Located on the dividing line between the Mediterranean climate in the north and the desert in the south, Gaza was first settled as a seaside oasis. It was built to take advantage of the coastal underground aquifer as well as the wadi Gaza, in which several streams flowed through the Negev desert. It benefited from fertile soils, access to the Mediterranean and excellent trade links which made it a strategic and economic hub.
However, by the 19th century, Gaza’s importance declined, as it was eclipsed by the ports of Jaffa and Haifa, while the creation of Israel in 1948 disconnected it from the rest of historic Palestine. Today, the Gaza Strip is not only economically devastated, but also considered “unlivable” by the United Nations, in large part due to repeated Israeli military assaults and a debilitating 13-year siege imposed by Israel.
Gaza’s limited freshwater resources are being pumped at an unsustainable rate, and 95 percent of its groundwater is considered unsafe for drinking due to contamination from sewage and seawater. In addition, its agricultural land , steadily shrinking due to Israeli military encroachment, are increasingly insufficient to feed its rapidly growing population.
Climate change is expected to compound these challenges by making rainfall even more erratic and unpredictable, further weakening the depleted and contaminated coastal aquifer upon which life in the strip depends. It is also expected to increase the temperature and evaporation of water, reducing agricultural productivity and further exacerbating food insecurity.
While the situation in Gaza may seem exceptional, it is the canary in the coal mine for the environmental and humanitarian catastrophe that the entire Eastern Mediterranean region will face, if urgent climate action is not taken.
A region in difficulty faced with a changing climate
As the precarious situation in Gaza is dramatically intensified by the blockade and regular Israeli attacks, the rest of the Levant – including the occupied Palestinian territories, Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan – is also grappling with these environmental challenges. .
Eminent geographer Tony Allan pointed out that the region between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River was already “short” of water and food self-sufficiency around 50 years ago. If we look at the region’s food imports, we can see why he did this. Even in Israel, which is often hailed as a pioneer of agricultural technology, more than half of the calories consumed are imported.
The Levant is struggling with scarce and overexploited water supplies, especially in parts of Syria and Jordan. The region is no stranger to periods of drought and has historically experienced a contraction of agricultural and pastoral lands to the south and east during these periods – a pattern that has shaped its culture and history. But the intense droughts and desertification expected due to climate change could be much worse.
Global climate change is generally expected to result in wetter conditions in many places around the world. But due to the unique geography of the Eastern Mediterranean, the Levant, Turkey, Egypt and the island of Cyprus are likely to experience the opposite. Climate models suggest that climate change will cause less precipitation and longer droughts in the region, with less groundwater available to help fill dry spells.
The consequences of these changes cannot be overstated. The current droughts in the eastern Mediterranean are already severe. According to NASA research, the drought period between 1998 and 2012 was 50% drier than the driest period of the past five centuries and 10-20% drier than the worst drought since the 12th century.
Some scholars have argued that this drought contributed to the uprising in Syria in 2011, which ultimately led to the Syrian civil war, although the role it played remains a subject of academic debate. What is clear, however, is that climate change will bring cascading socio-economic and political challenges.
Rising temperatures and declining water supplies are expected to increase food insecurity and job fragility, inevitably leading to migration. These impacts will be felt most severely in areas experiencing conflict, displacement, military occupation, limited natural resources and rapid population growth.
One of the hot spots in the Levant where several of these factors intersect is the Jordan Valley. In an upcoming Chatham House article, Glada Lahn and I concluded that climate change is unlikely to lead directly to conflict around the Jordan Valley, but will exacerbate existing social tensions and competition for the resources. While adaptation on the Jordanian side is a matter of political coordination and financial resources, in the West Bank climate action is constrained by the Israeli occupation.
Collective action needed
In the past, the Levant depended on food exports from Egypt during times of drought. For centuries Egypt served as a shock absorber, providing grain surpluses when the Levant was hit by famine. This was only possible thanks to the independence of Egyptian food production from the Mediterranean climate and its use of the Nile, which is fed by the East African monsoons.
In fact, the Eastern Mediterranean’s dependence on two completely independent climate systems for food supply has ensured the prosperity of various regional empires throughout history.
But this is no longer the case. Egypt today is nobody’s bread basket, having become the world’s largest importer of wheat. The construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s reduced the fertility of its soils, while the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is expected to further decrease food production. Depending on the filling rate of the dam reservoir, up to two-thirds of Egypt’s agricultural land could be lost.
To put this in perspective, the last time Egypt and the Levant faced water and food shortages simultaneously was a millennium ago. At the time, a series of droughts spanning more than a century resulted in a famine every five years on average. This dark period in the region’s history includes a seven-year drought known as the Great Calamity (1065-1072), which resulted in massive deaths, an unprecedented economic crisis, the destruction of the town of Fustat and even cannibalism.
Globalized trade has dramatically reduced the chances of such famines occurring today, and the growing global momentum for climate action raises hopes that climate change in the region can be managed. But the race to mitigate climate change is incredibly tight, and the region urgently needs to do more to adapt to the changes already underway. Conflicts currently prevent meaningful collaboration on this issue, but governments in the region must realize that it is in their common interest to take collective action. After all, what pollutes and damages natural resources in one area will soon affect everyone around.
Gaza’s high sensitivity to changes in its environment is a harbinger for the rest of the region of the looming risks of climate change. The region will only survive if this early warning is recognized and appropriate action is taken.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.