Land: West Asia

Land degradation in West Asia: severity and causes (%)

Charts show the severity (percentage of total land area) and the causes (percentage of total degradation) for the region and the two subregions. Note the prevalence of wind erosion

Source: compiled from Marcoux 1996

Land degradation and, at its extreme, desertification, continue to be the most significant environmental issues in West Asia (CAMRE, UNEP and ACSAD 1996), especially in countries where the agricultural sector makes a significant contribution to the national economy. There is extensive desert in the region, ranging from 10 per cent in Syria to nearly 100 per cent in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Desertification has also affected wide areas of rangelands in Iraq, Jordan, Syria and the countries of the Arabian Peninsula. The causes include a combination of climate, high population growth rates and intensive agriculture. Poverty and inappropriate government policies exacerbate the problem.

Geopolitical instability in and around the countries of West Asia has persuaded governments to adopt policies aimed at achieving national food security. These policies have been accompanied by agricultural protectionism, the erection of trade barriers and government subsidies for agricultural inputs. Subsidies, together with free or cheap irrigation water, have had severe impacts on land and water resources, and have contributed to the unsustainability of agriculture in the region (UNESCWA 1997). As a result, land degradation has become widespread, and it has accelerated as more rangelands were reclaimed and put under cultivation (CAMRE, UNEP and ACSAD 1996). The charts below show the extent and causes of degradation by sub-region.

Irrigated area (million ha): West Asia

Irrigated area in West Asia has grown sharply over the past three decades but agricultural production has not kept pace with population growth

Source: compiled from FAOSTAT 2001

Forest fires and forest clearance are two of the main causes of vegetation cover loss and soil erosion. Between 1985 and 1993, forest fires destroyed more than 8 000 hectares of forests and affected more than 20 000 ha of coastal forests in Syria, resulting in soil erosion in excess of 20 tonnes/ha/year. At the same time, nearly 2 440 ha of forest land were cleared for agricultural purposes (World Bank and UNDP 1998).

Population growth and other demographic changes have led to losses of land to urbanization, industrialization and non-agricultural purposes. Insufficient development and services in rural areas in the Mashriq sub-region and in Yemen have resulted in a rural influx to urban areas, spreading illegal settlements and squatter houses on the peripheries of major cities at the expense of fertile agricultural land. As well as encouraging intensification of agriculture, national policies aimed at achieving higher levels of food self-sufficiency also resulted in a more than twofold increase in irrigated area between 1972 and 1999, from 2 991 million ha to 7 191 million ha (FAOSTAT 2001). The largest increase occurred in Saudi Arabia, from 0.437 million ha in 1980 to 1.6 million ha in 1993 (Al-Tukhais 1999). However, despite the large increase in the irrigated land area (see graph above), the increase in food production has not kept pace with population growth.

Poor management and inefficient use of irrigation water have resulted in salinization, alkalization, water logging and nutrient depletion in large areas in the region. Salinization, which is the most important cause of degradation in irrigated soils, has affected about 42.5 per cent of the desert area in West Asia (Harahsheh and Tateishi 2000). About 2 million ha of the cultivated land area in Saudi Arabia and 33.6 per cent of cultivated land of Bahrain are moderately salinized (FAOSTAT 2001). Salinity and waterlogging have affected 8.5 million ha or 64 per cent of the total arable land in Iraq, while 20-30 per cent of irrigated land has been abandoned due to salinization (Abul- Gasim and others 1998). More than 50 per cent of the irrigated lands in the Euphrates plains in Syria and Iraq have been badly affected by salinization and waterlogging (UNESCWA 1997).