Climate Change Adds to Risks in North Africa

Imed Drine

The climate change threat

North Africa is going through a turbulent year. With much of the focus on political transition, there is a danger that attention to the threat posed by climate change to the region’s prosperity (and stability) will be missed. Furthermore, to design and implement effective responses to climate change, the region’s policy makers and their donor partners need a good understanding of the current and future effects of climate change. This is especially so in the case of water availability.

Improving that understanding is one of the objectives of a new UNU-WIDER project on ‘The Assessment of Climate Change on Economic Development Opportunities in North Africa: The Cases of Morocco and Tunisia’. A UNU-WIDER working paper, assesses the issues in detail, and this article summarises some of the project’s main themes (WP/32 Climate Change Compounding Risks in North Africa). 

MENA: a vulnerable region

The IPCC assessment report 2007 states that the MENA region is extremely vulnerable to climate variations. The severity of climate change impacts is related to the geographic and ecological particularity of the region. Indeed, the majority of countries in MENA region belong to the hydraulic poor regions located between the temperate zone of the northern hemisphere and the inter-tropical zone, characterized by scarcity and spatial and temporal rainfall variability. North Africa is no exception. Projections by the World Bank for northern Africa show that temperatures will increase by 2oC by 2030 (4oC by 2050). The sea will rise by 20-50 cm and rainfall precipitation will drop by 20 to 40 per cent by 2050. Historical data support these scenarios, as North Africa’s annual rainfall has declined since the early 20th century (and annual mean temperature has increased). Moreover, the frequency and severity of floods and heat waves, in addition to years of recurring drought, confirm that climate change has already begun to affect the region. In sum, the region faces multiple risks from climate change.

Urban risks

Consider first the urban impact. Coastal cities across the world are vulnerable to rising sea levels and increased flooding. North Africa’s rapid population growth and accompanying urbanization now make more people vulnerable, especially as the urban population is concentrated in coastal regions. A recent study led by the World Bank suggests that as result of climate changes, Alexandria, Casablanca, and Tunis will each face more than US$1 billion in economic damage over the next two decades. [1]

The risks associated with climate change are floods and storm surges, coastal erosion, and water scarcity, potentially resulting in large losses of life. Infrastructure damage will disrupt economies and repairs and construction of new infrastructure will add to pressures on already stretched resources. Given the economic and social importance of coastal areas in North Africa, urgent action is needed. Appropriate urban planning initiatives, institutional reforms and capacity building, as well as strengthening infrastructure are all necessary, and research must inform the choices to be made.

Water and agriculture risks

As one of the world’s most water-scarce regions with a high dependency on climate-sensitive agriculture, the economic and social conditions in North Africa are likely to deteriorate in the future. Higher temperatures in the region will increase evaporation and cause the loss of surface water. In addition, the quality of the aquifers and ground water levels have reached alarmingly low levels. Changes in weather extremes including floods and droughts are also projected to affect water quality. The sea level rise is projected to extend areas of salinization of ground water, resulting in a decrease in freshwater availability for humans and ecosystems in coastal areas, according to the IPCC.

By 2050 water availability per capita will fall by 50 per cent. Consequently, agricultural production is expected to diminish, according to UNDP, in the context of rising demand due to rapid population growth and urbanization. The high salt content in much of the available water will further complicate irrigation efforts, limiting the potential for additional development of irrigated agriculture in the region. In addition, the expansion of the Sahara Desert into farmlands limits the capacities of farmers in the region to develop their agricultural activities. The growing competition for water is expected to reduce the share of agriculture to 50 per cent, thereby limiting the capacity to feed the region’s own population. This threatens a food crisis.

Climate risks add to the existing problems in the region’s agricultural sector. The region needs to deal with inefficiency in food crop production and low productivity that result in particular from impractical farming methods, and weak training and education. Lack of access to credit, as well as misguided agricultural policies in the past, have resulted in declining farm output. The degradation of agriculture is likely to increase unemployment as farm workers constitute up to 30 per cent of the total labour force in the region. Gender inequalities are likely to increase because in many countries the share of women in the agriculture labour force is high. Harsher living conditions in rural areas, due to the paucity of agricultural and rural development, is likely to trigger more rural–urban migration—potentially massive and unmanageable—adding to the stress on social and economic life in the region’s already packed cities. A further deterioration in the living conditions of the poor will revive social tension and conflicts.

UNU-WIDER research project

Climate change and its impact on water resources and agriculture is one of the major problems facing Middle East and North Africa countries. The research effort in the UNU-WIDER MENA project aims to measure the impacts of climate change directly on agriculture and indirectly through its linkages with other sectors. It will also examine the impacts of alternative mitigation policies. To achieve these objectives, the project is developing an analytical framework that can be used by local researchers and government analysts to estimate the economic costs of climate change, and to identify policies that limit the damage from climate risk. First, we use historical climate and agricultural data to estimate the production losses associated with extreme weather events of different severities and frequencies. Second, an economy-wide model is used to measure the economic damage caused by climate change, including impacts on national and household incomes (we use a stochastic computable general equilibrium model). The framework will be used to estimate the effectiveness of policies in reducing climate risk, including irrigation, crop insurance, and drought-resistant seed varieties.


Coping with climate change will stretch the capacities of many of the region’s countries. It will add new challenges to the social agenda. The extremely fragile social and economic conditions, including unemployment and low growth, which contributed to the current wave of protests, and the overthrow of the autocratic regimes in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, highlight the need to keep in mind the interaction between economic change, social change and climate. The vulnerability of the MENA region must be reduced, and evidence-based research has a central role to play in creating better policies and investing in the right infrastructure and institutions.

Imed Drine is a UNU-WIDER Research Fellow, and the UNU-WIDER focal point for the project. The external project director is Wallace Tyner of Purdue University. Further information on the UNU-WIDER project ‘The Assessment of Climate Change on Economic Development Opportunities in North Africa: The Cases of Morocco and Tunisia’ can be found here:

[1] The study ‘Climate Change Adaptation and Natural Disasters Preparedness in the Coastal Cities of North Africa’ has been carried out between June 2009 and June 2011 by a consortium of French consulting companies.

WIDER Angle newsletter
September 2011
ISSN 1238-9544