The Foundation Of World Unrest

Climate Change and Drought Spreading, and Large Regions May Become Uninhabitable

Long-term drought in many countries is leading to the destabilization of vast regions of the earth.

The World Resources Institute has identified 33 countries that face extreme water stress.

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Ranking the World’s Most Water-Stressed Countries in 2040 | World Resources Institute | Andrew Maddocks, Robert Samuel Young, Paul Reig

Fourteen of the 33 likely most water stressed countries in 2040 are in the Middle East, including nine considered extremely highly stressed with a score of 5.0 out of 5.0: Bahrain, Kuwait, Palestine, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Lebanon. The region, already arguably the least water-secure in the world, draws heavily upon groundwater and desalinated sea water, and faces exceptional water-related challenges for the foreseeable future.

With regional violence and political turmoil commanding global attention, water may seem tangential. However, drought and water shortages in Syria likely contributed to the unrest that stoked the country’s 2011 civil war. Dwindling water resources and chronic mismanagement forced 1.5 million people, primarily farmers and herders, to lose their livelihoods and leave their land, move to urban areas, and magnify Syria’s general destabilization.

The problem extends to other countries. Water is a significant dimension of the decades-old conflict between Palestine and Israel. Saudi Arabia’s government said its people will depend entirely on grain imports by 2016, a change from decades of growing all they need, due to fear of water-resource depletion. The U.S. National Intelligence Council wrote that water problems will put key North African and Middle Eastern countries at greater risk of instability and state failure and distract them from foreign policy engagements with the U.S.

And the world’s largest economies aren’t protected:

While they will probably not face the extreme water stress blanketing the Middle East in 2040, global superpowers such as the United States, China and India face water risks of their own. High water stress in all three countries are projected to remain roughly constant through 2040. However, specific areas of each, such as the southwestern U.S. and China’s Ningxia province, could see water stress increase by up to 40 to 70 percent.

Can you imagine the wildfires in the southwest and California increasing by 50%? Will our local, regional, and federal governments take that as a starting point? Or are they simeply dreaming that things will ‘go back to normal’? The new normal is that there is no normal.

The recent flare-up of unrest in Iran is not just about the desire for a more relaxed society: it’s at the foundation all about water.

Warming, Water Crisis, Then Unrest: How Iran Fits an Alarming Pattern | Somini Sengupta

Iran is the latest example of a country where a water crisis, long in the making, has fed popular discontent. That is particularly true in small towns and cities in what is already one of the most parched regions of the world. Farms turned barren, lakes became dust bowls. Millions moved to provincial towns and cities, and joblessness led to mounting discontent among the young. Then came a crippling drought, lasting roughly 14 years.


Climate change is projected to make Iran hotter and drier. A former Iranian agriculture minister, Issa Kalantari, once famously said that water scarcity, if left unchecked, would make Iran so harsh that 50 million Iranians would leave the country altogether.

Iran, like many other countries, is pulling water from its aquifers more quickly than they can be replentished. And when there is less rain farming and industries that are most water-intensive increase the amount pumped up.

Sengupt points to Syria as cautionary tale:

For the leaders of water-stressed countries, the most sobering lesson comes from nearby Syria. Its drought, stretching from 2006 to 2009, prompted a mass migration from country to city and then unemployment among the young. Frustrations built up. And in 2011, street protests broke out, only to be crushed by the government of Bashar al-Assad. It piled on to long-simmering frustrations of Syrians under Mr. Assad’s authoritarian rule. A civil war erupted, reshaping the Middle East.

In the most extreme scenario, which is looking to be a near certainty based on global warming trends, large regions of the Earth — in particular the Persian Gulf region — become uninhabitable:

Study: Persian Gulf could experience deadly heat | MIT News

The study, published today in the journal Nature Climate Change, was carried out by Elfatih Eltahir, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT, and Jeremy Pal PhD ’01 at Loyola Marymount University. They conclude that conditions in the Persian Gulf region, including its shallow water and intense sun, make it “a specific regional hotspot where climate change, in absence of significant mitigation, is likely to severely impact human habitability in the future.”

Running high-resolution versions of standard climate models, Eltahir and Pal found that many major cities in the region could exceed a tipping point for human survival, even in shaded and well-ventilated spaces. Eltahir says this threshold “has, as far as we know … never been reported for any location on Earth.”


This limit was almost reached this summer [2015], at the end of an extreme, weeklong heat wave in the region: On July 31, the wet-bulb temperature in Bandahr Mashrahr, Iran, hit 34.6 C — just a fraction below the threshold, for an hour or less.

But the severe danger to human health and life occurs when such temperatures are sustained for several hours, Eltahir says — which the models show would occur several times in a 30-year period toward the end of the century under the business-as-usual scenario used as a benchmark by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The Persian Gulf region is especially vulnerable, the researchers say, because of a combination of low elevations, clear sky, water body that increases heat absorption, and the shallowness of the Persian Gulf itself, which produces high water temperatures that lead to strong evaporation and very high humidity.

We can predict with near certainty that large scale heat-related die-offs will increase in the region, and this, and the unrelenting drought, will lead to a surge in climate refugees leaving their homes, and at first moving to cities. Then, these mass migrations combined with drought lead to economic disruptions and growing unrest. This was the case in all the Arab Spring uprisings and the civil war in Syria.

The world is unprepared for hundreds of millions of ecological refugees.

Meanwhile, the governing party in the US claims climate change is a hoax, we have relaxed CO2 standards, and we’ve dropped the corporate tax rate when we should be raising it. We should be raising business taxes worldwide to underwrite a war against the ecological collapse that has already commenced and threatens to destroy our world.

Brace yourself, because it’s going to get much worse, and it will be a thousand years before it gets better, even if we do everything possible. In the meantime, here’s the forecast:

The unrest in [fill in the blank from the dozens of affected countries] continues this week, as temperatures rise to extremely dangerous levels and the long-standing drought worsens. Migrants driven from their dust bowl towns and inhabitants of waterless cities are being stopped at the border of [adjoining coutries] demanding refugee status. But [adjoining coutries] say they cannot accept additional refugees given their own precarious situation.

In some locales, the border patrol and army units of [adjoining coutries] have reportedly fired into mobs of refugees when the migrants have stormed border crossings at [list of border towns in adjoining countries]. Reports are that thousands have been killed or injured, but this does not seem to slow the arrival of additional migrants.

Originally published at

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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