Documents reveal Middle East regimes fear food, water, energy shortages (EXCLUSIVE)

Documents reveal Middle East regimes fear food, water, energy shortages (EXCLUSIVE)

  • Nafeez M Ahmed
7 min read
Nafeez M Ahmed

Official documents obtained exclusively by INSURGE confirm that governments across the Muslim world privately recognise that climate change is a threat of “unimaginable proportions”, already compounding problems of land, food, water and energy scarcity.

Yet proposed measures to address this challenge remain poorly thought out, and lacking in scientific rigour. Much more ambitious changes are needed if countries in the Middle East and North Africa are to avoid major ecological, energy and economic crises.

Official documents of the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the largest intergovernmental body after the United Nations, reveal that countries across the Muslim world are privately alarmed by the risk of major energy, food and water crises in coming years.

The OIC consists of 57 member-states spread over four continents, and describes itself as the collective voice of the Muslim world.

The documents, produced by the OIC’s Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation (COMSTECH), consist of agendas for discussion between government ministers at the OIC’s inaugural Science and Technology Summit held in early September in Astana, Kazakhstan.

The summit led OIC member states to formally adopt a series of policy recommendations.

The new policy measures are part of an OIC effort to address the stagnation of the Muslim world when it comes to science and technology development.

A public version of the agenda is available on the OIC website.

However, INSURGE exclusively obtained an earlier draft version of the document which differs in critical respects from the final published version.

While both versions of the agenda acknowledge concerns over major, food, water and energy challenges, the earlier draft version contains a number of strong statements — subsequently deleted — indicating how serious some of these issues are viewed internally by OIC governments.

Running out of resources

Noting that OIC member states are currently facing urgent “food safety and security” problems, the draft document states candidly:

“Most OIC member states are running out of usable land and water. The urgency of the matter calls for all measures to maximise outcomes from the least amount of water, as well as achieving universal and equitable access to safe drinking water.”

This paragraph was removed wholesale from the final version of the agenda, made public on the OIC website.

Axiom: The Muslim world faces an imminent land and water crisis.

The document notes that such intensifying scarcity of land and water, particularly for food production, is being exacerbated because:

“… the ‘green’ revolution is essentially over and high growth rates in agriculture will not be sustained through current technology, practice and attitudes alone.”

Climate change in particular has “increased the vulnerability of farming communities”, the document asserts.

Unsustainable consumption

The document goes on to observe that energy consumption — along with consumption of water and land — is at “unsustainable” levels across OIC countries.

“The quality of modern human life has been and always will be completely dependent on the availability of affordable energy. There are serious concerns, however, that consumption of water, land, and fuel resources may become unsustainable at the present rates of consumption.”

Global energy demand is projected to double out to 2040, the document says, noting that “emerging economies will be responsible for 90% of growth in energy demandcaused by rising populations and a fast growing middle class”.

The document further warns that efforts to diversify “primary resources” will be affected not only by national policies, but also by global price fluctuations and “geo-politics or competition for resources.”

Axiom: Current rates of consumption of water, land and energy across much of the Muslim world are unsustainable.

Suppressing climate awareness

While the document contains some welcome acknowledgement of climate change, differences between the draft and final versions suggest that the gravity of concerns are being downplayed.

The document observes that: “Climate change is of particular concern for OIC Member States lying in climate-sensitive regions which are already aggravated by desertification, drought, degradation of land and water, especially the marine environment and fisheries therein.”

However, the following paragraph from the draft document — acknowledging the primary human responsibility for current climate change — was removed from the final version:

“Climate change and global warming is anthropogenic and may have been underestimated. We have only one planet as our habitat for the foreseeable future and it is facing a crisis of unimaginable proportions.”

The removal of that small but pivotal acknowledgement of the “unimaginable” scale of the climate crisis is consistent with previous efforts by some OIC governments — particularly Saudi Arabia, the body’s biggest funder — to downplay global warming.

As I previously reported for The Guardian, Saudi Arabia had led a coalition of countries that pressured the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to “dilute” parts of its flagship report to minimise climate action.

IPCC reports ‘diluted’ under ‘political pressure’ to protect fossil fuel interests | Nafeez Ahmed
Nafeez Ahmed: Saudi-led coalition sought to make policy summaries as vague as possible to minimise climate action

The new OIC document reveals for the first time, though, that governments across the Muslim world privately recognise the seriousness of water, food and resource scarcity. Yet they are deliberately suppressing their privately held assessments from their own publics.

Insight: Governments of the Muslim world are not ready to admit to their populations how serious their environmental and resource challenges really are.

Mediocre solutions

To make matters worse, the solutions put forward by the final document — signed off by member states at the close of the OIC’s summit in September — leave much to be desired.

The document states that by 2040, fossil fuels will still retain a 60–65% share in the primary energy mix of most OIC countries, and criticises renewables for being unable to “offer ‘base-load’ supply, which is only available through fossil or nuclear fuels”.

The renewable energy target put forward by the document is for a measly 10% by 2025 — nowhere near enough to curb fossil fuel emissions from the OIC’s worst polluters.

Instead, the document hypes up nuclear energy, noting that many OIC countries are “planning to start constructing nuclear power plants”.

Insight: Most Muslim world governments remain committed to business-as-usual — paradoxically, despite the evidence of impending crisis.

A positive slant

The document does, however, contain some positive points.

It mentions the idea of creating “micro grids” to facilitate “distributed standalone [energy] systems for small communities”, and calls for more efforts to develop efficient battery storage, solar cells and molten salt storage tanks to use with concentrated solar power — as well as more investment in geothermal energy.

It also calls for more effective national planning on climate mitigation, including a recommendation to attempt to integrate the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals into national policies — a major step forward, even if the SDGs are deeply flawed.

The document also urges OIC member states to “aim for maximum recycling of urban waste water”, and increase efficiency in water use through “new technologies and farming methods”.

Unfortunately, the document is rather thin on exactly how these positive policies might be implemented.

What can actually be done?

Perhaps the most conspicuous dimension of the document is the seeming absence of any engagement with the burgeoning scientific literature — ironic given the stated focus on science and technology advancement.

A spate of studies out this year provides a compelling snapshot of viable pathways that could avoid or mitigate growing food, water and energy crises.

Joined-up approaches

Policymaking in general, but especially in these regions, treats water, food and energy issues as separate areas, rather than as fundamentally interdependent.

Professor Atef Hamdy, who sits on the board of the Arab Water Council, explains in a contribution to Water, Energy and Food Security in the Arab Region, that “urgent attention” is required to build “relationships and linkages between policy making institutions of the three sectors.”

In other words, the first step is to adopt a joined-up approach that sees water, food and energy issues as systemically interconnected.

Action: Policymakers, scientists, and civil society engaged in addressing these issues should adopt holistic approaches that recognise their fundamental interdependence.

Reduce food waste

According to soil scientist Abdirashid A. Elmi of Kuwait University’s Department of Environment Technology Management in a scientific paper in Sustainable Agriculture Reviews, current food, energy, and water policies are “plagued with wasteful practices so that food wastage at the household level is greater than cereal produced locally.”

Apart from investing more in domestic agriculture, a more immediate solution, Elmi points out, would involve promoting conservation practices that could save a significant amount of food resources.

Action: Governments should, at the least, invest in ways to eliminate conventional practices that involve colossal food waste.

Ramp up renewables

Currently, solar power accounts on average for less than 0.2% of the region’s total installed capacity for electricity.

That is despite the Middle East’s potential for solar energy being “immense”, according to Nassir El Bassam of the International Research Centre for Renewable Energy in Germany in a study published in April.

The amount of solar radiation in the Arab region is “equivalent to 1–2 barrel oil per square meter per year. These rates are among the best in the world making the region suitable for solar heating and cooling, Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) and Concentrated Photovoltaic (CPV) applications.”

The region thus has “the highest levels of solar input in the terrestrial world”, which can be used not just for electricity, but also for water desalination.

Action: An ambitious renewable transition strategy for the Middle East should be targeted at supplying a sustainable source of electricity, as well as designed to facilitate sustainable water and food production systems.

Such a transition is technically feasible. A study earlier this year by researchers at the Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) concluded that countries across the Middle East and North Africa could transition to 100% renewable energy systems between 2040 and 2050, producing electricity more cheaply than fossil fuels.

While the OIC’s efforts to revive science and technology across the Muslim world are somewhat welcome, the scientific literature is already offering far more ambitious solutions. Despite privately recognising the magnitude of the risks, it seems that for most of these governments, business-as-usual is still the order of the day.

Member discussion