Opinion| COP26: Time for action before we doom our children and unborn generations to extinction

Mohamed Khater Zaid
9 Min Read

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, is being held in Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom, as I write this article. It is the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the third meeting of the parties to the Paris Agreement. That means world leaders have discussed the climate crisis 26 times and what has been achieved is not even close enough to escape extinction!

That is right, extinction. And it is not going to be a quick one, like how dinosaurs got extinct. There has been mounting evidence that climate-driven crises are occurring at greater frequency and with greater intensity than ever before. Today, weather-related disasters occur nearly five times as often as 40 years ago. The number of people around the world requiring lifesaving humanitarian assistance reached an unprecedented 238 million in 2020.

In 2019, 34 million people globally were acutely food insecure due to climate extremes; weather-related hazards triggered some 24.9 million displacements in 140 countries. By 2015, climate extremes and weather-related hazards may lead to more than 200 million people in need of international humanitarian assistance. The unfolding climate emergency is adding an additional layer of stress to humanitarian organizations that are already stretched thinner than ever before.

Mohamed Khater Zaid

You may all remember the extremely high temperatures we all experienced in the Middle East this last summer. The Middle East is already the most water-stressed region on Earth and temperatures are rising twice as fast as the rest of the world. In addition to the humanitarian crises resulting from the intense conflicts in the various Arab countries, Climate-induced water shortages have already caused much suffering in countries already grabbling with years of conflicts such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq and others.

Climate change is already having major humanitarian consequences. In Syria, humanitarian needs multiply as a result of water scarcity due to lack of rainfall and low levels of water flow in the Euphrates River, where water scarcity is very severe. The reduced rate of water flow in the Euphrates is expected to exacerbate current levels of food insecurity which, together with the potential for current drought in the region, is likely to lead to, among other things, real public health risks at the local level.

The Euphrates runs through Iraq too. Water supplies have been halved in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which represent the primary water sources in Iraq. This is caused by climatic conditions and the fact that both rivers are subject to upstream water use and damming in other countries. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) projects an annual domestic supply gap for Gaza and the West Bank of approximately 79 and 92 million cubic metres (MCM), respectively, by 2030 unless supply and service options are expanded.

In Yemen, where the humanitarian situation in the country is already catastrophic, the climate challenges faced are daunting. Two out of three people are in need of some form of humanitarian assistance. According to the UN, if an area’s water supply drops below 1,700 m³ per person per year, the population faces water stress. In 2012, Yemenis had 140 m³ of water per person per year. As of 2015, that number had dropped to 86 m³. Yemen’s water scarcity has triggered a collapse in agriculture, a plunging economy, and a huge rise in cholera and malaria, which compounded the country’s malnutrition crisis and humanitarian needs. In addition, floods put people at greater risk of contracting water-borne diseases, including cholera, acute watery diarrhoea and hepatitis, and lead to secondary or multiple displacements.


Fires also spread in the forests of many Arab countries such as Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. This past summer, fires in Tizi Ouzou, northern Algeria, killed dozens and injured hundreds, as fires spread in their forested areas. Therefore, the risks of climate change with the steady increase in global warming are real and action must be taken to deal with the acceleration of desertification and other forms of environmental degradation.

This past summer was particularly hot. We experienced here in Cairo unprecedented levels of high temperature that you may well remember. Elsewhere in North Africa too: In July, it was very hot in Morocco and Algeria, with temperatures reaching or even exceeding 48 °C in the majority of the southern regions of Algeria (the Sahara); 47.8 °C in Hassi Messaoud and Ouargla; and 48.5 °C in Adrar. In Tunisia, 2020 was the third hottest year since 1950, after 2016 and 2014, with an average temperature of 20.2 °C and a positive anomaly of 0.9 °C. In Morocco, tornadoes, which have been observed in recent years, continued to be reported, although with no known damage.

Climate mitigation is the best form of investment in disaster risk reduction. Major and urgent political efforts are critical to help avert the most disastrous consequences on people and the environment. At the same time, climate action must be inclusive. The most vulnerable and marginalized groups must be prioritized in adaptation, resilience building, disaster risk reduction, and emergency preparedness and response. All Governments need to scale up their climate-mitigation ambitions while supporting climate adaptation to limit the humanitarian consequences of climate change.

Keeping the global temperature rise below 1.5°C is a humanitarian imperative. Without drastic efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the humanitarian impacts of climate change will be far worse in the decades to come. It is time to agree on a path forward to prevent the worst impacts of climate change for people everywhere.

Last week, UNICEF released a new analysis that found that only 34 per cent of national climate policies address the needs and priorities of children. Ahead of COP26, UNICEF examined the updated Nationally Determined Contributions and found that of the 103 country plans, only 35 of them — or about onethird — are child-sensitive. Only one in five reference child rights or intergenerational justice and equity in a meaningful way and only 12 per cent report that children participated in the development of the plan.

 We are parents to a young child and expecting another. I cannot but think of what future is laid ahead of them. My three-year-old’s, Adam, first-years have been characterized by COVID-19 lockdowns and subsequent measures. The world is no longer the one we know. My unborn child, who has contributed absolutely nothing to the climate change and its impact we already are suffering from, is likely to be deprived of much of the warmth and stimulation older generations enjoyed. Today, the memory of a world with no social distancing, when an entire village gave babies abundant love and opportunities to thrive, feels so bygone.

The UN has repeatedly called for urgent measures to be taken by all to face climate change and embrace adaptation measures because when the ship sinks, no one will be spared. We cannot doom our children and unborn generations to extinction. We simply cannot.

Mohamed Khater Zaid is the Head of OCHA Regional Office for Middle East and North Africa in Egypt 

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