Brit-Yank journalist & environment consultant.
Fellow @ Center for Climate & Security, Reporting @NatGeo, @NYT, @Newsweek, @bbc etc


Nov 14, 2016

“You Are Asking About Pollution?”: One Journalist’s Perspective on the Mid East’s Environmental Crisis

It was some point in May last year, shortly after ISIS surged into the city of Ramadi, and I was working on a story about Iraq’s fast-disappearing Mesopotamian Marshes. Keen to fact-check a few statistics with the Ministry of Water Resources and to hear the government line on the wetlands’ struggles, I dialed its Baghdad offices. After being passed from official to official like a hot potato, a young employee, Hussein, finally gave it to me straight. “No, no, we don’t have this sort of information,” he said, clearly impatient to get off the phone. “There are much more important things in Iraq right now.”

Several months later, while traveling across Sudan, I encountered a similarly dismissive tack from a lady at the country’s Ministry of Irrigation: “You’re asking about pollution in the Nile? This is not our responsibility.” With a curt goodbye, she walked away.

Reporting in the Middle East brings with it an array of challenges, but for those of us covering the region’s fearsome environmental woes, the failure of relevant ministries to even pay lip service to many of the problems they’re charged with tackling has added a measure of extreme difficulty. Statistics on everything from temperature to water quality and desertification can be nightmarishly hard to come by (if they exist at all), complicating efforts to accurately pin down the gravity of climate changes.

Such is Egypt’s lack of data on wave direction and height, some of the indices used to gauge sea-level rise, for example, that authorities in Cairo are reputed to use readings from an Israeli scientific station, several hundred miles along the Mediterranean coast from the Nile Delta. How, one wonders, can authorities hope to safeguard this low-lying and densely populated expanse when the available information is so meager?

Much of this failure to collect adequate data can be attributed to chronic government underfunding, exacerbated in some instances by conflict and low oil prices, which has deprived many responsible agencies of the tools and cash to conduct regular studies.

The Iraqi government has slashed many of its ministerial budgets as it devotes its depleted energy revenues toward fighting ISIS. In Lebanon, international donors who’d previously financed everything from agricultural programs to dam construction have redirected chunks of their spending to the Syrian refugee crisis.

But the problems run much deeper than that. The environment is widely considered a “soft topic,” civil servants in several Arab capitals have told me. Environmental agencies and officers are often saddled with secondary status within government and face a struggle to make their voices heard.

Some public sector workers have supposedly come to see these impotent roles almost as punishment postings – so much so that an Egyptian diplomat, who supposedly drunkenly disgraced himself at a European embassy, was rumored to have been banished to the environment ministry last year. When it comes to issues that are even tangentially related to national security, like water, food, or energy resources, environmental officials struggle to even get a hearing to present their case.

There are, of course, still a host of brilliant and dedicated environmental officials across the Middle East. But shackled by more powerful organs of state, their stands often amount to nothing.

Laila Iskander, Egypt’s environment minister in 2013-14, said she tried to combat the flood of pollutants that hundreds of factories along the Nile dump into the river during her tenure, but she was stymied by local governors, most of whom were drawn from the security services. After the country’s cement industry, in league with the Ministry of Industry, later went behind her back to import coal without first conducting environmental impact assessments, Iskander quit the cabinet. Her replacement hastily dropped the ministry’s objections.

Even when environmental officials do succeed in getting their initiatives off the ground, they sometimes accidentally or deliberately find themselves at odds with the objectives of other government departments. Recognizing the perils of the country’s fast growing population combined with the potential for dam construction in upstream Ethiopia to cut the Nile’s flow, Egypt’s Ministry of Water Resources recently launched a series of conservation campaigns intent on dissuading farmers from growing rice. But with the Ministry of Supply continuing to subsidize this highly water-intensive crop, their efforts have been more or less strangled at birth.

Issues as expansive as the environment usually spill into the affairs of multiple ministries; getting them to share their turf and coordinate better in pursuit of a common cause is a trick many bureaucracies – not just in the Middle East – have yet to master. Indeed with much of the region in turmoil, it’s understandable that authorities are swamped and inclined to deal only with what look to be the most pressing economic and social concerns on their doorstep.

But after four years of environmental reporting across the region, it’s clear to me that human and natural degradation of the landscape is contributing to broader instability. As Sudanese farmers see their yields crumble in unprecedented heat, they’re ditching their fields and migrating to already overwhelmed urban areas. Up the Nile, in Egypt’s Delta, their counterparts are threatening unrest if their water crisis – mostly caused by trash clogging irrigation canals – isn’t resolved.

There are a few strands of faint hope. Slowly but surely the region’s environmental lobby is growing and its adherents are increasingly willing to hold officials’ feet to the fire. Activists and experts working across even the world’s most intractable disputes can come together to great effect, as the Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian board of the NGO EcoPeace Middle East has shown in working on the Jordan River.

As well, a few environmentally sound practices appear to be being embraced by some of the most powerful actors in the region: the armed forces. Egypt’s military has converted many of its bases to solar power, and Lebanon’s army has hinted it will do the same. With the increasing awareness that shoddy agricultural conditions likely played a part in triggering Syria’s civil war, foreign and local media are beginning to take more of an interest in stories beyond bombs, bullets, and coups.

For some, there’s a feeling that it’s all too little too late. When a recent study suggested swathes of the Middle East might be uninhabitable by 2050 due to soaring summertime temperatures, the local social media response was best summed up by one long-suffering Iraqi on Twitter: “2050??! It’s 2016 and it already is uninhabitable!”

Published on the Wilson Center’s New Security Beat blog