A Saudi-led study puts climate change’s Middle East health impact in perspective

DUBAI: The Gulf region faces extreme climate and health repercussions from global warming, with some parts of Saudi Arabia among the most vulnerable to regional temperature increases, according to a new study whose release coincides with the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.

Fatal heat waves, increased atmospheric pollution, and previously unknown diseases could be among the deadly effects of rising temperatures are not controlled, according to the research, with the annual Hajj pilgrimage especially at risk, the report’s authors told Arab News.

Princess Noura Turki Al-Saud and Princess Mashael Saud Alshalan, co-founders of the Aeon Collective think tank, revealed the initial findings at a Saudi Arabian pavilion side event at the Glasgow summit.

Alshalan said the report, due to be published in full early next year in collaboration with the Community Jameel organization, would look at the implications of temperature increases from 1979 to date: “Heat stresses, the implications for Hajj, the potential for vector-borne diseases, as well as the implications of that kind of change on food, water, agriculture and more importantly on vulnerable groups and on women.

“We’ve already experienced change, amounting in the region to a 2.5-degree increase (over pre-industrial levels),” Alshalan said.

The Paris Agreement of 2016 is seeking to keep the increase to below 2 degrees, though there is still no international consensus on the precise final temperature target.

Previous assessments, notably the recent climate change report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, looked at the Arabian Peninsula as a “hexagon,” she said, without looking specifically at the localized repercussions of changing climate in the region.

Aeon has done detailed studies on three cities in Saudi Arabia — Makkah, Riyadh, and Dammam — that show an unrelenting increase in temperatures since 1979, a steady decrease in rainy days, as well as a rise in the number of “dangerous days” per year when high temperatures pose a serious threat to humans.

Al-Saud regards the recent initiatives by the government of Saudi Arabia — namely, the Saudi Green Initiative and the ambition to achieve “net-zero” carbon emissions by 2060 — as a reflection of the increasing concern among policymakers of the health implications of global warming for the Kingdom.


A Saudi man covers his face with a prayer mat during a sand storm in Jeddah. (AFP/File Photo)

“I think there is a realization and a commitment to improving the lives of Saudis in general and the global community,” she said. “I think the Kingdom sees itself as a responsible actor in the global arena and it is working pragmatically to address this issue.”

The most obvious effect of global warming for the Kingdom is the increasing occurrence of heat stress, which can be fatal for people forced to live and work outside in extreme temperatures.

The panel highlighted the fact that, for example, in Makkah, more days per year were approaching the level of 35-degree “wet-bulb temperature” that can be fatal for humans exposed to it for more than six hours, even with unlimited supplies of water.

Via video link, Elfatih Eltahir, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explained the repercussions of heat stress for the annual Hajj pilgrimage, when religious tourists to the Kingdom regularly pray and sleep in the open air. “The issue is becoming more challenging as the Hajj season moves into the summer months,” he said.

WBT levels of 35 degrees are unlikely to be reached before 2070, previous studies have found, but even below that level, the dangers to health are significantly increased, with infants and the elderly most vulnerable.


Muslim pilgrims gather on Mount Arafat, also known as Jabal Al-Rahma (Mount of Mercy) near Makkah. (AFP/File Photo)

Extreme temperature changes also bring a higher risk of vector-borne diseases — like dengue fever and other mosquito-transmitted illnesses — that have been largely absent from the Gulf region.

The example of Singapore was cited, where a rise in heat and humidity has led to a surge in the insect population and increased incidence of dengue and malaria.

Higher temperatures, caused by increased levels of CO2 and methane in the atmosphere, also cause atmospheric pollution and diseases associated with poor air quality, such as asthma and bronchitis, which are already significant threats to health, the panel heard.

Heat maps of the region developed by the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology showed increased temperatures across the Arabian Peninsula, with pockets of extreme heat in the northern Gulf and on the Red Sea coast.

KAUST is developing the “Virtual Red Sea” project, which aims to simulate changes in the Red Sea’s dynamic and its impacts on weather and eventually how it interacts with climate.


Motorists drive with low visibility on Dubai’s main thoroughfare Sheikh Zayed road, whic is engulfed in a seasonal sand and dust storm. (AFP/File Photo)

Higher temperatures are also putting pressure on water supplies in the region, where a big proportion of water is already produced via desalination processes, which themselves raise challenges of energy consumption and atmospheric pollution.

Food security and crop yields are also more vulnerable under higher temperatures.

According to Alshalan, the Kingdom’s desire to tackle climate change issues has been underlined by the Saudi Vision 2030 strategy to diversify the economy away from oil dependency, and by the Saudi and Middle East Green initiatives.

“The make-up of our economy and where we were in 2015 is completely different. The announcement of net-zero targets by 2060 is extremely significant,” she said.

Alshalan added: “The onus now is on Saudi Arabia to showcase and highlight leadership. The fact there is a Middle East Green Initiative shows we have a role of responsibility to be regional actors. Regarding the atmosphere, the aim to be a regional actor is also to be a global actor, by default. It doesn’t matter whether emissions originate in Saudi Arabia or China; they all mix in the atmosphere.”


Fans blow air mixed with water vapour to cool off Muslim pilgrims in Mina. (AFP/File Photo)

For her part, Al-Saud believes it is possible to meet the net-zero goals “well ahead” of 2060.

The framework of the Circular Carbon Economy for tackling climate change is a game-changer for the Kingdom, according to her.

“It’s a comprehensive approach to addressing our economic and climate challenges at the same time,” she said.

“We are not just thinking of 2030, nor of 2060, but of 2100 and beyond, because that is the future of our nation.”

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