Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment & Development magazine

Neither the End of Pandemics nor the Last of Wars

The world has faced massive crises in the last few years, starting with the Corona pandemic, which the World Health Organization declared weeks ago no longer constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, to the ongoing war in Ukraine. This caused major disruptions in supply chains, energy and food shortages, and an increase in prices, which also hampered environmental initiatives and investments. The Arab region was not spared the effects of these crises, with many countries also dealing with internal conflicts and unprecedented economic collapses. In this context, the fourteenth report of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED), its most recent in the "Arab Environment" series first launched in 2008, discusses the Impact of Pandemic and War on Arab Environment.

What is the impact of these global emergencies on environmental challenges in Arab countries? What lessons can be learned to ensure more environmental preparedness when facing future crises? The latest AFED report mainly attempts to answer these two questions. It focuses on the massive environmental consequences of recent crises on the Sustainable Development Goals, the energy transition, food security, water and finance, including financing for climate action. Previous AFED reports discussed how the region was lagging behind in certain aspects in terms of progress towards sustainable transformation, but also highlighted the important achievements that have been made, despite many countries facing the hardships of war and conflict. Now, in the midst of global disasters hitting the region, AFED found it necessary to assess how Arab countries were affected by them, and to propose evidence-based recommendations in order to prepare for the future, especially in the fields of food security, energy transition and climate action.

Previous challenges have put Arab countries in a very precarious position when facing the regional consequences of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. The region, for example, was already suffering from food insecurity due to rapid population growth, droughts intensified by climate change, and civil strife. This was exacerbated by a lack of self-sufficiency and heavy dependence on imports. Arab countries also suffer from a large historical deficit in water, with demand rates that exceed the current rates of water resource development. Water is even used as a weapon in some places, including Palestine, causing hardships and difficulty of direct access to potable water. In countries like Syria, conflicts and internal wars wiped out years of progress that could have been made towards eradicating poverty. Most Arab countries' spending on social protection, health and the sustainable development goals in general was among the lowest in the world, making the Arab population less prepared to face environmental challenges and achieve set goals.

This actually shows the region was already experiencing vast challenges, in terms of lack of environmental preparedness, before the global pandemic and the war in Ukraine hit the headlines, with effects that crossed all limits. While it is not possible to go back to the past to erase disasters, it is necessary to take advantage of mistakes and address the regional effects of recent crises, as a precondition for actively addressing sustainable development. It is true that the Corona pandemic and the war in Ukraine have caused an increase in poverty and hunger, which is an unfortunate consequence of the conflict, but this is not a new situation, as the region was already suffering from food insecurity. Reliance on food imports for vital products, including grains and vegetable oils, has made countries vulnerable in such emergency situations. In some cases, the rush to produce more food locally put even more pressure on fragile lands and outdated, inefficient irrigation systems. The pandemic was also a stark reminder of the importance of fresh water and sanitation services, especially since it was difficult to achieve these necessities in some Arab countries that suffer from water scarcity.

The war in Ukraine severely disrupted the global oil and gas market, causing prices to skyrocket. As for Arab oil-exporting countries, this was beneficial in terms of increasing their revenues. But while it may be tempting to view increased oil revenues as a positive outcome of these crises, one cannot take it as a safe comfort zone and plan for the future based on an ad hoc situation. The energy crisis caused by the Ukrainian war may accelerate global transition to renewable energies produced locally, much faster than expected, in order to reduce dependence on external sources. That is why AFED report recommends investing additional revenues from oil and gas to accelerate the regional energy transition, by enhancing efficiency, as well as embracing clean and renewable energy sources, and contributing to the advancement of other sustainable development goals, such as ending hunger and poverty. This recommendation should not be taken lightly, given that recent crises have generally kept the region away from investments in green economy. The Arab region is already suffering from a large gap in financing the sustainable development goals, which was estimated at more than $230 billion annually 5 years ago. AFED estimates that the financing gap has increased by up to 50 percent due to the effects of the Corona pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

The region should invest more in clean and renewable energy, including green hydrogen, and in water management and food production. Another necessary line of investment is research and development, which needs to be boosted in all of these areas. Despite the struggles and disputes, more regional cooperation remains inevitable for Arab countries, because this is an investment in political and social stability as well. The countries of the region should make the most, individually and collectively, of climate action financing funds, and focus on adaptation programs through the newly created Loss and Damage Fund. However, investing in the environment and greening the economy will not lead to positive results in regimes dominated by corruption, as is the case in many Arab countries. Hence the call for reforming the systems before trying to green them.

Let the recent crises serve as a wake-up call highlighting the urgent need to prepare for emergencies, because their wide-ranging consequences are only a small part of the expected impacts of climate change, when it reaches the point of no return.