Strategic Foresight Group Reports on the Environmental Cost of Middle East Conflicts

By GREEN PROPHET / Feb 2, 2009 / Green Prophet

Green Prophet had the opportunity to interview Gitanjali Bakshi, Research Analyst at the Strategic Foresight Group. The group has produced a report on the environmental impact of conflicts in the Middle East, which was presented at the Palais de Nations in Geneva this week.

Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Strategic Foresight Group is a political think tank based in Mumbai, India. On its inception in 2000, SFG worked on issues pertaining to the sub-continent but with time we have managed to branch out and gain credibility on a more global setting. We have released 3 reports so far on the ‘Cost of Conflict’ - focusing on conflict between India-Pakistan, Sri Lanka and now the Middle East.

These reports aim to measure the various costs incurred by nation states due to conflict. We measure these costs on several parameters - economic, military, socio-political and even environmental. We hope that these reports will help to highlight the detrimental effects of war and consequently push towards conflict resolution and a comprehensive peace process.

What are the activities of the Strategic Foresight Group and how did you get involved in the recent study, involving various governments.

Since our earlier reports were received with such success, the Arab League suggested that we work on a similar report that measures the cost of conflict in the Middle East. We received support from neutral instutions and governments of Switzerland, Turkey, Norway and Qatar.

What elements of conflict cause the most degradation to the environment?

The largest devastation caused to the environment in past Middle East conflicts has been during the Gulf War and the Iran-Iraq war. In the First Gulf War, 10 million barrels of oil were spilt at sea and almost 45 million in the desert. Kuwait suffered from severe landscape degradation with over 20% of tree cover lost.

Perhaps the most shocking effect was the amount of carbon emissions released into the atmosphere from the burning oil fields.

The First Gulf War led to an increase of 1.5% in worldwide carbon emissions. To put this number in perspective, in 2003, Saudi Arabi constituted 1.17% of the world’s carbon emissions! Egypt, Israel and Jordan constitute much less than this - between .5 and .07%.

The Iraqi landscape has been witness to environmental devastation caused by countless wars. In Iraq the marshlands shrunk from 15,000 sq km to a shocking 50 sq km, displacing 100-300,000 people who lived in the area. One can imagine the tremendous impact this had on the biodiversity in the region - including the extinction of certain sub-species of mammals and a threat to unique wetland bird species.

Other conflicts such as the 2003 Iraq war and the 2006 Lebanon war have caused immense damage through oil and water pollution.

Are there any ways in which conflict can be good for the environment?

It’s a good question, but in my estimation the costs are much greater than any benefits accrued from conflict - be it environmental, economic, sociopolitical or otherwise.

Any ideas how the environment in the Middle East can be used for peacemaking purposes?

Yes. Water! The Middle East is an extremely water scarce region and several countries such as Kuwait, Iraq, Israel and Egypt depend on other countries for a steady supply of freshwater. Water sharing projects can make the peace process more feasible or vice versa. Some of these projects have been mentioned in the report. They include: the Sinai Underground Project; the 1987 Peace pipeline from Turkey to Gulf Countries, which if enacted would be the longest international water pipeline; and the much debated Red-Dead Sea Canal, which could be used in electricity generation and solar power.

Now granted the environmental aspects of water sharing projects like the peace canal are contested but they will also help to alleviate current environmental problems such as over-pumping of underground/fossil water resources as well as prevent disputes that may arise from the lack of something as essential as water.

What do you think the biggest challenges will be for the future of the Middle East, environment-wise?

As I have mentioned, water will be one of the most prominent causes for disputes in the Middle East or one of the largest potentials for cooperation. Either way it will be a challenge.

The MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region is the most water-scarce region in the world. Twelve of the world’s 15 water-scarce countries are in MENA. ‘Water-scarce’ countries have an average of less than 1,000 cubic meters of renewable freshwater per person per year. A majority of the countries in the Middle East have freshwater resources that fall below 250 cubic meters! Moreover water does not have boundaries. It flows freely through countries and adequate allocation and distribution of this freshwater in an already politically tense region such as the Middle East is in many ways a challenge.

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Strategic Foresight Group - The Cost of Conflict in the Middle East

Environment Brief

A new report, Cost of Conflict in the Middle East, highlights the environmental damage incurred by the region as a result of constant war.

It is the first time in the last 60 years that a comprehensive assessment of costs of various conflicts in the region has been undertaken on 97 different parameters. The project was supported by the Governments of Norway and Switzerland, AK Party of Turkey and Qatar Foundation.

Covering the different conflicts from Israel-Palestine, to Iraq and Lebanon, the report outlines the stress on water resources, arable land, forests, and other means of sustenance. Below are some of the key conclusions from the report:

  • In the First Gulf War, 10 million barrels of oil were spilt at sea and almost 45 million in the desert. In the future, if this amount doubles, it would mean 100-120 million barrels of oil would be wasted – which would equal one day’s supply for the entire world.
  • In Kuwait, the First Gulf War caused severe landscape degradation as well, where an estimated 375,000 bunkers and trenches were hollowed into the ground and 20% of tree cover felled.
  • In Iraq the marshlands shrunk from 15,000 sq km to a shocking 50 sq km, displacing 100-300,000 people who lived in the area. There was also tremendous impact on the biodiversity in the region due to the loss of the marshlands, the loss of agricultural land, extinction of certain sub-species of mammals and a threat to unique wetland bird species.
  • Between the First Gulf War and the Hezbollah war in 2006, a total of 1,000 miles of coastline and beaches in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Syria have been destroyed due to oil slick, which has also polluted the coastlines of Greece, Turkey and Cyprus.
  • After the 2003 Iraq war over 300,000 tonnes of raw sewage are dumped into the Tigris everyday. 80% of Iraqi’s lack access to adequate sanitation, and today the majority of the population are facing rampant incidences of dysentery, cholera and typhoid.
  • The Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006 saw severe damage to the water networks where 45 main distribution units and 285 secondary units, 120 sewage disposal systems, 1 dam etc were destroyed. South Lebanon experienced the worst damage where agriculture constitutes 70% of all household income.
  • The report calculates that due to a large number of military bases the green cover in Israel has been reduced to a mere 13%. (Green Prophet would like to add that there is no other country over the last 100 years who has a net gain in the number of trees planted versus those harvested).
  • A future conflict in the Middle East could cause more carbon emissions than an industrialized country such as the UK currently produces in one year.
  • The region has a scarcity of water and several countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Israel have a dependency ration of above 50% and are highly dependant on their neighbors.

Climate Change Worrying

  • The report outlines the possible impact of climate change in the region which could further exacerbate the water stress leading to conflict. The rise in temperatures and in sea levels could result in the displacement of 2-4 million people in Egypt; water shortage in Syria by 2020; further sharing of water systems – all of which could lead to a fight over natural resources if there is no cooperation and collaboration between neighbors.
  • The waterways in the region, such as the Euphrates River System, the Jordan River, the West Bank Aquifers, and the Shatt Al Arab Waterways feed more than one country, and any damage to one could have a cascading effect on several nations.
  • The report by Strategic Foresight Group argues that a comprehensive peace agreement will make several past projects feasible such as the Sinai Underground Project; the 1987 Peace pipeline from Turkey to Gulf Countries, which if enacted would be the longest international water pipeline; and the much debated Red-Dead Sea Canal, which could be used in electricity generation and solar power.

For more details, please visit www.strategicforesight.com