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Climate change amid armed conflict exacerbating humanitarian needs across Middle East

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Armed conflict in the Middle East is exacerbating the effects of climate change across parts of the region, with the most vulnerable places are almost entirely excluded from meaningful climate finance, a new report has said.

The Middle East has witnessed an increase in temperature of 1.5°C since the 1990s, with things such as drought and intense rainfall becoming increasingly common. But the region still struggles to get the financing it needs to fight to the effects of climate change, especially in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Norwegian Red Cross said on Thursday.


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“Death, injury and destruction are the devastating and well-known effects of armed conflict. Less well known are the challenges residents must endure and overcome because of this terrible combination of conflict, climate change and environmental degradation,” said Fabrizio Carboni, the ICRC’s regional director for the Near and Middle East.

Lack of climate finance

The report – which focuses on Yemen, Syria and Iraq - called for urgent action by humanitarian, development, climate, environmental and state actors to help people affected by armed conflict deal with the impacts of climate change.

Only 19 climate-related projects in violence hit Iraq, Syria and Yemen have been approved for funding, according to a database that collates information on funding for environmental. This is less than 0.5 percent of the money disbursed to climate projects worldwide.

Humanitarian actors have a small but important role to play in enabling climate action but, “the combined impacts of armed conflict, climate change and environmental degradation cannot be averted through humanitarian action alone,” the ICRC and Norwegian Red Cross report said.

State actors, development groups and climate groups need to work together and make it easier for conflict-affected countries and communities to access financing for climate projects, as well as help people currently displaced or at risk of being displaced in conflict affected areas.

Rising temperatures, weather changes

The combination of climate change effects such as water scarcity, declining air quality and intense rainfall, combined with armed conflict and instability in the region are causing material damage to buildings but also weaking economies.

Syria, for example, has suffered from deforestation and a loss of trees, while Iraq suffers from poor air quality, both of which are exacerbated by armed conflict, the report said.

In north-west Syria, more than 500,000 olive trees have been destroyed as a direct result of the ongoing conflict, partly from the deliberate burning of forests by armed groups, but also by local populations reliant on charcoal as an alternative to more expensive fuel sources.

Such actions can deprive people of their livelihoods, dramatically reduce already scarce vegetation, increase soil erosion and desertification, and destroy biodiversity, the report said.

“As woodlands and forests perform vital ecosystem services, such as regulating the water cycle and local climate, their loss can have a direct impact on the viability of land for human use,” it continued.

Pollution problems

Armed conflict is also generating and exacerbating pollution, the report said.

Over the past two decades, there have been instances in which the deliberate degradation of the environment has seemingly been used as a method of warfare in the Near and Middle East. Natural resources such as water are often seen as a strategic asset during armed conflict.

When Iraq’s Mosul Dam was captured by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levan (ISIL) militants in 2014 after Kurdish forces retreated from the area, following a series of battles in the region, it was estimated that a collapse of the Mosul Dam would directly affect 500,000 people, with large-scale loss of life, loss of livelihoods and displacement, because it could release a 20 metres (66 ft) wave of water if it was destroyed, threatening towns and cities downstream.

Even without the prospect of direct destruction due to armed conflict, there are serious concerns about the stability of the Mosul Dam, from ISIL and Iraq’s ability to manage this risk has been impacted by the armed conflict.

In the Near and Middle East, industrial and petrochemical facilities have been targeted during fighting, which often pollutes farmland as well as surface- and groundwater with oil residues, combustion products and heavy metals. In March 2022, for example, Yemen's Houthis said they launched attacks on Saudi energy facilities while the Saudi-led coalition said oil giant Aramco's petroleum products distribution station in Jeddah was hit, causing a fire in two storage tanks but no casualties.

Such pollution can impact human health, including by causing respiratory diseases and cancer. While there is a lack of reliable statistics, since the early 1990s, physicians and communities in parts of Iraq have linked toxic exposures from armed conflict to cancers and congenital birth defects.

This has included exposure to sites and scrap contaminated by depleted uranium weapons, whose legacy has never been fully addressed, the report concluded.

Conflict-related damage affecting oil pipelines is also particularly common.

In Syria and Iraq, the loss of formalized oil production and refining capacity created cascading health and environmental consequences as communities seeking fuel and income turned to highly polluting artisanal oil production.

In some cases, settlements for internally displaced people have been established on or near these contaminated sites.

Damage to petrochemical installations can generate toxic hotspots, leaving communities with a legacy of toxic exposures or facing acute health risks during incidents. Fires and spills have also prevented displaced people from returning to their homes.

Changes to climate-related hazards

The report warned that the current challenges come as extreme weather events, such as heavy rains and floods, heatwaves, dust storms and droughts, are expected to become more frequent.

In addition to the increased flood risk associated with more intense rainfall, both drought and dust storms are of particular concern for the region. Evidence indicates that climate change could increase the occurrence of dust storms, with a steady increase in dust storms already observed in recent decades in Iraq, the ICRC report said.

“This new report underscores the urgent challenge for policy makers to tackle the region’s climate challenge head-on,” said Anne Bergh, Secretary General of the Norwegian Red Cross.

“Current climate finance distributions almost entirely exclude the most fragile and unstable places. It’s clear from a humanitarian perspective that this must change,” she added.

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