by Austin Bodetti
Climate change threatens all the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, but rising sea levels have endangered one in particular: Bahrain. As a small island country, Bahrain remains just as vulnerable to the perils of coastal erosion, soil contamination, and other environmental issues tied to rising sea levels as the Comoros, Kiribati, and the Maldives. Though global warming is accelerating desertification and water scarcity across the Middle East, Bahrain must dedicate special attention to this dire challenge to ensure that the island country will survive the countless ecological crises of the twenty-first century.
Although the possibility of too much water may seem ironic for a kingdom covered in deserts, most Bahrainis consider climate change no laughing matter. Rising sea levels could submerge between 27 and 56 percent of Bahrain—already the smallest country in the Middle East—by 2100. The loss of that land would devastate the island country’s economy, its water supply, and the natural environment.
“Water is the first sector to be affected by changes in climate, leading to the intensification of the hydrological cycle in addition to having serious effects on the frequency and intensity of extreme events,” Waleed Zubari, a professor of water resource management at Arabian Gulf University, told LobeLog. “Rising sea levels, increased evaporation, unpredictable precipitation, and prolonged droughts are some of the manifestations of climate variability directly impacting the availability and quality of water.”
The entirety of Bahrain’s population lived within 60 miles of the coast in 2000, demonstrating the dangers of climate change for an island country popular for its many beaches.
“Changes in the frequency of extreme sea levels will adversely affect coastal communities by increasing the risk of flooding and erosion of beaches and cliffs,” Sabah al-Jenaid, an assistant professor of geoinformatics at Arabian Gulf University and a former Fulbright Scholar, told LobeLog. “Rising sea levels will also impact ecologically and economically valuable marine ecosystems.”
Bahraini officials understand the threat that global warming poses. Last October, they described Bahrain as “severely threatened” and requested $9.8 million of assistance from the Green Climate Fund, a program organized by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
“Bahrain already experiences high climatic variability, which is typical of arid regions,” Zubari says. “It is expected that climate change will directly increase this variability.”
In addition to the more obvious problem of coastal erosion, rising sea levels will likely contribute to water scarcity in Bahrain. A research paper presented at the Twelfth Gulf Water Conference in Bahrain in 2017 notes the dangers of seawater contaminating the aquifers on which many Bahrainis depend for their water. Bahrain’s overreliance on some aquifers his exacerbated this environmental issue.
By 2025, shortages of water may affect as many as 30 percent of Bahrainis. The World Resources Institute expects Bahrain to become one of the world’s seven most “water-stressed” countries by 2040, joined by neighbors Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates as well as Palestine.
“Increases in temperature would elevate water consumption in Bahrain, which is mainly met by desalination and supplemented by water extraction,” notes Zubari. “More desalination plants will have to be constructed to meet these needs, which would place an economic burden on the water authorities in Bahrain and increase the environmental problems associated with desalination.”
Water scarcity could undermine Bahrain’s responses to other environmental issues, such as food security. The Bahraini Works, Municipal Affairs, and Urban Planning Ministry has been trying to promote sustainable agriculture, but the island country’s limited water supply will hinder that effort.
“Rising sea levels will compound the inefficiency of the agricultural drainage system,” observes Zubari, adding that much of Bahrain’s already-scarce farmland could become submerged.
In an attempt to preempt rising sea levels while expanding opportunities for real estate brokers, Bahrain has followed the historical example of pioneers such as China, the Netherlands, and the fellow island country of Singapore by turning to land reclamation. Bahrain’s landmass grew by an eighth from 1987 to 2013. This initiative mirrors similar developments in the nearby cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, where land reclamation has facilitated economic growth. Even so, environmentalists have taken to Twitter to criticize the Bahraini project, whose ability to counteract rising sea levels remains in doubt.
“Because of the continued development and use of Bahrain’s coastal zone, it will be somewhat difficult to identify measures for concrete adaptation at the current stage,” says al-Jenaid. “The best solution is to outline a general framework for a national response to rising sea levels.”
If Bahrain wants to find more successful models for dealing with global warming, it can look to Indonesia, another Muslim-majority island country, and Oman, Bahrain’s neighbor in the Gulf. Indonesia has framed environmentalism as part of a wider Islamic obligation to care for nature. Oman, meanwhile, is combining an ambitious environmental policy with outreach to partners in the international community, even sponsoring an award for research on environmental protection through the UN. Either approach can work for Bahrain, which has already begun cooperating with the UN Environmental Program.
“In the face of climate change, there is not much that we can do to stop it, but we need to adapt to and alleviate its negative impacts,” says Zubari. “To prepare, we should establish an efficient water-management system that can supply adequate amounts of water uninterrupted with the required quality under the lowest financial, economic, social, and environmental costs on a long-term basis.”
Well-resourced Bahraini government agencies such as the Supreme Council for the Environment can lead the response to rising sea levels and climate change as a whole, partnering with Cleanup Bahrain and other Bahraini environmental organizations to ensure civil society’s involvement. Given the many ecological crises likely to confront the island country and its neighbors in the Gulf, Bahrain will need to implement a comprehensive environmental policy in preparation for the volatile decades to come.
“Every drop of water saved will not only help Bahrain adapt to climate change but also result in many financial, economic, environmental, and social benefits for the country,” concludes Zubari.
Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda, and his research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.