Doha — In the last three decades, 50 million people in the Arab world have been affected by natural disasters, many of them extreme climate events, according to a new report by the World Bank. The report projects the horrific scenario of temperatures regularly rising over 50 degrees Celsius by the turn of the century, which experts fear could lead to countless more disasters.
The disasters of the last three decades have cost at least US$12 billion, according to the report. "This number does not really account for other enormous losses which unfold over a period of time," said Junaid Kamal Ahmad, the World Bank's sustainable development head.
And even this could be a gross underestimate. "The costs of damages are reported for only 17 percent of disasters and rarely capture the suffering that follows the loss of lives and livelihoods," Ahmad said.
Drought and flood victims account for 98 percent of all people affected by climate-related disasters in the region, according to the report.
The long-term climate-change trends are foreboding, according to the report. Temperatures are projected to rise by three to four degrees Celsius in the Arab world - which includes countries in the Middle East, North Africa and the Horn of Africa - by the end of the century. Such an increase would be 1.5 times faster than the global average, meaning people in the region would be regularly living with temperatures around of 54 to 55 degrees Celsius.
2010 was already the warmest year since records began in the late 1800s, with 19 countries setting new highs. Five of these were Arab countries, including Kuwait, which set a new record at 52.6 degrees Celsius that year; it was topped by 2011's high of 53.5 degrees Celsius.
The region is home to the world's biggest emitters of greenhouse gas: Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
"Someone mentioned we will have to build fridges to live in the oven," quipped Rachel Kyte, World Bank Vice president for sustainable development, during the Doha press conference announcing the report's release.
Authors of the report - a scientific study with input from academics in the region - hope it informs the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's fifth assessment of climate change science, which is expected to be released in 2013-14.
Kyte said they hope the report also informs discussions on losses and damages caused by climate change. Such discussions have stalled at the current UN climate change talks taking place in Doha; the issue being left for political leaders, who arrived on 4 December, to resolve.
Agriculture and water
Rising temperatures are bad news for agriculture, and the nearly 40 percent of employed people with agriculture-related jobs.
The region is already extremely water stressed, but with higher temperatures, the amount of water available for irrigation will to drop dramatically. By 2050, water runoff from rains, which feed rivers, is expected to decrease by 10 percent. The gains in agricultural productivity made over the past two decades may slow, or even decline, after about 2050.
Regional agricultural production comes largely from the 10 percent of the land with a Mediterranean climate. Irrigation is the only option for growing crops in some countries; this irrigated land covers only 2 percent of the region's land but provides 17 percent of the production.
Currently, 56 percent of Arab people live in urban centres. But by 2050, this proportion is expected to increase to 75 percent, due in part to droughts, which have been shown to increase rural-to-urban migration in the region.
A recent multi-year drought in Syria is estimated to have led to the migration of about one million people to informal settlements around the major cities.
Not only will the region's people have to contend with high temperatures, they will also have to brace themselves against the increasing threat of flash floods. Contributing to this risk are more intense rainfall events; ubiquitous concrete surfaces, which that do not absorb water; inadequate and blocked drainage systems; and increased construction in low-lying areas and wadis.
The impact of flash floods is already increasing. In the decade starting from 2000, the number of people in the region affected by flash floods rose to half a million, compared to only 100,000 in the previous decade.
If no measures to build resilience are taken in the next 30 to 40 years, climate change could lead to a cumulative reduction in household incomes of about 7 percent in Syria and Tunisia, the report indicates. Yemen - because of the expected the declines in agriculture - could suffer an income reduction of 24 percent.
"While not addressed directly in this report, the impact of the ongoing conflict in Syria would likely add greater welfare losses and make the adaptation process even more difficult," said the report.
World Bank's Ahmad told IRIN that governments in the region have begun to ask the right questions about identifying vulnerable populations and regions and have begun talking about resilience. He also said that improving people's adaptive capacity does not always involve money; governments need to educate people about the problems ahead. They also needed to invest in more social protection measures.
The necessity of such measures was already on display. At an earlier press briefing by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Mohammed Mukhier, head of community preparedness and disaster response, said the group would be unable to raise adequate funding to keep up with the number of frequent and intense natural disasters unfolding.
This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations