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Middle East startups rise to challenges of climate change

With COP27 underway in Egypt, climate adaptation startups in the Middle East and North Africa work to create new platforms in the face of the urgent action required to combat climate change.
A woman takes a photo of a display at the Sharm el-Sheikh International Convention Center during the COP27 climate conference, Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, Nov. 15, 2022.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres opened the world’s largest annual climate conference this week with a dire warning that climate change is not just a problem for future generations.

“The deadly impacts of climate change are here and now,” Guterres said Nov. 13 during his opening speech of the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Guterres said that it is too late for the world to focus exclusively on climate mitigation strategies, or policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions to prevent future temperature increases. Rather, he said the world needs to devote half of its climate funding to adaptation strategies, which communities can adjust to.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) published its annual Adaptation Gap report days before the opening of COP27, which pointed out that one-third of climate financing currently goes to adaptation compared to two-thirds for mitigation. The report also said that by 2030 the world will need to spend $160 billion to $340 billion per year on climate adaptation policies, or roughly 5-10 times the $29 billion that governments earmarked for adaptation policies in 2020. The UNEP estimated that the figure would grow to $315 billion to $565 billion by 2050.

The adaptation gap is particularly acute in the Middle East, a water scarce region that is already struggling with food insecurity as increasingly volatile weather patterns wreak chaos on crop yields, said Moustafa Bayoumi, a research fellow focused on climate finance at the Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

“[The impacts of climate change] are not something in the future. They are happening right now. And they will continue to happen,” he told Al-Monitor. “We have to cope with that.”

COP27 may prove a launchpad in addressing the climate adaptation gap in the Middle East. But it will not be easy, requiring tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars in new investments in adaptation policies and technologies in the coming years, according to Bayoumi. But while the task remains daunting, new climate adaptation startups appear to be rising to the challenge, emerging in sectors like agriculture to make the region more resilient to the effects of climate change.

Filling the gap

A critical aspect to adapting to the impacts of climate change is understanding it, explained Walid Nasr, founder and CEO of Cairo-based agritech startup Zr3i. Zr3i, which is a transliteration of the Arabic word for "crop," is a mobile and web-based platform that provides farmers in Egypt with real-time access to satellite images of their farms and analytic data that can help farmers improve their crop yields.

The specific weather, wind and other data provides farmers with real-time advice on growing particular crops, Nasr said. He explained that a main focus of Zr3i’s platform is to prepare farmers for increasingly volatile weather cycles. The app firm sends out alerts to farmers regarding potentially devastating weather events before they might be reported elsewhere. Zr3i also offers data-based crop-insurance policies to cover farmers in the event of disaster.

Egyptian farmers are well aware that rising temperatures and chaotic weather patterns are rendering traditional farming techniques, deployed for generations, less effective, said Radwa El Amir, communications lead at Mozare3, an agriculture tech startup based in Cairo.

“Farming [in Egypt] is just not the same anymore [due to climate change]," she told Al-Monitor. Mozare3’s solution to help farmers adapt to the changes is to connect farmers with one another and give them access to cutting-edge farming research and techniques on a new online platform.

In the UAE, local startup Badia Farms has also been focusing on the production of food in an increasingly barren environment. In 2018, Badia Farms launched the country’s first vertical farm, which is an indoor, vertically-stacked farm where the firm grows vegetables using LED-lights, temperature controls and recycled water. The firm claims that its techniques use 90% less water than open-field growing.

Thanks to vertical farming, Kuwait, similarly, has recently begun to produce lettuce and other crops that were once thought impossible to grow in the arid country. In 2020, German firm &ever and Kuwaiti company Nox Management co-launched the country’s first indoor vertical farm, which can produce 550 kilograms (1,212 pounds) of salad, herbs and other greens per day, according to the company’s website.

Such innovation in farming techniques and technology will be critical in helping the region adapt to climate change.

“In the context of the MENA region, adaptation entails coping with less rainfall and higher temperatures,” said Marwa Daoudy, associate professor of international relations and Seif Ghobash Chair in Arab Studies at Georgetown University. She told Al-Monitor, “[That’s why] adaptation efforts have often focused on the water and agricultural sectors as these are directly affected by climate impacts.”

Egyptian leadership? 

Hosted in Egypt, COP27 provides Middle Eastern climate adaptation startups a chance to get more funding and attention. More broadly, climate change adaptation efforts also highlight a central theme of the conference — wealthier nations, the largest contributors to climate change, need to help developing countries cover the economic toll that climate change effects are already having.

Guterres said a “central litmus test” for COP27 would be whether nations provided a “clear and time-bound road map” on providing funding for “loss and damage” to nations that are experiencing the effects of climate change, such as with Pakistan's catastrophic flooding earlier this year.

Intense negotiations over such funding delayed the start to the conference. Now that the conference is underway, Egypt has a chance to take a lead role in helping the world address the climate adaptation gap.

Bayoumi said the “lion’s share” of the $6 billion annually allocated in the Middle East is dedicated to mitigation. He pointed to a recent UN report that estimated regional climate change funding needs could grow to over $460 billion by 2030. “That's a massive gap that needs to be filled,” Bayoumi added.

“[Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-] Sisi will most likely press richer nations to make good on their financial pledges,” Daoudy said.

At the same time, she explained that Egypt may be an imperfect vessel to lead regional change, as the country's ability to be a climate leader in the region may be undermined by its continued reliance on fossil fuels and the government’s harsh crackdown on human rights and political activists. “Sisi’s actions at home will determine the type of climate and global leader Egypt strives to be,” she concluded.

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