Poor governance, corruption and conflict throughout MENA threaten to curb the impact of new climate funds.
The United Nations COP27 conference has now drawn to a close, with talks culminating in a historic agreement to establish a climate “loss and damage” fund. Egyptian foreign minister and president of COP27, Sameh Shoukry, celebrated after all-night negotiations, declaring that “we rose to the occasion” and “listened to the calls of anguish and despair.”
Many details of the agreement are still to be negotiated, but the fund is expected to mobilise support from the industrialised North to the climate-vulnerable global South for losses arising from climate change-fueled natural disasters.
That this year’s summit was held in Egypt, while COP28 will be hosted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), reflects the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region’s particularly high vulnerability to climate change, as well as the increasing attention its leaders are paying to the issue.
While ramped-up climate finance is essential to support the region’s vulnerable communities, poor governance, corruption and conflict throughout MENA threaten to curb the impact of these funds. For climate-vulnerable countries such as Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, these barriers could mean the difference between life and death for millions of people.
With the continent’s rivers drying up and an agricultural sector on the brink of collapse, 80 to 90 million of the region’s inhabitants are predicted to suffer from some form of water stress by 2025. Another 19 million people in North Africa are expected to be driven from their homes over the next 30 years.
Indeed, the MENA region is facing a wide range of climate risks, from water scarcity and desertification to food insecurity and rising sea levels, threatening economies, livelihoods and even the long-term viability of certain areas. Disturbingly, the region is projected to be one the first in the world to “effectively run out of water” as water resources are used faster than they can be replenished.
In Jordan, for example, rainfall is set to decrease by nearly one-third by the end of the century. In Iraq and Morocco, two-thirds of oases have disappeared due to increased evaporation and decreased precipitation, while Saudi Arabia and Sudan have already begun experiencing severe sandstorms.
The unfolding environmental catastrophe is a humanitarian one as well. According to recent reports, nearly one million people currently face catastrophic levels of hunger across Afghanistan, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen – a number ten times that of five years ago. The Horn of Africa is facing its fifth failed rainy season in a row, prolonging the region’s longest drought in 40 years.
In all of this crisis, there are some signs of hope. Despite regional water scarcity, MENA has the world’s lowest water tariffs and the highest proportion of GDP spent on public water subsidies, while a whopping 80% of wastewater is not recycled, meaning that opportunities for reform to meet water demands are legion.
In Iraq, politicians in the Kurdish region have been eager to outline the country’s climate reform ambitions and drum up support for energy transition plans. “Encouraged by the discussions at the COP26 Summit to accelerate action against a global threat,” Prime Minister Masrour Barzani wrote on Twitter, adding that “the time to act is now.” Climate efforts in Barzani-ruled Iraqi Kurdistan, however, have consistently been undermined by deeply entrenched corruption.
This reality is illustrated by the Korek telecom misappropriation case, in which hundreds of millions of dollars of investment from Kuwaiti logistics firm Agility and French telco Orange were seized without compensation. If strengthened anti-corruption initiatives prove unsuccessful, foreign investors in climate initiatives would be wise to expect similar treatment.
At the same time, state capture in Lebanon has seen the country’s resources plundered by the political elite. This is exemplified by its “Ponzi scheme” scandal, through which Lebanon authorities used excessive debt accumulation to give the “illusion of stability” while funds continued to flow overseas to Lebanese groups abroad.
In a scathing report released earlier this year, World Bank experts were blunt. “It is important for the Lebanese people to realize that central features of the [economy] are gone, never to return,” they wrote, “it is also important for them to know that this has been deliberate.” The resulting economic depression has plunged millions of Lebanese into a desperate situation.
The ongoing civil war in Yemen is similarly devastating lives and stalling climate action. Protracted conflict and several years of droughts have forced millions from their homes, including farmers and livestock keepers, while creating a food crisis that has only deepened instability throughout the country. Ongoing peace talks between regional and civil actors are thus critical to laying the foundation for future Yemeni climate efforts.
Governments throughout the MENA region cannot hope to attract the necessary levels of foreign climate investment without implementing good governance and corruption reforms and ensuring long-lasting peace. Only then will climate funds deliver impactful, tailored climate action projects.
In Lebanon, the World Bank has informed leaders that the country will need to implement large-scale reform and financial stabilisation programmes to find its way out of its current socioeconomic crisis, warning that “the cost of inaction is colossal, not only on daily lives of citizens but also on the future of the Lebanese people.”
Meanwhile, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) will need to match recent commitments with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to bolster its anti-corruption frameworks with concrete action over the coming years.
Finally, in Yemen, where the government has respected the terms of the current truce – unlike the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels – the international community, notably the EU and US, must complement vital humanitarian aid programmes with diplomatic pressure on Iran and hard security guarantees for Yemeni government-supporting Saudi Arabia.
Implementing these urgent reform and conflict resolution measures would give the MENA region the long-term stability and investment it needs to start truly tackling its climate crisis before time runs out.
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