Citizen priorities on the environment and climate change in MENA

This piece is part of a four-part series published by the Middle East Institute in cooperation with Arab Barometer analyzing the results of the seventh wave of the Arab Barometer surveys.


The results of the seventh wave survey from Arab Barometer, a non-partisan research network that provides insight into Arab citizen views, shed light on regional perspectives on issues of climate change, water resources, and the environment. The survey, fielded between October 2021 and July 2022, included respondents from 12 countries across the Middle East and North Africa: Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Palestine, Sudan, and Tunisia.

The survey results regarding citizen priorities on issues of climate change, water, and the environment indicate that while citizens in the MENA region experience the effects of climate change on a day-to-day basis, when it comes to their concerns about these issues, they tend to focus on the micro level (e.g. immediate and local) vs. the macro level (i.e. long term and global). Concerns from citizens are largely centered on what affects them most directly, failing to recognize that by not addressing other, larger issues, the specific environmental outcome they are most concerned about can actually get worse. For example, prioritizing water issues as an environmental challenge while not doing the same for climate change demonstrates a lack of understanding on how climate change is a key driver of the current state of water resources in the region. Similarly, suggested actions by citizens that would benefit the environment are not primarily motivated by concerns for the environment but rather by social and economic reasons that are more personal in nature, such as aesthetic concerns associated with trash collection (waste management) and participating in recycling and reuse as a means to cut costs.

Considering this newly-realized perspective on how citizens are both experiencing and responding to the effects of climate change, here are five key takeaways gleaned from the survey results:

1. Water issues are viewed as the leading environmental challenge but climate change is among the lowest

Water scarcity is a universally binding challenge for countries in the MENA region, regardless of the disparities in accessibility to different sources of water. This view is reinforced by the results of the survey, where citizens from all surveyed countries indicated that water issues were their biggest environmental challenge, with citizen responses in agreement ranging from 32% in Lebanon up to 59% in Tunisia. MENA is considered the most water-stressed region in the world, with 12 MENA countries experiencing an extremely high baseline of water stress. While water is clearly at the forefront of citizen concerns, many fail to see how climate change influences the state of water resources in the region, and the potential that climate change has on making it worse. This could be a consequence of citizens dealing with multiple day-to-day crises, such as economic hardshipsinstability in governance, and human rights violations. Therefore, impacts to a much-needed resource like water may take precedence over policy issues associated with a threat like climate change, which in contrast may seem more nebulous to citizens confronting more immediate challenges.

2. The pollution of drinking water is important to downstream countries in major transboundary surface water systems

For respondents that identified water issues as the biggest environmental challenge, the pollution of drinking water was deemed the most important challenge pertaining to water in Egypt and Iraq (among 93% and 74% of respondents, respectively). Both Egypt and Iraq are riparians to the two largest surface water systems in MENA, the Nile River and the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers system. Egypt and Iraq also share a common transboundary condition; they are both at the tail end of their respective surface water systems. Most downstream nations of transboundary rivers traditionally receive the lowest level of water quality in a shared system. This is due to two main reasons: Exposure of the waterway to the elements introduces more pollutants the further a river travels, as does return flow to the river from multiple diversions and consumptive uses along its run, such as from farming or human uses. Both of these factors can introduce increased salinity and contaminants into the river. Consequently, water quality issues have plagued both Egypt and Iraq, causing elevated risks of water-borne illnesses for their residents (especially when coupled with inadequate access to clean and treated drinking water).

3. Waste management is important but in the context of trash collection

Following water issues, waste management ranked second among all countries polled (with the exception of Kuwait) as the biggest environmental challenge, with consensus as low as 16% in Tunisia and as high as 30% in Sudan. All countries indicated a higher rate of dissatisfaction than satisfaction with their trash collection services. Solid waste management continues to be an area of where MENA struggles, whether because of the amount of waste generated or the limitations in public services to manage waste sufficiently. With the exception of Oman, all of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries rank in the top 10 in the world with respect to solid waste generation per capita. Over the last couple of years, a number of MENA countries saw massive accumulations of trash in major cities as municipalities struggled to keep pace with the rate of waste being generated.

4. Governments should do more to address climate change but if not, keep doing the same

Respondents from all surveyed countries agreed that their national government should be doing more to address climate change; the highest citizen response came from the Maghreb region with 64% and 62% agreement from Tunisia and Algeria, respectively. As such it is clear that citizens from MENA recognize that their governments should do more to contribute towards mitigating against the climate crisis, particularly within their own respective countries. This push can be attributed to the various climate youth groups leading the way in terms of public engagement — groups like the Arab Youth Climate MovementMediterranean Youth Climate Network, and Libya Youth Council for Climate Change. However, even though citizens may want their governments to expand national efforts for a more climate-resilient future, if their governments are not able to do so (e.g. due to capacity and funding constraints), citizens would still be satisfied with the existing level of government engagement on climate change. Citizen responses for all surveyed countries supported that their national governments should be doing about the same when it came to addressing climate change as a second option if they cannot do more; this response was highest among citizens from the Levant region, where 39% of respondents in both Lebanon and Jordan agreed. But that public perspective may not exactly correlate with a country’s level of demonstrable climate action. For example, respondents from Egypt and Morocco shared this preference for more governmental climate action first and similar levels of climate action second. But according to the 2023 Climate Change Performance Index, Morocco rated high while Egypt rated medium when it came to their respective performance vis-à-vis climate change.

5. Recycling and reuse are primarily cost-saving measures and not for environmental protection

According to respondents, with the exception of Kuwait, cost savings and not environmental protection incentivized citizens to recycle or reuse plastic and glass bottles. This opinion was overwhelmingly supported by responding citizens in each polled country, where no less than 40% of respondents agreed (with the highest consent coming from Egypt at 71%). And while the cost savings from this approach may be modest, MENA citizens are desperate for any financial reprieve. Citizens across the region are struggling with the effects of sky-rocketing inflation, devaluing currencies, and high unemployment brought on by the current economic crisis. An outcome where more MENA citizens are involved with recycling and reuse is always favorable. However, perversely in this case, it comes at a cost that is quite literally too high for many MENA citizens that are enduring economic difficulties.


Mohammed Mahmoud is the director of the Climate and Water Program and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

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