Drought and Climate Change: Lessons From the Middle East?

Drought and Climate Change: Lessons From the Middle East?

05 Oct 2022

Scientists predict that relatively wet places will get wetter, while relatively dry places in the subtropics will become drier

By Dr. Jenny Lawler and Dr. M. Rami Alfarra

Europe has faced record-breaking temperatures this past summer. In mid-July, we were shocked when London recorded hotter temperatures than Doha. A European capital, hotter than one of the hottest cities on the planet, in the middle of the summer? Unthinkable, surely.

And yet, it has been predicted that these kinds of extreme heat effects are set to become the norm within the next 15 years. The UK Climate Crisis Advisory group (CCAG) estimated that, even if all of the promised reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are realized,the risks of extreme weather, including fires, drought and flash floods, will keep increasing rapidly.

Drought in a region results from a lack of precipitation over an extended period (typically a season or more), leading to a shortage of water. This is among the key risks of climate change. Warmer temperatures associated with climate change enhance evaporation, which reduces surface water and dries out soil and vegetation. Climate change is also affecting the timing of water availability in different regions of the world through its predicted impact on rain- and snowfall amounts and periods.

Very hot temperatures and lack of water is a fact of life for some countries in the Middle East, with Qatar being on the list of the World Resources Institute’s most water-stressed countries in the world. However, mitigation strategies for both extreme heat and low water resources have been implemented in the region for many years, thus allowing, for example, the population growth that has been experienced in Qatar.

Record-breaking temperatures like the ones in the northern hemisphere this summer are exactly what we expect to see because of climate change. And the records are truly astounding: The northern hemisphere saw its hottest July on record, and the first seven months of 2022 were the hottest ever. Climate change is not the sole factor in a drought’s severity, but it makes up a major part of it.

Global Changes in Climate Patterns

Predictions of future changes in seasonal and annual precipitation in a certain location are still uncertain and subject to further research. Scientists, however, are confident that relatively wet places, such as the tropics and higher latitudes, will get wetter, while relatively dry places in the subtropics will become drier (IPCC, 2021). In some areas, feedback cycles can result in persistence of drought, where very dry soils and reduced plant cover absorb more solar radiation leading to changes in weather systems with less rainfall making already dry areas drier.

Europe, of course, is not alone in facing a record-breaking heatwave and drought this summer. In a vicious cycle, southwestern China (which depends on dams for up to 75% of its electricity generation needs), has had to offset the lost hydropower by increasing the use of coal-fired power plants, thus raising carbon emissions significantly, while upstream ports are no longer reachable by ship due to the receding levels in the Yangtze River, leading to massively increased truck transport. At the same time, Pakistan faces devastating floods, with rainfall nearly three times the 30-year nationwide average in some places, causing the deaths of more than 1290 people since the middle of June. Almost 12,500 people have been injured, and over 33 million people – more than 10 times the entire population of Qatar – have been affected, including over 6.4 million in dire need of humanitarian aid. Almost 634,000 displaced people are living in camps. Homes and livelihoods have been massively impacted, with almost 634,000 people living in emergency relief shelters.

While Britain had to declare a national emergency at 40oC – facing public transport disruptions, hosepipe bans and failure of heat-sensitive equipment - Qatar manages to function at temperatures of up to 50oC and intense humidity.

Efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate-driven changes in water availability have received increasing attention in recent years, but they are often highly controversial. While desalination is a fact of life in Qatar, there are major social and political barriers to implementation in areas such as California’s Huntington Beach. Treatment and re-use of sewage and industry wastewater is becoming routine in Middle East countries including Qatar.

Although there is quite good social acceptance of water reuse for drinking and agricultural purposes in Europe, only 0.16% of the treated wastewater generated per year in the UK is re-used. Treated water reuse in Qatar is often for landscaping irrigation and urban green island and shading initiatives – initiatives which significantly improve the quality of life of the residents. Comparing images of Hyde Park in London and Aspire Park in Qatar, one could be forgiven for mixing up which image comes from the desert and which comes from a latitude of 51o North.

Can Technology Help Us Manage Natural Resources?

So what can regions unprepared for drought such as in the northern hemisphere learn from our region, and how can QEERI help?

We need to really consider preserving our energy and water resources, by finding more efficient and effective ways to manage it when it is scarce or even when excessively available. At QEERI, we advance the science and technology of water treatment at temperature extremes in a way that is not achievable in other parts of the world.

Our scientists examine the implementation of polishing systems such as Advanced Oxidation Processes, in partnership with Ashghal (Qatar Public Works Authority), to ensure that treated wastewater can be safely reused. This involves application of ozone, hydrogen peroxide and ultraviolet light safely and effectively to destroy micropollutants that could be harmful for humans or the environment. We develop novel [1] materials such as water filtration cartridge systems to clean water at the point of use, using low energy, low cost technologies – which can be powered even by using hand pumps, suitable for deployment in drought stricken regions and in power cuts – which can occur during drought and of course floods, where treated clean water is not always easily available. We research ways to protect desalination plants from disasters such as oil spills and algal bloom, by innovating novel materials and hybrid processes. We also protect the environment from desalination systems – by innovating lower energy [2], [3], less chemical reliant systems to produce fresh water from the sea, thus reducing the burden on the precious marine environment.

It is clear that we need to adapt to these extremes, be it temperature, drought or flood. Global efforts will need to focus on how to “change the way we build buildings, the way we operate and look at some of our infrastructure in the light of what seems to be an increasing frequency of these kinds of events," according to Kit Malthouse, UK MP speaking on BBC radio.

Dr. Jenny Lawler is a Senior Research Director at QEERI, where Dr. M. Rami Alfarra is a Principal Scientist