Record-shattering temperatures this summer have scorched countries from Morocco to Saudi Arabia and beyond, as climate experts warn that the severe weather could be a harbinger of worse to come.
In coming decades, U.N. officials and climate scientists predict that the region’s mushrooming populations will face extreme water scarcity, temperatures almost too hot for human survival and other consequences of global warming.
If that happens, conflicts and refugee crises far greater than those now underway are probable, said Adel Abdellatif, a senior adviser at the U.N. Development Program’s Regional Bureau for Arab States who has worked on studies about the effect of climate change on the region.
“This incredible weather shows that climate change is already taking a toll now and that it is — by far — one of the biggest challenges ever faced by this region,” he said.
These countries have grappled with remarkably warm summers in recent years, but this year has been particularly brutal.
Parts of the United Arab Emirates and Iran experienced a heat index — a measurement that factors in humidity as well as temperature — that soared to 140 degrees in July, and Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, recorded an all-time high temperature of nearly 126 degrees. Southern Morocco’s relatively cooler climate suddenly sizzled last month, with temperatures surging to highs between 109 and 116 degrees. In May, record-breaking temperatures in Israel led to a surge in heat-related illnesses.
Temperatures in Kuwait and Iraq startled observers. On July 22, the mercury climbed to 129 degrees in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. A day earlier, it reached 129.2 in Mitribah, Kuwait. If confirmed by the World Meteorological Organization, the two temperatures would be the hottest ever recorded in the Eastern Hemisphere.
The bad news isn’t over, either. Iraq’s heat wave is expected to continue this week.
Bassem Antoine, an Iraqi economist, said the weather has inflicted serious damage to the country’s economy. He estimates that Iraq’s gross domestic product — about $230 billion annually — has probably contracted 10 to 20 percent during the summer heat.
Iraqi officials say scores of farmers across the country have been struggling with wilting crops, and general workforce productivity has decreased.
Hospitals, meanwhile, have seen an uptick in the number of people suffering from dehydration and heat exhaustion.
Climate scientists say this shouldn’t be surprising.
A study published by the journal Nature Climate Change in October predicted that heat waves in parts of the Persian Gulf could threaten human survival toward the end of the century. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and the Cyprus Institute in Nicosia recently predicted a similarly grim fate for the Middle East and North Africa, a vast area currently home to about a half-billion people.
The region’s governments are generally not prepared to deal with rapidly growing populations and climactic shifts, said Francesca de Châtel, an Amsterdam-based expert on Middle Eastern water issues. For years, she said, they have failed to address these problems adequately despite warnings from climate experts and U.N. agencies, and it may be too late now.
The United Nations predicts that the combined population of 22 Arab countries will grow from about 400 million to nearly 600 million by 2050. That would place tremendous stress on countries where climate scientists predict significantly lower rainfall and saltier groundwater from rising sea levels. Already, most countries in the region face acute water crises because of dry climates, surging consumption and wasteful agricultural practices.
Analysts point to inadequate government handling of an unprecedented drought in Syria as a trigger for the country’s devastating civil war, which has produced extraordinary refugee flows that have spilled into Europe.