine Bennis argues with respect to the European Union’s approach toward Tunisia, “officials tend to focus on EU budgetary support for the country’s short-term needs rather than a green transition agenda with medium- to long-term targets.”

Furthermore, Saied’s consolidation of power at the federal level is only likely to continue this trend. His July 25, 2021, power grab continues to impact the country’s investment outlook and hold hostage a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), both key financial sources for climate change efforts. The $1.9 billion IMF loan currently being negotiated by Tunisian authorities includes a provision on climate change, noting that the economic reform plan will “adapt and build resilience to climate change by promoting investments in renewable energy as well as land and (waste) water management, and measures to preserve Tunisia’s coast lines, agriculture, health, and tourism.” However, the IMF has been historically easy on Tunisia—failing to enforce its loan provisions and thus turning many of Tunisia’s negotiated commitments into empty promises. And Saied’s own deprioritization of climate change remains a major roadblock: as one activist put it, “if you’re supporting from the bottom and the top and nothing happens, something is clearly wrong.”6

Still, for international organizations looking to support Tunisian civil society, addressing climate change could be a key avenue. Although there is vibrant, growing coordination between civil society and municipal governments to achieve climate wins, international supporters are needed to provide essential inputs, most importantly resources. Donors can use funding and training to help empower civil society—first, by supporting civil society and municipalities to address climate mitigation and create cooperative wins and, second, by serving as a bridge between civil society and the local and national government to help elevate local concerns and solutions at the federal level.

Internationally supported projects could first focus on water and waste management concerns, as addressing them is in Saied’s best interest, too. In doing so, he would show more responsiveness to citizens’ grievances and would help to head off longer-term instability. Scholars have noted the connection between grievances and climate change; for example, climate change has caused accelerated rural-to-urban migration in Tunisia, which has exacerbated social tensions around employment and other issues. The international community can help civil society and municipal governments pressure the federal government to mitigate climate change impacts and recognize the benefits of doing so for all Tunisians.

One path forward is empowering municipalities to address their particular climate challenges. As a civil society activist stated, “on paper, decentralization reforms give municipalities significant leverage in terms of environmental protection, such as the ability to tax polluting activities, but this does not mean that municipalities can make use of these provisions.”7

Another path forward is ensuring that Tunisia’s new parliament, which sat in March, has the mandate, power, and financing to realize climate change policy. Parliament should be able to build on some of the nominal environmental legislation it had pursued before it was frozen during Saied’s July 2021 self-coup. Such legislation aimed to support civil society projects on water distribution between the interior and coast regions and internationally funded projects on urban water distribution. Parliament should also have the mandate to fund, train, and empower civil society and municipal efforts to address local environmental needs.

If Saied and his government fail to address climate change, every other fissure in Tunisian society will be aggravated. Over the past year, climate-related protests worldwide have proliferated, and other countries’ experiences have warned that—since climate is so deeply connected to every other part of society—climate protests can quickly expand to include other issues, including ones that threaten the current political regime. If Saied continues to block climate mitigation efforts, and if relative deprivation (which contributed to Tunisia’s 2010–2011 uprisings) increases further, the risk of instability will rise as the status quo grows more and more untenable.


The Tunisian government needs to make addressing climate change a central pillar of its efforts to manage the country’s current political and economic crises. Growing water scarcity, severe weather, and crop depletion will only make these crises worse. While climate change action is not a panacea, its timely and effective implementation could at least help prevent the exacerbation of already sky-high levels of unemployment and migration. Furthermore, it could help reduce political unrest and instability, as traditionally marginalized areas will continue to suffer from climate change effects disproportionately.

The Tunisian government cannot afford to waste any more time. With his political project largely completed, it is in Saied’s interest to shift his attention toward climate change mitigation and adaptation. If left unchecked, the impacts of climate change will likely increase societal unrest. 

Tunisia’s climate policy must pair federal support and political will with local efforts from municipalities and civil society to address the region-by-region impacts of the climate crisis. The policy will also need to attract external funding. Fortunately, Tunisia has several distinct advantages: committed civil society activists and local actors that are eager and willing to take on climate change; a series of reports, studies, and action plans that lay out a path forward; and a donor community that is seeking ways to support the country in an apolitical manner that benefits the Tunisian people. But all of them are irrelevant without the full-fledged support of Saied.

Libya’s Climate Fragility: Adaptation Through Decentralization

Frederic Wehrey

Libya, a vast, water-stressed country of 7 million people, is extremely vulnerable to climate change. Its mean annual temperature is climbing faster than that of any other country and is expected to increase by two degrees Celsius by 2050. Dust storms and droughts are increasing in duration, frequency, and intensity—in part because of global warming—with ruinous effects on agriculture, health, and transportation. Rainfall is decreasing and becoming more irregular, while more intense rains are causing devastating floods, particularly in cities and towns marked by poor urban planning. Potable water—80 percent of which is tapped from nonreplenishable fossil aquifers deep in the southern desert via a massive system of pipes called the Great Man-Made River—is quickly vanishing because of the evaporation of open reservoirs and unsustainable extraction. Sea levels along Libya’s long shoreline are rising by as much as three millimeters per year, depending on the regional winds and currents, which could eventually inundate or severely damage the coastal city of Benghazi. 

Two other glaring climate-related problems also contribute to this precarious situation. First, Libya’s dependence on oil exports to finance its bloated budget for the public sector—which employs roughly 85 percent of the population—has left it exposed to the impending decline in global oil prices from their highest point, known as “peak oil,” resulting from the transition to renewable energy and net-zero carbon pledges. And, second, its miniscule agricultural sector and reliance on imports for more than three-quarters of its foodstuffs render it similarly vulnerable to food supply shocks, including those resulting from climate change. Libya is also uniquely culpable in contributing to global warming: despite its small population, it has one of the highest per capita carbon emission rates in the world, largely the result of highly wasteful oil production.

Libya’s vulnerabilities to climate change are in no small measure due to human factors such as poor governance, armed conflict, and infrastructural neglect. At the most basic level, the country’s ongoing crisis of political legitimacy has led Libyan elites and external actors to argue that the country must first be unified and stabilized before it can turn to longer-term reforms, including those required to stave off harmful climate impacts and to promote sustainability. But the lethargy of Libya’s political class on climate action cannot solely be pinned on these exigencies: the country’s longtime dependence on oil revenues has both disincentivized climate-related reforms and promoted a culture of spoil-grabbing, which only perpetuates climate action paralysis. Meanwhile, Libyans who are most exposed to climatic risks and most in need of protections, especially those on the peripheries of the south, east, and west, are seeing their livelihoods, health, and security increasingly imperiled. 

But these citizens are hardly mere victims—far from it. Frustrated by elite bickering and governmental inaction, municipal authorities and civil society groups across the country are stepping up in innovative ways to build climate resilience. In many respects, these initiatives reflect the same virtues of self-reliance and innovation that local actors exhibited in responding to the coronavirus pandemic. Harnessing and enabling such grassroots mobilization, through budgetary and legal reforms as well as climate-specific and climate-sensitive assistance, ought to be a greater priority for Libyan authorities as well as foreign governments and NGOs. Decentralization, while not the panacea it is sometimes made out to be, is still an important step in addressing many of Libya’s ills, including the nefarious effects of climate change.

How Libya’s Conflicts and Political Fragmentation Have Worsened Climate Risks

Libyans and outsiders often blame the country’s acute exposure to climate risks on the chaos that followed the 2011 NATO-backed revolution that toppled Muammar Qaddafi. But much of today’s climate fragility can be attributed to the dictator’s mismanagement of resources and poor stewardship of the environment. Qaddafi’s provision of water and electricity through subsidies and inefficient, state-owned monopolies resulted in unsustainable rates of extraction and consumption. His ambitious agricultural schemes resulted in the rapid depletion of coastal aquifers. That, in turn, forced a greater reliance on water delivered by the Great Man-Made River, Qaddafi’s signature megaproject, which has long been afflicted by cronyism and shoddy construction. His collectivization of property in the 1980s hastened the deforestation of the so-called Green Belt around Tripoli, which for decades had contributed to a beneficial microclimate and slowed desertification. Since his death, these trends have been accelerated by political and institutional fragmentation, unchecked environmental predation, worsening corruption, and the rapid deterioration of electricity and water infrastructure.

Libya’s political elites—spread across competing ministries and rump legislatures that often serve as little more than fiefdoms for personal enrichment—have been shockingly slow to address climate change. Libya is the only country of 196 signatories of the 2016 Paris Agreement that has not signed a Nationally Determined Contribution, which serves as an action plan for each individual country to reduce emissions and protect its society from climate impacts. Under the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity, the latest in a series of unelected transitional authorities set up through United Nations mediation since 2011, ownership of climate policy has been the object of personal and factional disagreement, particularly between the office of Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dabaiba and the Ministry of Environment. The head of climate policy in Dabaiba’s office has drafted a national climate action roadmap covering economic diversification, a transition to renewables, infrastructural improvement, climate awareness and advocacy, climate research, and technology transfers for climate resilience.8 But the document has yet to be implemented, in part because of disputes between the prime minister and the ministry. 

Elsewhere, governmental bodies that should be coordinating on climate adaptation are not doing so: officials in the national meteorological office, for example, who monitor and collect valuable data on sandstorms and droughts and their socioeconomic effects, have not been aware of the new climate authority within the prime minister’s office.9 And despite the establishment of a plan for renewable energy and despite enormous potential for solar and wind energy, Libya has made little progress on these fronts (aside from some scattered instances of solar panels in towns), in part because of private sector noncompetitiveness and entrenched bureaucratic resistance from state-owned monopolies. Efforts to tap into international climate funds have similarly fallen short because of institutional disarray and the lack of a single entry point.

In eastern Libya and parts of the south, the situation is especially dire: the ruling warlord Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar has expanded his grip over vast sectors of the region’s economy, including agriculture, energy, and infrastructure—all via the so-called Military Investment Authority, which essentially serves as a profit-making vehicle for his family and close confidantes. In addition, the Military Investment Authority and Haftar’s sons are allegedly involved in a number of predatory illicit enterprises such as the smuggling of fuel and the harvesting of scrap metal (including, reportedly, from the equipment and components of the Great Man-Made River), which is then sold abroad. 

For everyday citizens in Libya, especially those beyond the capital and other coastal cities, anger at government inaction on climate change is likely to add to the already substantial list of grievances, including elite enrichment, worsening socioeconomic inequality, and poor service provision. Indeed, many vulnerable citizens, in addition to having an astute, firsthand understanding of climate change, are keenly aware that its dislocating effects are exacerbated by systemic problems of poor governance.10 Some citizens in the agricultural sector have been forced to abandon their work not simply because of climate-induced droughts and declining rainfall but also because of high fuel prices and, in the past, lengthy power outages, which make drilling for groundwater prohibitively expensive and impede irrigation. Similarly, sand and dust storms disrupt crop harvesting and transportation, but these storms are themselves worsened by poor topsoil management, deforestation, and even the destructive effects of armed conflict on farmlands—all factors related to governance. One septuagenarian farmer living in the south of Tripoli stated:

“Sandstorms affect my farm and also the electricity, but it’s not worse than the ministry and war. . . . To me, the main factor is neglect . . . there is no oversight, no support . . . climate change just adds another layer. . . . I expect to lose my farm if this mismanagement of resources continues.”11

Supporting Local Innovation and Activism to Build Climate Resilience

In the midst of such neglect, a broad range of local actors across the country are increasingly moving to mitigate climate risks and build resilience. Much of this mobilization is taking place through a long-standing struggle against excessive centralization, which largely contributed to the 2011 uprising and continues to be a defining feature of Libya’s political trajectory. Though some progress has been made, Libya’s municipal authorities are still pushing for the expeditious and equitable allocation of financial resources and for the clarification and formalization of the legal authorities that will allow them to better serve their constituents and respond to emergencies, including extreme weather events and other climate change effects.12

According to Article 25 of the Local Administration System Law, municipalities have the responsibility and authority to protect the environment in their locales and to prepare for and respond to floods, fires, and other natural disasters. But the authorities’ implementation of related measures has been impeded by uneven access to human and technical resources in towns across the country. Most importantly, though, local authorities have continued to be stymied in their plans for climate adaptation by a ponderously slow approval process in Tripoli, the absence of clear legislation or a national strategy on climate, and, as mentioned, continued infighting among elite personalities and their associated bureaucracies. Such top-level gridlock has important implications for how outside actors deliver assistance for climate adaptation and environmental protection: in many cases, foreign governments, NGOs, and multilateral organizations are going straight to local actors. “Peripheries are taking the agency away as the center is fizzling,” noted one Western development adviser working on climate change in Libya, citing the Tripoli government’s “tedious bureaucracy.”13

Across Libya, the most pressing climate risk facing municipalities relates to water shortages and deteriorating water quality from pollution and salinization; the social effects—including increased pressure from citizens and displacement—are already being felt. Water delivery from the Great Man-Made River remains a central issue: communities complain about incomplete portions that do not service their locales, deteriorating infrastructure, illegal tapping, and sabotage. Grievances against the pipeline system are especially pronounced among Tuareg and Tabu communities—non-Arab ethnolinguistic minorities in the south who have long resented what they see as the extractive predilections of coastal elites. A former Tuareg military officer and local leader in Ubari noted, “There’s a fortune in these sand dunes. . . . Groundwater, oil, gas. It’s an open theater.”14 

Elsewhere, droughts, desertification, floods, and forest fires remain concerns for municipalities: in the southwest town of Ghat, for example, 2,500 people were forced to flee their homes during flash flooding caused by torrential rains, while in the north, forest fires have erupted in the western Nafusa Mountains and the eastern Green Mountains, threatening nature reserves, crops, and towns and necessitating the dispatch of firefighting equipment from Italy and Greece, respectively.

To confront these challenges, municipal authorities and civil society groups have undertaken a number of exemplary initiatives, tapping into the same wellsprings of volunteerism that drove their responses to the pandemic; town councils and activists worked hard to produce protective gear, distribute testing kits, and conduct public health awareness. A similar spirit is now evident in Libyans’ environmental and climate activism, which includes tree-planting and “dune-fixing” campaigns; pollution cleanup drives; education programs on recycling and water use; and workshops on infrastructural improvements.

In some instances, these efforts are aided by foreign governments and multilateral organizations, often under the rubric of broader local assistance programs. The Tamsall initiative, for example, is a European Union–funded project that supports climate advocacy and environmental activism among youth groups and town governments across twenty municipalities. Similarly, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Taqarib program works with thirty municipalities on improving service provision through training, awareness, and technical assistance and includes greening components like reforestation, recycling, and the installation of solar panels on streetlights. In the city Misrata, meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross is assisting a soil laboratory to develop drought resistant seeds, which are then delivered to farmers most in need of them, particularly in the southern region of Fezzan.15 

Such grassroots efforts to build climate resilience represent commendable examples of local resourcefulness. They should therefore be empowered by greater administrative support and legal decentralization, as well as by increased international governmental and NGO assistance. That said, they continue to face enormous obstacles, not least from the persistent menace of Libya’s armed groups—including those affiliated with the state—who have exploited climate-related shortages in resources like electricity (though this has recently improved) and water, and have targeted civil society activists. Moreover, local initiatives are only part of the broader solution: Libya’s central authorities need to boost functions that can only be accomplished by the executive branch and a national legislature, such as implementing a national water strategy, which municipalities have long demanded, and also addressing environmental and climate fragility in the vast spaces of desert territory outside the purview of municipal governments. More importantly, national authorities need to take action on long-neglected climate tasks, including meeting Libya’s international obligations on decarbonization and moving toward renewable energy and economic diversification.

While some steps in this direction can be taken now—such as devolving greater budgetary and administrative responsibility to municipal governments—real progress on climate mitigation and climate adaptation will only be achieved when Libya’s elites cease their divisive quest for self-aggrandizement and yield power to a more legitimate elected government.

Climate Change and Migration Prospects Between West and North Africa

Gilles Olakunlé Yabi

The pressure of young and growing populations, limited resources, insecurity, economic inequalities, low levels of job creation in the face of high demand, and historical migration traditions in some localities are just some of the reasons African people from the continent’s various regions take to migration paths. Of course, from an analytical point of view, these determinants of migration are not distinctly different than those of migration elsewhere; African migration is in keeping with a long history of human mobility around the world. But, looking forward, climate change will undoubtedly have complex and uneven effects on mobility in the coming decades. 

Recent Migration Flows Within and From Africa

In 2020, 80 percent of all African migrants moved within the continent, mostly to neighboring countries. Yet migration flows within regional areas such as the Economic Community of West African States, where freedom of movement is a principle, are poorly documented and thus limit the possibility of accurate analyses of the evolution of proximity migration. It is clear, however, that security crises on top of economic crises in recent years—in the Sahel in particular—have generated new population flows, both within countries and toward neighboring countries.

Gilles Yabi
Gilles Olakounlé Yabi is a nonresident scholar with the Africa Program and is the founder and CEO of WATHI, the West Africa Citizen Think Tank, which launched in 2015.
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International media coverage of African migration tends to be dominated by reports of flows of irregular migrants trying to reach Europe and the recurrent tragedies that have cost thousands of lives. Of those African migrants who left the continent in 2020, many moved to Europe, where they accounted for about 13 percent of all international migrants in Europe that year. In 2021, almost 2,000 people died or went missing on the central and western Mediterranean routes, while about 1,000 died or went missing on the sea route from northwest Africa to the Canary Islands. Hundreds of migrants also lost their lives to appalling conditions in the vast Saharan desert, even before reaching North African countries and attempting the crossing to Europe.

While Africans from sub-Saharan countries with long migratory traditions account for a large proportion of migrants seeking to reach European shores, thousands of young Moroccans, Algerians, and Tunisians facing difficult economic and social challenges also attempt crossings that sometimes end in tragedy. According to the European border and coast guard agency Frontex, in five years (2015–2019), about 97,000 nationals from these three Maghreb countries were detected entering Europe illegally; of the total, about half were Moroccans, almost one-third were Algerians, and a little less than a quarter were Tunisians.

But Europe is not the primary destination of African migrants. North Africa is a major destination for many. Countries such as Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia have received thousands of migrants from Sahel and West African countries—some for short transit; some for long transit by choice or necessity, especially to earn money to continue the migration journey; and some for long-term settlement. Libya’s oil wealth and former ruler Muammar Gaddafi’s “ambiguous and informal” open-door policy for decades attracted large numbers of nationals from neighboring countries in search of economic opportunities. In 2011, at the time of the uprising and war that toppled Gaddafi’s forty-two-year regime, the International Organization for Migration estimated that there were about 2.5 million migrant workers in Libya.

In Morocco, a major emigration country but also a host and transit country for sub-Saharan migrants, 18,000 people in irregular situations obtained residence permits to remain legally in the country in 2014. This number reportedly increased to 55,000 in 2018. Algeria, too, has historically been an important country of emigration to Europe, while welcoming migrants from multiple countries. In 2019, the International Organization of Migration mentioned a figure of between 100,000 and 150,000 regular migrants in Algeria and between 50,000 and 75,000 irregular migrants.

Tunisia remains mainly an emigration country. An estimated 1.5 million Tunisians reside abroad, of whom 80 percent are settled in Europe (in 2018). The socioeconomic and political crisis of recent years has only increased the trend toward emigration. But Tunisia is also an important transit country toward Italy and thus toward the rest of Europe. Algerians, Moroccans, migrants from West and Central Africa and the Horn of Africa, and even migrants from more distant countries (for example, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) transit through Libya or Tunisia to reach Italy. According to official figures, more than 21,000 nationals from sub-Saharan African countries (less than 0.2 percent of a total population of around 12 million), the majority of whom were in an irregular situation, were residing in Tunisia in 2020.

The age-old links between ethnocultural groups in the Sahel and North Africa naturally play an important role in the intensity of mobility in these regions. Years of historical accounts show that the Sahara has never been an obstacle to the mobility of people, ideas, and goods and that trans-Saharan trade has, in fact, played a structuring role in the trajectories of Sahelian and North African countries, whose borders have been shaped or reshaped by European colonization.

The evolution of migration, however, may change in the coming years and decades. The worsening security situation in several regions is likely already having an impact. For instance, the activity of multiple armed terrorist groups in the Sahel (in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger) and in the Lake Chad basin (in Cameroon, Chad, and Nigeria) now threatens the populations of the West African coast (in Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo). And since the search for physical and economic security is a determining factor in individual migration choices, this activity, if it persists, could tangibly influence these choices. Other destabilizing phenomena could also play a significant role in the evolution of the migration situation, particularly harmful climate change effects. Climate change should now be integrated into prospective analyses of mobility in Africa, particularly between the northern and southern shores of the Sahara.

Dire Climate Change Forecasts for West and North Africa

Climate forecasts do not establish certainties, but scientists’ work has converged on very likely developments that are already starting to take place. Africa is already experiencing recurrent food crises and extreme heat and water shortages, against a background of rapid population growth and unstable political conditions. According to projections in the World Bank’s Groundswell Africa report, people will migrate from areas of reduced water availability, areas with declining crop and ecosystem productivity, and areas affected by rising sea levels exacerbated by storm surges. Under the World Bank’s pessimistic prognosis, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal are forecasted to have the largest number of internal climate migrants by 2050, reaching 19.1 million, 9.4 million, and 1 million people, respectively. Although most climate migrants will be internal, some will move outside national borders to neighboring countries or further away.

In North Africa, all climate models and scenarios predict a sharp increase in heat waves. If global warming reaches 4 degrees Celsius, it is estimated that some countries, such as Algeria, could see their average summer temperature increase by 8 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. At the same time, a decrease in rainfall is predicted for large parts of North Africa. Water supply is likely to decrease, while water demand is expected to increase owing to population growth and economic development. The climate could change so dramatically, with frequent daily maximum temperatures above 50 degrees Celsius, that some areas in the region could become uninhabitable for some species, including humans.

West Africa is also experiencing rapid climate change, with widespread warming and increases in average and extreme temperatures. Moreover, projections show a further sharp increase in these temperatures. This warming is a firm constant in climate change projections, although the magnitude, ranging from 3 degrees Celsius to 7 degrees Celsius, depends on the model and the emissions scenario. Future projections for rainfall simulated by climate models are much less robust than those for temperature, and they are not spatially homogeneous across the Sahel.

Although the magnitude of the projected effects is uncertain, numerous studies indicate that increased greenhouse gas emissions are likely to reduce average crop yields and amplify production variability in several already food-insecure West African countries. Negative effects on agriculture and water resources are expected to occur even in the most optimistic scenarios, where global warming does not exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius. The projected impacts of climate change on North and West Africa are quite similar. The likely difference will come from the relative adaptive capacities of each region’s countries—capacities that will largely depend on the states’ public policies, infrastructure development, and skills to promote rapid and effective adaptation. 

Over the coming decades, the economic, political, and security conditions in both regions’ countries will probably be at least as important as the manifestations of climate change in driving large population movements—whether internally, to neighboring countries, or to another continent. It is impossible to say on the basis of climate change alone that there will be a massive flow of West African migrants to North African countries.

Impact of Demographic Changes on African Migration

The demographic factor deserves particular attention, as the expected negative effects of climate change will affect a few hundred thousand or tens of millions of people, depending on which areas will be most affected and the number of people living in them. The relative demographic rates of North and West Africa could be a major factor in the prospects for migration between these two regions.

In 2020, the population of the eight Sahelian-Saharan countries reached 166 million, compared to 132 million in 2010. Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia had nearly 100 million inhabitants in total in 2020, compared with 66 million for four Sahelian neighbors (Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad). Between 1950 and 1980, the North African population grew at an average annual rate of 2.7 percent, while the Sahel population grew at a similar average annual rate of 2 percent. But their growth rates diverged starting in the 1990s: between 1990 and 2010, the Sahelian population grew at an average annual rate of 3.3 percent, while between 2005 and 2010, the population in North Africa dropped to an annual rate of 1.4 percent before rising slightly.

By 2050, the population of the four Sahelian countries is expected to reach 141 million, putting the Sahel’s population at about 10 million more than that of the four countries north of the Sahara. With 61 million inhabitants, Niger will become the most populous country in North and West Africa; Algeria will be right behind at 60.9 million; and Morocco will be the third most populous country, with more than 46 million inhabitants. Tunisia is expected to be the least populous, with less than 14 million people—well behind Mali and Chad, with 40 and 31 million inhabitants, respectively.

Few Prospects for Cooperation on Migration

The political and security instability and uncertainties in Libya; the political tension and socioeconomic crisis in Tunisia; the increased tensions between Algeria and Morocco; and the political, security, and economic fragility of several countries in the Sahel and West Africa, among other developments, will make it extremely difficult to establish frameworks for the constructive discussion of migration. Bilateral relations between North and West African countries remain uneasy and will impede the management of population flows across many borders and of legal and illegal transnational actors. Further complicating matters, migrants’ transitory or final destinations will continue to depend on the migration policies applied by the various governments.

At a time when dialogue is already difficult or even nonexistent between North and West African countries on the governance of migration, one can be concerned about the future of inter-African cooperation on migration issues. In February 2023, the Tunisian president Kaïs Saïed went so far as to say that “there is a conspiracy by migrants from sub-Saharan Africa to change the demographic composition” of his country. Yet climatic trends and their economic impacts, as well as demographic trends, lend credence to arguments that there will be an acceleration of mobility and that there must be concerted political management of this mobility for the benefit of North African and Sahelian countries. It is worth remembering that all these countries are members of the African Union, which defends the free movement of people within the continent as it promotes free trade through the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement, with the largest free trade area in the world measured by the number of countries participating.


1 All primary data collected for this essay originate from author interviews conducted online in December 2022 and January 2023 with the managing director of the Chibayish office of Nature Iraq, Jassim Al-Asadi, and the co-director and artist/photographer of the Eden in Iraq Wastewater Garden project, Meridel Rubenstein.

2 Nature Iraq, Key Biodiversity Areas of Iraq: Priority Sites for Conservation & Protection (Huntington Beach, CA: Tablet House Publishing, 2017).

3 Author interview with Jassim Al-Asadi (online), January 13, 2023.

4 Author interview with Batir Wardam, Amman, February 24, 2023.

5 Authors’ interview with Tunisian civil society activists (via Zoom), November 10, 2022.

6 Authors’ interview with Tunisian civil society activists (via Zoom), November 10, 2022.

7 Authors’ interview with Tunisian civil society activists (via Zoom), November 10, 2022.

8 Author interview with a Libyan climate official, Tripoli, Libya, May 2022.

9 Author interview with a Libyan official in the national meteorological office, Tripoli, Libya, May 2022.

10 Author interviews with Libyan farmers and residents (via telephone and in person), Tripoli, Libya, 2022–2023.

11 Author interview with a Libyan farmer (via telephone), Tripoli, Libya, September 2022.

12 Author interview (via telephone) with Libyan local governance expert Dr. Otman Gajiji, January 2023.

13 Author interview with an international consultant working on Libya (via telephone), February 2023.

14 Author interview with a former Tuareg military officer and local leader, Ubari, Libya, February 2016.

15 Author interview with a Libyan scientist in Misrata, Libya, who oversees the effort (via telephone), October 2022.