American Studies, Environmental Studies, Panels, Regional Studies

Water, Energy, and Climate Change in the Gulf


CIRS organized a panel presentation on the issues of “Water, Energy, and Climate Change in the Gulf.” The panel, chaired by the Interim Dean of GU-Q Mehran Kamrava, was made up of Professor Tim Beach of Georgetown University, Professor Sharif Elmusa of Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, and Mari Luomi, a researcher at The Finnish Institute for International Affairs and a PhD candidate at Durham University. All three experts approached the panel topics from their unique disciplinary perspectives of geoscience, environmental politics, and political science respectively. 

Click here to download an MP3 of the panel discussion 

Tim Beach gave the first presentation in which he illustrated the state of the world’s biodiversity in the current ecological climate and how its degradation relates directly to issues of diminished resources and, ultimately, to issues of human rights. He argued that “the world and the Gulf are faced with solving two ends in the equation of water.” One aspect of the politics of water is to maintain ecosystems and the other is to provide adequate amounts of water for direct human needs and uses. Currently, with increases in global population numbers and temperature levels, there is a water deficit in many parts of the world. Beach maintained that “in the last hundred years or so, about half of the world’s wetlands have disappeared.” 

Currently, “wetlands cover 6% of the world, but provide a disproportionate amount of the ecosystem services to humanity and form hotspots for biodiversity” as they have a high net primary productivity, Beach said. “Currently however, he noted that “wetlands face continuous threats,” and there are many areas of disappearing wetlands around the globe due to human agricultural and farming projects as well climate change effects. Beach argued that wetlands, marshes, and mangroves are some of the most important areas for ecosystem services such as fish, wildlife, and soil habitats. Critically, from an environmental economic perspective, apart from being habitats for endangered species and spawning grounds for fishing industries, Beach explained that “wetlands are natural water quality improvers” and so, in the long run, their worth per hectare is far greater than prime farmland. As such, “wetlands are natural carbon sequestration areas” that need proper maintenance for their full potential to be activated. As a final thought, Beach argued that water is a basic human right that needs to be protected through United Nations declarations and supported through development programs in the impoverished areas of the world. Human interactions with wetlands do not have to be degrading, but it is possible to learn from various tribes in South America who have a symbiotic and long-term sustainable relationship with these areas. Sharif Elmusa gave the second presentation on the subject of “debating water and oil wars” in the Middle East. He argued that water wars, although long predicted, have not come to pass, but what we have instead are wars over oil. The reason for this, he argued, is because water is of regional significance, it is not a resource sold on the world market. The primary reason there is international political interest in the dearth of water is that it could lead to the disruption of oil supplies. Countries with valuable resources – ones that can be appropriated and sold on the world market – are more likely to suffer violent conflict than countries that do not, and oil qualifies as one of these finite and highly sought-after resources. Elmusa explained that these resources do not only underlie armed conflicts, but help in the prolongation and intensification of existing ones; “you cannot understand what is happening in Iraq today, without understanding the role of oil in the civil war that is taking place,” he said. In this regard, Elmusa, quoting Gary Wills, said that the United States has had two long-standing and active interests in the Gulf area and its fossil fuels. One goal “is to guarantee the secure supply of oil to the industrialized countries, and the second is to prevent any hostile power from acquiring political or military control over those resources.” Historically, “any attempt by an outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region was regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America,” he added. This entrenched mindset was translated into the two American-led wars involving Iraq. While 9/11 may have triggered the 2003 war, as some have claimed, it would not have happened without the prior fixation on “securing” the oil supply from the region. Elmusa noted that although “water is scarce and is going to become even scarcer because of rapid population growth, urbanization, and global warming,” he speculated further on why wars were fought over oil rather than water. Water, he argued, flows across countries, but oil does not. To get oil, you must go to the source. 

If however, a war was to be waged over water, it would happen among the downstream Arab states, the reason being their dependence on the geography and the distribution of power in each basin. Syria, for instance, cannot go to war with Turkey over the Euphrates River because Turkey is much stronger militarily and because taking over the origins of this watercourse would entail domination over millions of Kurds. However, Syria and Iraq could find themselves engaged in military confrontation if Turkey does not release enough water for the two states. The same could happen in the Nile basin between Egypt and Sudan, because Egypt cannot project its military away from its immediate borders to Ethiopia, the source of the bulk of the Nile’s flow. But this, he said, depends on the unknown future of Sudan itself. 

In conclusion, Elmusa explained that avoiding water or oil wars in the future requires that we stop thinking of these wars as political possibilities, and begin thinking innovatively of viable alternatives. 

The third and final speaker, Mari Luomi, presented a political science perspective of the pressures and potential sources of threat that climate change poses to the Gulf monarchies. She argued that “climate change itself is envisaged to have different kinds of negative consequences that could potentially be destabilizing for the countries of the Middle East.” Although this was the case, Luomi warned that discussing climate change within a strict security framework could lead to emphasizing adaptation measures over mitigation as well as shifting approaches to the problem from multilateralism to unilateralism and responsibility from the individual to the state. She argued that “the six Gulf Cooperation Council states, particularly the four OPEC member states – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, and Qatar – perceive climate change mitigation as a threat to their economies.” 

The negative consequences of climate change affect the physical, social, and economic aspects of any country or region. The physical consequences include temperature and sea-level rise, changes in precipitation, and intensity and frequency of natural disasters. Social consequences include problems with food and water security, migration, and instability and, finally, in terms of economic consequences, “the cost of delayed action to fight climate change will be higher than that of prompt action,” she said. 

With regards to the Middle East, Luomi explained that there is a dearth of historic data recording past weather patterns and climate change effects, but because of the region’s water scarcity, and pockets of political instability, it is considered to be one of the most vulnerable areas in the world. However, in the international negotiations on climate change, the OPEC countries have concentrated in emphasizing the potential negative consequences that policies and actions of the industrialized countries to mitigate climate change might have on their oil revenue in the long term. 

In terms of responsibility for alleviating climate change, she noted that “although it is indisputably the industrialized states that bear the responsibility for climate change, and should take the lead in fighting it, developing states will have to understand that the battle can only be won if everyone participates according to their capabilities.” 

Concluding the final presentation, Luomi explained that climate change presents the Gulf countries with opportunities that could be actively exploited. She argued that “there are tangible financial benefits to be gained through decarbonizing Qatar’s energy economy by exploring energy efficiency, solar energy, and carbon trade.” To this effect, new ministries for the environment are being set up in many Gulf states that try to project new images of themselves as an energy-efficient and sustainable countries by investing in a variety of alternative energy projects and initiatives. 

Finally, because there is a regional leadership vacuum in the Gulf and in the Middle East, “Qatar should, among other things, seek to develop technologies and solutions related to natural gas, which is widely seen as a transitional fuel,” Luomi said.  

Panelist Biographies 

Tim Beach holds the Cinco Hermanos Chair in Environment and International Affairs and is Professor of Geography and Geoscience and Director of the School of Foreign Service’s Program in Science, Technology, & International Affairs (STIA) for 2009-2010. He was the Director of Georgetown University’s Center for the Environment from 1999 to 2007. His research focuses on soils, agriculture, environment change and geoarchaeology. He also teaches courses in physical geography (climatology, hydrology, geomorphology, and environmental management) and how these relate to international management and policy in the STIA and environmental studies programs. 

Sharif Elmusa is Visiting Associate Professor at Georgetown University in Qatar from the American University in Cairo, Egypt, where he is an associate professor in the Political Science Department. He teaches courses on sustainable development; global environmental politics; technology and culture and industrialization; and the everyday politics of Palestine. His research and writing covers environmental politics, including hydropolitics, resources conflict/ cooperation, culture and the natural environment. 

Mari Luomi is currently a Researcher at The Finnish Institute for International Affairs and is completing her PhD on the energy security and climate change attitudes of small Gulf states at Durham University. 

Article by Suzi Mirgani. Suzi is CIRS Publications Coordinator.