Past, present and future perspectives


Click to enlarge

A Bedouin nomad diverts water to his crops in a small-scale irrigation project.

Nigel Dickinson/Still Pictures

Due to the extreme aridity, a major issue in northern Africa is scarcity of arable land (or land that is suitable for cultivation). Average annual precipitation is just 7 per cent of Africa's total, and there are large inter-annual and intra- annual variations (FAO 1995b). Distribution of rainfall between the countries is also varied, with more than 70 per cent falling in Sudan, and just 3 per cent in Egypt, where more than 90 per cent of precipitation is lost through evaporation or transpiration (FAO 1995b). These harsh climatic conditions, and the predominance of shallow, highly erodible soils, make cultivation a precarious occupation. Arable land represents 26.4 per cent of the total land area, and 18.7 per cent is currently cultivated, although the extent of cultivated area ranges from 2.6 per cent in Egypt to 77.4 per cent in Morocco (FAOSTAT 2001). Rangelands currently occupy about 13 per cent of the total land area (mostly in Algeria and Sudan) although, over the past 50 years, half of these have been reclaimed for cultivation (AOAD 1998, Le Houerou 1997).

Despite severe physical limitations, agricultural and pastoral activities contribute significantly to national economies and traditional lifestyles. Thus, land cultivation in the sub-region is becoming increasingly dualistic in nature, with a high technology agribusiness sector developing alongside traditional smallholder agriculture. In almost all countries, some farmers still harvest their crops by hand, whilst commercial agriculture is heavily mechanized, employing highly efficient irrigation systems, tractors, multi-furrow ploughs and combine-harvesters. There is a pressing need to integrate the two sectors, and to combine the wisdom from each (Lycett 1987).


In 1990, agriculture employed about 37 per cent of the workforce in the Arab countries, and 69 per cent in Sudan. This was a steep decline for the Arab countries, from 51 per cent in the previous two decades (World Bank 2001). The major crops produced in the subregion include: cereals (wheat, barley, rice and sorghum); fruit (citrus, dates and olives); vegetables (beans); sugar (beet and cane); and nuts and seeds (sesame and groundnuts). Total agricultural exports for northern Africa (excluding Sudan) were US$2 451 million in 1997, and value added in agriculture was 13 per cent of GDP in 1999 (World Bank 2001). Commercial farming is heavily dependent on irrigation and fertilizer use. For example, in Egypt, all cultivated land is irrigated although, in other countries, the percentage is lower (FAO 1995b). Over the past decade, northern African countries have used between 1 million t and 1.5 million t of fertilizer per year, approximately 45 per cent of Africa's total (World Bank 2001).

The population of Northern Africa doubled between 1970 and 2000 (from 85 million to 174 million people), and is continuing to grow at an average of 2 per cent per annum (UNPD 1996, World Bank 2001). This, together with increasing consumption and demand for luxury foods (Miladi 1999), has been responsible for rising demands on agricultural production and for pressures on the land resources. Responses to meet this rising demand have included: enhancing cropping intensity; extending the area of land under cultivation; and intensive irrigation and use of chemicals and other inputs (FAOSTAT 2001).