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The Unique Burden of Covering Climate Change in the Middle East

Some of climate change’s earliest effects have desolated areas of the Middle East and destabilized regional governments. For local journalists to cover the problem, that requires finesse in navigating the tightly controlled press.

By Mark Schapiro


A herd of camels drinking a pool of polluted agricultural run-off in an otherwise dry riverbed near Jericho in the West Bank. (Photo: David Silverman/Getty Images)

“We must be elegant.” This is how a Jordanian journalist describes how she and her colleagues are learning to report on the environment in the Middle East. That elegance — a capacity for finesse — is a requirement to do such reporting: In many countries here, a media largely controlled by royal governments and oligarchs is struggling to reckon with the impacts of industrial development often conducted without significant oversight by the government or by independent watchdogs. Every country has a term for “the influentials,” as I heard them referred to in Jordan — the political and economic figures whose power is tied to rulers or petro-princes who have been able to operate for many years with impunity.

That is, slowly, starting to change as environmental degradations accumulate. A growing cadre of journalists is pursing assertive reporting on the deterioration that they see and experience daily, and which represents, for many of them, a more acute threat than the battles over radical Islam that dominate American coverage of the region. The limits of impunity are being tested by conditions you can see and smell — and by ever-increasing access to international scientific source material.

European powers sketched the national borders here almost a hundred years ago to facilitate Western access to oil. Now the region is at the frontline of disruptions caused by oil’s collateral atmospheric damage, a sort of focal point for the Anthropocene — this era in which humans have become the primary influence on the planet’s ecological conditions. According to a recent paper in Nature Climate Change, the Middle East is where the convergence of rising temperatures and intensifying drought are accelerating quicker than almost anywhere on Earth. One visceral example of the consequences: A significant contributing factor to the conflict in Syria, many scientists have suggested, was a five-year drought that exacerbated already tense relations between those close to the Assad regime and those excluded from its dispensing of favors and resources.

The struggle with violent fundamentalists hangs over every country in the region to varying degrees, for secular and religious Muslims alike, but what’s at least equally if not more potent on a daily basis is the threat of environmental degradation and the predations of climate change.

There is perhaps no better way to glimpse how the environmental tensions are playing out than by spending time with the journalists who are struggling to keep pace with them. Recently, I went to Amman, Jordan, to conduct a one-week master’s workshop in investigative environmental reporting at the invitation of the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism and ended up learning as much from them as, I’d like to think, they did from me.

Over the past decade, ARIJ, a non-profit based in Amman, has been a galvanizing force in bringing methodologies and principles of investigative reporting to the Arab world, offering workshops, advice, and, in some cases, financial support to journalists in nine Arab countries. Most recently, ARIJ organized the Middle East contribution to the Panama Papers investigation, revealing the names of more than a hundred powerful Jordanian and Lebanese financial and political figures who had stashed funds or companies in offshore tax havens.

The Arab world hasn’t had an abundance of role models like Seymour Hersh or Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to look to for guidance and inspiration. ARIJ’s founder and director, Rana Sabbagh, a former correspondent with Reuters and the Times of London, is hoping to fill that gap with a new generation of post-Arab Spring journalists.

The 14 participants in the ARIJ program hailed from Egypt, Tunisia, Palestine, Bahrain, and Jordan, most of them working for publications, radio, or television in their home countries. Some were attending at political risk. One journalist from Syria was unable to attend after the government in Turkey, where he and his family fled following his home country’s civil war, refused to guarantee his ability to return.

About 15 minutes along a highway at 10:00 at night, in a taxi just after arriving in Jordan, I was jarred out of jet-lag by the exit sign for a turnoff, in Arabic and English: ″Iraqi border″ and, under that, ″Syrian border.″ A two-hour drive to the northeast, Iraq was still seething violently from the American invasion; due north was the brutal civil war in Syria, a conflict triggered partially by the impacts of the drought intensified by climate change, and from which as many as a thousand people a day flee into Jordan’s hastily assembled refugee camps. We sped past. About five minutes later, coming into focus through the darkness alongside the highway, a long rectangular building with huge block letters painted on it in strangely familiar blue and yellow, “IKEA.”

War to the left of me, furniture to the right, these two contrasting images seemed somehow emblematic of Jordan, sketched from the desert by the British in 1921 and promptly handed to a local monarch. Now it’s a relatively stable redoubt in the region with the backing of foreign aid from the United States and other Western governments. Of all the Gulf countries, Jordan has by far the closest relations with the U.S. and Europe, a Western educated elite, and a middle class with a taste for the accouterments — even while it’s consistently swept into the conflicts that rage across one of the planet’s most volatile regions.

A day later, at our opening session, the journalists introduced themselves, and it was striking to hear of the common interests they share with their distant peers in the U.S. The struggle with violent fundamentalists hangs over every country in the region to varying degrees, for secular and religious Muslims alike, but what’s at least equally if not more potent on a daily basis is the threat of environmental degradation and the predations of climate change. Like journalists everywhere, they want to understand it, explain it to their readers, point to those responsible, and help indicate how to stop it.

There’s the journalist in Jordan who’s been investigating the polluted river-water in Zarqa, the city’s third-largest city, where the water is so tainted from local industries that it’s unusable for farmers and residents who live in the environs. There’s the Bahraini studying the cocktail of chemical effluents from factories there, and the cluster of cancers in surrounding neighborhoods; and the Tunisian writing about the impact of accumulating piles of old batteries leaking cadmium, mercury, and other toxins in the capital of Tunis. Both the Egyptian and Tunisian journalists spoke, independently, of what turns out to be a common concern, the disappearance of native seed varieties in North Africa as global seed companies come to dominate those markets.

And let’s drop for a moment into Palestine, a place where our view is shaped almost entirely by reporting on violent clashes with Israel. Inside Palestine, meanwhile, journalists are attempting to carve out an independent space to report honestly and thoroughly on the environmental challenges they face.

“Professionalism is the antidote to working in these kinds of regimes.”

Firas Taweel, a TV and radio journalist with the AyjaL Radio Network, is probing into the health impact of diesel fuel pollution emitted by Palestine’s trucks and cars. Ruba Anabtawi Alloun, a writer for Afaq Environmental Magazine, affiliated with BirZeit University, has been investigating illegal logging by Palestinians and Israeli settlers inside one of the few protected forests of Palestine.

Then there was the reporting feat accomplished by Maha Al-Bidiny, an independent journalist based in Cairo, who set off on her own to reveal the impact of fracking’s expansion into rural Egypt, and the toxins released into the water supply of Egyptian farms. She had returned to the fields 19 times to convince the workers to allow a woman — her — to visit the sites that had been flooded with polluted waste water.

But while similarities in subject matter abound, and reporting strategies can be replicated, it’s much harder to practice journalism in the Middle East than in the U.S. Many of the journalists I met are operating in a journalistic context that had opened, briefly, in the wake of the Arab Spring, but then closed.

Tunisia remains the major exception. According to Meriam Khadraoui, an editor and reporter at the Tunisian Press Service, there has been a flowering of independent press since the revolution in 2011. Before then, she recalled, her journalism was forcibly limited to writing mostly “stupid stories about nothing.” Now she’s starting up a team to do in-depth, investigative projects at the agency.

The rest of the Arab-speaking world, though, remains one of the most dangerous places to pursue journalism, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Certainly the reporters who pass through ARIJ are trying to navigate through a thorny journalistic space, and to respond to a population that, according to almost every one of the journalists, is becoming more environmentally aware and concerned. That space contracts and at times expands. Independent newspapers in Egypt and Jordan, as well as pan-Arab publications based in Lebanon and London, are at the forefront of testing, with “elegance,” the boundaries of what is officially acceptable.

“Sometimes,” says Rana Sabbagh, “there are imaginary lines in your brain. You have to push the boundaries to see where they are…. The main thing is to keep pushing, and get the facts right. Professionalism is the antidote to working in these kinds of regimes.”

ARIJ also provides critical assistance, such as legal review of stories published under its purview; and, in some instances, assisting with publication in one of several Arab news outlets overseas, such as al Hayat, a pan-Arab daily based in Lebanon, and Alaraby Aljadeed, based in London, if the story is deemed too dangerous to publish at home.

As the Columbia Journalism Review recently expressed it, “a community of Arab investigative reporters exists even when it shouldn’t.” Environmental reporting is still relatively new to the region, and until now has been broadly limited to identifying sources of pollution but not necessarily the people responsible. What may lie ahead, however, is sobering: Journalists who have pursued corruption and human rights abuses, or who critique government policy, can find themselves under threat, imprisoned, or deported. In Egypt this June, one of the country’s top TV journalists was fired after an ally of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took over the station where she worked, and shortly thereafter deported back to her home country of Lebanon. Even relatively mild criticism of the government in Egypt can lead to dismissal, loss of a passport, or imprisonment. In other countries, the pressure can range from subtle — a discreet call to an editor — to more heavy-handed, as it’s been in Egypt and Bahrain, both of which have imprisoned numerous journalists. The boundaries for environmental journalism are still being tested, and the journalists I met in Jordan will no doubt be at the forefront of finding out where they are.

Recognition of climate change itself is not controversial in the Middle East: All countries in the region submitted greenhouse gas reduction goals following the Paris climate talks, even though Saudi Arabia has been a key player in trying to slow the implementation of global initiatives. Alterations in the weather and the physical landscape are being experienced in all the Arab countries, by rich and poor alike — though the ability to deal with the consequences varies hugely across the socio-economic spectrum. Everyone is living through enormously volatile changes in the natural order that are a prime symptom of climate change, and which scientists have come to call “the death of stationarity” — the end of predictable patterns of rainfall and temperature. As baselines crumble, the Middle East and North Africa, by virtue of their place on the map, are among the hardest hit. And as climate change keeps putting the squeeze on water and arable land, social tensions over resources will only increase — which is how climate reporting can get very tense very fast.

The World Bank estimates that, by 2025, as rainfall diminishes in already dry areas and groundwater supplies are depleted, 80 to 100 million people in the region will be exposed to severe water stress. Already, the polluted Zarqa River in Jordan, like so many other rivers in the region, is running with dramatically less water than usual, which means less natural filtering of environmental toxins. Numerous studies, including one by a team from the University of California–Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, forecast an increasingly violent struggle in an already tense region over water as these stresses increase. At current emission levels, according to the Max Planck Institute, a leading climate research center, temperatures are expected to soar to an average of 114 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050 and 122 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, along with more intense heat waves and less time between them, throughout the Middle East — and, to a lesser but still significant degree, in North Africa.

Today the River Jordan is more powerful as a metaphor of depletion than as an actual river.

Or consider native seeds. Those disappearing seeds are treasured not only for their central role in the evolution of North African agriculture — and thus North African culture — but also for their ability to respond to heat and drought conditions without the need for massive applications of chemical fertilizers and pesticides — a major downside to the new seeds entering the market.

Prompted by growing knowledge of climate change’s disruptive impacts, an umbrella group representing Islam’s major spiritual leaders and thinkers issued the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change last August, calling for action to reduce fossil fuels to limit global warming to, at most, 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius. This religiously based call for action was issued two months after the Pope’s historic climate encyclical, though it received nowhere near the press attention. The Declaration did provide an important affirmation, to journalists and their editors, as well as political figures, that climate change is real and must be addressed. It may have provided some protective cover to non-governmental organizations that are emerging in the region, including IndyAct, which has emerged as a civil-society lobbying force.

Safa’ Al Jayoussi, IndyAct’s head of climate and energy, told the workshop that divisions are emerging between countries in the region that produce fossil fuel, and those which don’t. For example, in Morocco, Tunisia, and Jordan, there has been increasing attention on the development of solar and other renewable energy sources. Of course, creating renewable energy initiatives does not necessarily signal freedom of the press: Morocco, for example, will be hosting the next round of climate negotiations, but its media is still highly constrained in its ability to cover the king, his financial interests, and his powerful and wealthy court.

On my final day in Jordan, Rana Sabbagh took me on a field trip about an hour outside Amman to a hilltop castle in Aljoun, built in the 12th century to fight off the Crusaders. Nearby is the recorded birthplace of the Biblical figure Elijah. Standing atop the parapets, looking down on the ochre-colored hills, just past the ridges in the distance, one can see the city of Hebron in the West Bank; not far from there, in the haze of sunset, were Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Here, within a hundred-mile radius, you have the birthplace of two, and the key spawning ground of a third, of our major religions — Judaism, Christianity, Islam, each of them saturated in the soil and sweat of these rolling hills and olive orchards along the banks of the River Jordan.

That river, a defining feature of the Middle East’s political troubles, is also central to our own iconography of salvation and deliverance — a landmark in the language of Martin Luther King and the black civil rights movement; a recurring metaphor of freedom and a lyrical reference point for American blues musicians. Now, over the course of its 156 miles, the river is a polluted trickle, the victim of water diversions and a shrinking water supply. Today the River Jordan is more powerful as a metaphor of depletion than as an actual river.

It’s the desire to clean up that trickle, both as metaphor and as river, that is connecting the journalists of the region to each other, and to the rest of us, to hold the abusers of our common landscape to account.