A region in danger
Almost 70 per cent of Arabs' land is degraded, reports Doaa El-Bey
The progress achieved by the different Arab states in combating land degradation and the policies needed to achieve sustained development for the whole region were the dual focus of the Regional Conference on Land Degradation in the Arab Region (30 October -1 November), organised by the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, the Arab League's technical secretariat of the Council of Arab Ministers responsible for the Environment, the United Nations Environment Programme, and the Arab Centre for the Study of Arid Zones and Dry Lands.
The conference pointed out the Arab states' achievements in the fields of combating land desertification, land protection and reclamation and the effective use of natural resources in agriculture. Nevertheless, it regarded all these achievements as insufficient as they lack an integrative approach among all the Arab states especially because most of these problems transcend political borders and have regional dimensions.
Thus in its concluding recommendations, the conference urged the promotion of cooperation and coordination both within and among states in the region as well as regional and international organisations.
It called on these organisations to provide the Arab states with technical support through the establishment of a permanent secretariat to monitor the coordination efforts among the Arab states and create united Arab policies for limiting land degradation, combating desertification and conserving scarce water resources. Finally, it called for these organisations to provide more support for the states that suffer from instability, especially Palestine.
Given that the Arab region is subject to different levels of degradation, desertification and drought, the conference was a forum for experts from the different states to share their experiences and assess their achievement in that field so far. The conference brought together national, regional and international experts on land degradation together with officials and representatives from the departments of agriculture, land and rural development as well as research centres.
Land degradation, which was defined as reduction in the soil's capacity to produce in terms of quantity and quality, was attributed to natural as well as human factors. The natural factors included rapid climatic changes, low and erratic rainfall and drought, scarce water resources and land erosion as a result of water and/or wind. Human factors comprised pressures on the natural resource base due to high population growth rates, unplanned and rapid urbanisation at the expense of rural areas, overgrazing and deforestation, absence of land use plans, unsustainable cultivation practices, over-cultivation of marginal lands and insufficient support given to the integrated management of land and water.
The failure to provide immediate and integrative support to the sustainable use and management of the region would put the region in a vicious circle of land degradation, food insecurity, poverty, and then further land degradation. That is, degradation is endangering the livelihood of the poor, particularly in rural areas, and increasing the level of poverty. Farmers adopt non-sustainable survival strategies that further damage the resource base and lead to more degradation. Degraded area constitutes over 68 per cent of the whole area of the Arab region and a further 20 per cent is threatened by degradation as a result of nonsustainable mismanagement of resources.
The political situation in some areas in the region especially the Palestinian territories has aggravated the situation. Israel has confiscated some of the most fertile Arab lands to build Jewish settlements. The new wall penetrates into the heart of the West bank, isolating larger areas of Palestinian agriculture lands, water resources, forests and natural resources.
In Lebanon, during the post-war period in the 1990s, there was no development planning to allow for a controlled development and exploitation of land. The lack of land use supervision and planning and an inadequate institutional structure for issuing rules and ensuring adherence to them has resulted in inappropriate land use, including extensive building in rural areas, inappropriate use of pastures, and accelerated deforestation. Urbanisation reached 89 per cent in 2000 and is likely to rise to more than 92 per cent by 2015. This aggravates the situation as it increases the demand and decreases the supply of agricultural products.
In Egypt, continued high population growth constitutes a huge pressure on land resources. Although the cultivated land increased from 4.2 million feddans at the beginning of the 20th century to 8.1 million feddans in 2005, the amount of land per farmer fell from 0.42 to 0.11 feddans. Other factors like scarce water resources, soil erosion and shifting dunes further contribute to land degradation. However, Egypt is planning to reclaim some 3.4 million feddans by the year 2017 and trying to increase its water resources by increasing the use of non-conventional water resources like drainage water, sewage treated water and subterranean water.
To reach a comprehensive vision on land degradation, the conference focussed on four related issues: desertification, drought, agriculture and rural development. Discussion of the five issues contributed to enriching the Arab states' draft report to the United Nations Committee of Sustainable Development's 16th meeting (CSD-16) due in May next year. The report was further discussed in the ninth session of the joint Committee on Environment and Development in the Arab Region. It will be reviewed by the 19th meeting of the Arab environment ministers early next month before it is presented to CSD-16.