The Persian Gulf states are among the most vulnerable on earth to the effects of climate change, which makes environmental cooperation necessary for their survival. Located in one of the hottest and driest parts of the planet, the region is vulnerable to extreme heat waves, dust storms, and water scarcity. All of these will increase in frequency and severity with further climate change. Protecting the natural environment of the region is not just an ecological concern, but a security one as well. Unmitigated climate change could spur conflict over limited resources and produce waves of migrants. While the future may seem bleak, environmental cooperation also presents a unique opportunity for improving the relationship between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and Iran. Successes from cooperation on essential environmental issues could be the start of a more general rapprochement.
Pressing environmental concerns
The GCC — consisting of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabi, and the UAE — and Iran all experience the detrimental trans-boundary effects of freshwater scarcity, rising temperatures, and air pollution. In countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, government policies, including water subsidies and water-intensive agricultural planning, have worsened water shortages in an already dry climate. Qatar ranks as the world’s most water-insecure country, while Iran ranks fourth. All six GCC countries are in the top 20 most water-scarce nations on earth.
Moreover, the region will suffer extreme heat for more days of the year as temperatures in some areas are expected to reach daytime highs of 50°C (122°F) by the end of the century. These warming trends will exacerbate water scarcity and food insecurity by prolonging droughts. Air pollution is yet another concern in the region, with approximately one out of every 10 deaths connected to air pollution. While air pollution is largely due to human activities (often largely from rapid industrial development), natural pollutants, such as dust, are also a significant cause. (The distinction between man-made and natural pollution is often blurry because the former exarcebates the latter.) Dust storms, which will only increase, are particularly common in Saudi Arabia and Iran and cause reduced visibility, increased traffic, and a higher incidence of respiratory illnesses.
Desalination in the Persian Gulf
Desalination, or the process of removing salt from seawater to create freshwater, is a very common practice among the Gulf states, which produce about 50% of the world’s desalinated water. In recent years, Iran has also deployed more desalination plants as a reaction to acute water scarcity. Because the region cannot satisfy its demand for freshwater by other means, desalination has become the main method of producing potable water. The UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar all rely on desalination for more than 90% of their water supply. The dependence of GCC states on desalination leaves them vulnerable to water shortages. Most GCC states have only a few days’ worth of drinking water stored at any given time due to high demand for water coupled with low levels of naturally occurring ground water and infrequent rainfall. Demand for water is currently outpacing the supply available via desalination, resulting in a dearth of water reserves in case of emergencies. If a natural disaster, an oil spill, or even a targeted military attack were to interrupt the functioning of a desalination plant, hundred of thousands of people could be left without freshwater. The consequences of such dependence were seen in 1997 when the emirate of Sharjah in the UAE was left without water for a full day after a fuel spill contaminated a plant. Over the last two decades, as investment by GCC states in desalination has increased, so has their risk of dependence on it.
Beyond security concerns, the current rate of desalination is not sustainable. Desalination creates brine, which increases the salinity of the Gulf when it is discarded by being pumping back into the ocean. Since the Gulf is shallow and mostly enclosed, with only a small opening at the Strait of Hormuz, the concentrated salinity becomes trapped. Furthermore, because water in the Gulf is only replaced every eight to nine years, this brine buildup adds a significant ecological risk to a marine environment already threatened by oil pollution and increasing temperatures. Moreover, rapid brine buildup calls into question whether desalination can remain economically viable and technically realizable. As the Gulf becomes saltier, more energy is needed to create freshwater. Water in the Gulf may even reach “peak salt,” at which desalination becomes unfeasible.
Desalination is a prime example of why regional cooperation is necessary. The consequences of brine disposal impact every Gulf nation. Furthermore, water pollution and toxic algae have presented further obstacles to desalination, increasing the amount of energy, usually fossil fuels, necessary to create freshwater. All of the Gulf littoral states are responsible for polluted run-off from cities, including sewage dumping from Kuwait, Saudi Arabi, Qatar, and Iran. Algae blooms, often the result of human activity, have also disrupted desalination efforts, including at the UAE’s Fujairah plant. The toxic algal blooms can clog filters while causing “taste and odour problems” in the desalinated water.
Limiting pollution, managing scarce resources, and developing more sustainable desalination practices will require cooperative water resource governance between the GCC states and Iran. For example, Gulf littoral states can develop joint frameworks to address such issues as planning new desalination sites, developing more sustainable desalination technologies, and removing pollution. As one expert notes, successful cooperation will depend on “decentralized policies, non-hierarchical decision-making, and the involvement of both public and private actors.” There are already structures in place to promote international environmental cooperation in the region, and the high stakes of water security may lead Gulf littoral states to build upon them further.
Current and future cooperation
In the case of the GCC and Iran, some environmental cooperation exists, mostly in the form of the Regional Organization for the Protection of the Marine Environment (ROPME). ROPME was established in 1978 under the Kuwait Action Plan (KAP) to protect the marine area shared by Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Under the KAP framework, participating nations are required to regulate sources of marine pollution and encouraged to pursue policy and scientific cooperation. While ROPME creates a basis for cooperation between these diverse nations, it will need to be expanded and improved in order to address the full range of environmental challenges. Some current weaknesses of ROPME include insufficient funding, inadequate exchange of information, incomplete compliance, and interruptions of ROPME programs due to conflict. For the participating states to reap the benefits of cooperation, they must look beyond geopolitical rivalries and dedicate adequate funds and personnel.
To address the full range of environmental challenges facing these nations, environmental cooperation should be expanded beyond marine ecological preservation. Comprehensive regional data sharing is one option. Establishing a mechanism for sharing environmental data regarding pollution, waterways, dust storms, and other environmental concerns between governments would aid policymaking, conservation work, public health initiatives, and scientific research. A regional cooperation organization, with a similar structure to that of ROPME, could serve as a forum for environmental collaboration, including information sharing and joint policymaking.
At present, however, in the highly securitized MENA, cross-border flows of information are restricted by security measures. In Iran, for example, researchers have been threatened by government officials. These officials, citing the risk of “sensitive findings” being divulged, force researchers to alter their presentations at international environmental conferences. This type of intimidation disincentivizes the collaboration needed to truly address the transnational nature of climate issues. For data sharing to be possible, governments in the region must first reverse counterproductive domestic policies of limiting the ability of researchers and NGOs to exchange data.
Political realities have long complicated environmental cooperation or data sharing. Yet, environmental cooperation can help prevent future resource conflicts (e.g. over fresh water) and serve as a foundation for improved relations overall. Environmental peacemaking is the idea that environmental cooperation can lead to more peaceful relations at a more general level through increased mutual understanding and trust, interdependence in areas such as scientific information sharing and coordinated environmental planning, and the creation of cooperative institutions.
One example of this phenomena is the Indus River Treaty, which brought together Pakistan and India to cooperate on environmental issues and water sharing in the Indus river basin. The treaty has survived for six decades and led to more bilateral talks on other issues, including the contested Siachen glacier. The Indus River Treaty demonstrates how mutually antagonistic countries can work together on environmental issues in a way that facilitates further cooperation on other matters.
Non-governmental organizations can also catalyze environmental diplomacy. This has been demonstrated by EcoPeace, an NGO that facilitates water cooperation between Jordan, Palestine, and Israel. The organization has been successful in influencing the Israeli government to stop environmentally detrimental border construction and to increase water supply to Gaza. Iran and the GCC can seek to emulate this multistakeholder model of environmental cooperation.
Environmental cooperation between states with political tensions is not only possible, but necessary. Not only is it essential to addressing the transboundary nature of climate change, but it can also encourage dialogue in other areas, foster bilateral and multilateral relations, and advance peacebuilding. Iran and the GCC states have long had their political differences, yet it is in their mutual interest to fight together against the existential threat posed by climate change.
Emma Bentley has been working as a research assistant for the Middle East Institute's Iran Program since August 2020. She is in her second year at the Elliott School of Foreign Affairs at George Washington University, majoring in International Affairs and minoring in Arabic Studies and Political Science. Her primary areas of interest include Iranian-Arab affairs and US-Iran relations.
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