United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
Global Environment Outlook-1 - The Web version

Chapter 2: Regional Perspectives

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West Asia

Underlying Causes

[ Social | Economic | Institutional ]


West Asia has one of the highest rates of population growth in the world, exceeding 3 per cent a year in most countries during the period 1990-95; the growth rate ranges from 2 per cent in Lebanon to 3.6 per cent in Oman (UN, 1994b). The limited arable land of the region is suffering from intense development due to population expansion. The human pressure on land is noticeable in Jordan, Iraq, the Syrian Arab Republic, and Yemen. Irrigated land is being cultivated all year round, with increasing applications of water, fertilizer, and pesticides. At the same time, large areas of fertile land are being taken out of production to meet urban, transport, and industrial needs, while land of low productivity is being overused as herds overgraze rangelands. Poorer farmers cultivate marginal land with low rainfall without adequate fallowing or fertilizer application. Forest products, particularly in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, are harvested at rates that exceed the annual growth rate.

The increased population and agricultural activity have also raised water demand in the region, as noted earlier. This has prompted an overexploitation of ground water leading to salinization and destruction of habitats for plants and animals.

Political instability and armed conflict in the region have led to population movements, which introduce further pressures on cities and countries. The refugees and returnees in the aftermath of the Gulf War converged on the major cities of Jordan, for example, stressing the infrastructure and leading to environmental degradation.

Other direct environmental consequences are the air pollution arising from fires in the oil fields. In the Gulf areas, about 1.5 million barrels of oil were spilled during the conflict (ESCWA, 1991). The slow flushing process in the Persian Gulf greatly exacerbated cleanup problems, affecting the marine and coastal environment and the resources there.

Poverty plays a role in the region with regard to environmental degradation, especially in the cities where the poor are crowded in settlements on the periphery of cities with inadequate infrastructures.


Industrial development is progressively playing a key role in the economic development of West Asia. Highly mechanized and intensive agricultural production aimed at high economic returns means the use of pesticides and fertilizers that get into the food chain and also pollute rivers and marine and coastal areas.

Oil production is by far the most important industry in the Persian Gulf, with the economy of almost all countries being oil-based. Oil and gas exploration, refining, petrochemicals industries, and oil transportation all affect the environment. There are about 34 offshore oil and gas fields, and more than 800 producing offshore wells (ESCWA, 1991). Thousands of kilometres of underwater pipelines connect these wells to shore facilities and terminals. The hazards to marine and coastal environments are greatest from offshore activities, but land production of oil also poses a threat from the disposal of oily sludges, which are often deposited near or directly into the sea. By quantity, these sludges present the largest solid waste problem in the Persian Gulf (ESCWA, 1991).


The development of policies and institutions to monitor and protect the environment has not kept pace with economic growth in the region. For example, most surface water comes from rivers shared among member and non-member countries. Lack of formal agreements for sharing the flow of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers could create conflict in the future. This is, however, now receiving appropriate attention at both the national and regional level.

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