In the eye of the storm: Climate change in Oman
Climate change is costing Oman billions and posing a growing threat to the Sultanate's natural resources and infrastructure, sparking growing calls for the authorities to take a proactive approach and find ways to mitigate its effects. However, a lack of funding and expertise is hindering the country from adopting an effective strategy to adapt to an increasingly volatile climate.
Salim al-Sadia, who is in his sixties, survived Cyclone Shaheen – the tropical storm that tore through the Sultanate on 3 October 2021. However, when it flooded his family's home in Suwayq province, the swirling waters and strong winds prevented rescue helicopters from reaching him and his family, who remained trapped on their rooftop until the following day.
Suwayq, Al Khaboura and Masnaah were the regions most affected by the cyclone, which left 13 dead and caused extensive damage to infrastructure, agricultural land and residential areas.
Tropical storms have caused Oman losses in the billions. In 2007, Cyclone Gonu struck, causing an estimated $4 billion worth of damage. In the spring of 2018, Cyclone Mekunu hit the coastal regions, costing $1.5 billion in damages. Al-Batinah North is considered the most exposed of the coastal governorates to the tropical storms caused by climate change. Muscat, Sur and Salalah are also highly vulnerable: Oman is situated on three sea fronts and its coast stretches 3,165 km. Most Omanis live on or near the coast, which puts them at increased risk when a cyclone hits.
How is climate change threatening Oman?
The dangers of climate change are nothing new to Oman. Around 6,000 years ago the changing climate led to the disappearance of most of the mangrove trees on the Omani coasts. This was due to a dramatic rise in soil salinity, resulting from a decline in winter rains, according to a study by scholars from Bonn University in Germany published in December 2020 in the Cambridge University periodical Quaternary Research (mangroves grow in what is known as the 'tidal range' of coastal areas, which are under seawater at high tide. They require fresh water from rainfall to reduce the salinity of the soil).
Extreme weather becoming more frequent
A more contemporary link between climate change and seawater is clear regarding the severe cyclonic storms hitting the Sultanate: Oman experienced 22 extreme weather events between 2007 and 2021, six of them cyclones, according to Dr Hamed al-Gheilani an environmental expert at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Water Resources. Cyclones require the warming of the ocean's water from 27-30 degrees Celsius to a depth of 50 metres below the surface.
"Climate change is costing Oman billions and posing a growing threat to the Sultanate's natural resources and infrastructure, sparking growing calls for the authorities to take a proactive approach and find ways to mitigate its effects"
As the sun's rays heat the surface of the ocean, the seawater evaporates and rises as steam, before cooling and condensing when it reaches a certain height. This unleashes latent heat energy which then converts into kinetic energy, fuelling the formation of the cyclone. The increasing severity of storms hitting Oman's coasts can be largely attributed to rising temperature, in particular ocean temperature.
Rising temperature, declining rainfall
The average annual temperature has risen by about .4 degrees Celsius per decade since the 1980s (the World Bank says the average annual temperature is expected to rise by 1 degree Celsius by the start of 2050). In the same period, average rainfall has dropped, currently ranging from 150mm to 300mm in the north and from 50mm-150mm in the south. Oman suffers from water stress (meaning water availability is not enough to meet the country's need), with rainfall scarcity also affecting urban infrastructure and public health.
"Decreasing rainfall and rising seawater salinity will drive a decline in Omani fish species and endanger marine biodiversity off the coasts", says Al-Gheilani adding: "The instability of the marine environment is negatively affecting the fishing season and the coral reef habitats".
The extreme threat posed by the rising temperature was evident on 26 June 2018, when the coastal city of Quriyat recorded the highest minimum temperature ever observed at 41.9 degrees Celsius, which lasted 24 hours without dropping, a record that highlights Oman's vulnerability to climate change.
Losses to agriculture
Most agricultural labourers in Oman rely on perennial trees which need years before they start bearing fruit, like dates. However, when natural disasters occur, they can destroy the cultivated fields in a matter of hours according to Alzadjali. This is what happened in Wadi Al Hawasnah in Al Khaboura, a fertile region where farmers grow dates, lemons, mangos, figs, bananas, Christ's thorn jujube and henna.
However, when Cyclone Shaheen hit, the fruit orchards were laid waste. The full cost of the damage to agricultural land and produce caused by Shaheen has still not been calculated, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Water Resources.
"One reason for the huge financial losses is that the authorities have failed to factor climate change into development planning in ways that could mitigate the risks"
Oman's medieval Aflaj Irrigation Systems (an ancient system of narrow manmade waterways) are used to water agricultural lands. If the water is pure then it will also provide drinking water and be channelled for use in nearby mosques.
These also suffered extensive damage during Cyclone Shaheen – some disappeared completely; others suffered partial damage. Work is underway to repair 53 damaged falajs in Al Batinah North, and contracts are due to be issued for the maintenance of 25 others in the governorate, according to the Ministry.
Water resources under threat
Another issue is rising groundwater salinity. Al-Batinah's coast is the worst affected, with rising salinity of 40-45 percent shown in water samples from 670 groundwater wells, but the situation is similar in Al Khaboura and elsewhere, according to a 2017 study by the Ministry of Regional Municipal and Water Resources. Farmers in these areas fear their land will become infertile if the situation continues.
Dr Saud Alzadjali, a researcher in management policies, thinks one reason for the huge financial losses is that the authorities have failed to factor climate change into development planning in ways that could mitigate the risks. Instead, the country desperately scrambles to secure aid relief and implement emergency measures every time the country is hit by a severe storm.
However, in 2020 the government did launch an urban development strategy, which stressed the importance of responding to climate change, through implementing mitigation strategies in regions vulnerable to flooding and keeping future construction projects away from valleys at risk of flooding.
Urban planning neglect has to stop
Engineer Bader Al Haddabi believes Oman needs to enforce national standards for building and architectural design, which require buildings to be equipped to withstand rising temperatures and extreme weather events like cyclones, stressing that the current infrastructure in the Sultanate is not cyclone-resistant. For instance, there aren’t enough dams to prevent water flooding residential areas during cyclones.
"Oman needs to enforce national standards for building and architectural design, which require buildings to be equipped to withstand rising temperatures and extreme weather events like cyclones"
Mahmood Al-Wahaibi, urban planning researcher and founder of Oman Think Urban, agrees that urban planning has been neglected for years. He says there is a huge crisis caused by the lack of a modern legislative system for city planning, "which has led to an inflexible approach despite climate change and the destructive effects of cyclones – cities, especially densely populated ones on the coast, have seen unregulated construction growth encroaching into flood-prone valleys and this is happening even today".
Al-Wahaibi’s 2016 study, "The Horizontal Expansion Policy of Muscat", explained that Muscat's Wadi Bousher, a densely populated area, was submerged in large areas when Cyclone Gonu hit in 2007. This happened again during Cyclone Shaheen, when torrential rains flooded inhabited areas, due to a build-up of construction both inside and at the mouth of the valley.
Khalid Al Tobi, a climatologist at the Public Authority of Civil Aviation (responsible for climate affairs) believes the major challenge is the lack of funding, alongside the Sultanate's failure until now to build up resilience in the country's infrastructure by implementing nationwide regulations in construction and town planning which could provide protection in the face of the changing climate.
He says that this is in spite of the fact that in 2019 the government declared a strategy for climate change adaptation and mitigation to be a national goal, in order to reduce the threat to water resources, tourism, infrastructure and population health. Oman also announced that it aimed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 7 percent by 2030.
The World Bank has stated that reducing the amount of these gases in the atmosphere may limit the average global annual temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius. Without reducing them, average global annual temperatures are forecast to rise by 5 degrees Celsius or more by the end of this century.
This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.
Original article published on 24 November 2021
Translated by Rose Chacko
This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source's original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.
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