Dryland Degradation in the Middle East

Hotspot Locations

Hotspot Details


Government policies determine the nature of land use in this region thus an understanding of the political ecology of the Middle East is necessary for studying the large-scale decrease in biological productivity and its impacts. For example, Israel and the southern marshlands of Iraq are experiencing significant decrease in biological productivity, which is an indicator for dryland degradation. In Israel, degradation is caused by urbanization and restructuring processes, while in Iraq, the marshland degradation is caused by a government policy aimed at "controlling the marsh area and suppressing the Marsh Arabs" (Nielsen and Adriansen 2005). Degradation in individual countries such as Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Israel and Syria is also happening at a finer scale, with different causes and impacts. Such land degradation in this region impacts not only the environmental integrity of the area, but also societal security, as dryland degradation often results in cross-border migration and stress on water resources, which are a source of conflicts among the different groups (Safriel 2006).

Critical Statistics:
  1. Ninety percent of the Arab region of the Middle East lies within arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas (Abahussain et al. 2002).

  2. The human population growth rate is 2.3% annually, which is among the highest worldwide (Abahussain et al. 2002). According to the Arab Human Development Report (2009), the Arab countries will be home to some 395 million people by 2015, compared to about 317 million in 2007, and 150 million in 1980. The high rate of population growth in this dryland region exacerbates the pressure on the land and the resulting degradation (Abahussain et al. 2002).

  3. In Kuwait, the average annual increase in degraded land is about 285 sq km. Soil compaction is caused by off-road transport, which decreases the permeability of soil and hence destroys the vegetation cover (Al-Awadhi et al. 2003). When compared with non-compacted soil, the average infiltration rate decreased by 53.8% and the average soil penetration resistance increased by 154.1% in compacted soil (Al-Awadhi et al. 2003). In Kuwait, two major sources of degradation are soil compaction and crude oil deposition.

  4. In the Negev Highlands of Israel, gully incision is a key factor in land degradation in arid environments and has changed the irrigation efficiency such that there is a sharp drop of about 70-90% in the floral biomass.Linear gully retreat has been recorded at an average rate of 1.12-22.7 meters per year (Avni 2005). The vertical walls of the gullies dissect the fine-grained alluvial cover of the valleys and the gullies themselves concentrate runoff into channels and limit the distribution of water for the vegetation on the valley floor. When the gully heads are eroded upstream during floods, the valley soils will be eroded and agricultural fields are damaged, which in turn reduces the vegetation biomass available (Avni 2005).

  1. Land degradation in Arab countries such as Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen is primarily caused by rapid population growth and the failure of resource management policies coupled with overgrazing (Abahussain et al. 2002).

  2. In Israel, dryland degradation and soil salinization are mostly caused by agricultural expansion and urban development.The Israeli government considers its semi-arid areas which are most prone to degradation as a security risk, so the government has encouraged settlement in those areas along with agricultural development, afforestation projects, or ecosystem rehabilitation. As a result of, exploitation and grazing pressure throughout the degraded dryland areas have been reduced. The government's effort in reducing degradation worked until recent decades, when dryland degradation has reemerged as an issue. For example, large scale salinization has occurred from expansion of irrigated agriculture through the use of non-desalinated treated wastewater. Intensification of development has thus led to further degradation (Safriel 2006).

  3. In both Israel and the pre-1948 Palestine, livestock production by the industrial sector has affected the soil conditions through water pollution, lowering of the water table and soil compaction.Its importance has been mostly ignored, while the impacts of overgrazing in many cases were over-exaggerated (Wachs and Tal 2009).

  4. In Jordan, reasons for land degradation vary across the country: soil erosion in the Highland Zone; overgrazing by sheep and goats in the Steppe Zone; and wind and water erosion in the Desert Region (Abu-Sharar 2006).qxzqxzqxz

  5. The leading causes of degradation in Kuwait are the overexploitation of desert resources including oil contamination, excessive grazing, off-road vehicles, spring camping and over-extraction of sand and gravel.Furthermore, the lack of enforcement of legislation on land use and erosion control, further exacerbates land degradation in the country (Al-Awadhi et al. 2003).

  1. The Israeli Bedouin's pastoralist systems of livelihood are being replaced by highly intensified industrial livestock production system.Although preserving traditional pastoralist systems is beneficial to the environment, the livestock policy of the Israeli government currently encourages the industrial livestock production system and the Bedouin pastoral community now appears to be interested in adopting the industrial livestock production system (Wachs and Tal 2009).

  2. The environmental consequences of the land degradation in Kuwait include a decline in soil fertility and productivity, frequent occurrence of sand and dust storms, reduction in infiltration capacity, changes in run-off distribution, increase in soil resistance and bulk density, enhancement of soil erosion by surface run-off, loss of soil productivity, loss of vegetation cover, loss of biodiversity, changes in and degradation of the hydrological system and loss of soil productivity (Al-Awadhi et al. 2003).

  3. In the Negev Highland of Israel, the intensive erosion of the valley soil during flash food events is caused by the retreat of gully heads upstream and results in damage to agricultural fields (Avni 2005).The lack of vegetation combined with occasional intense, heavy rains result in flooding.

What is Next:
  1. If the process of gully incision continues, most of the drainage basins in the Negev Highlands will be transformed into rocky basins, resulting in a decline in their agricultural potential in a few hundred years (Anvi 2005).

  2. In Iraq, recent developments indicate that the marshes are being re-flooded and the vegetation is returning (Nielsen and Adriansen 2005).

  3. To adapt to land degradation, governments have introduced alternative means of livelihood for the people.For instance, in Jordan, the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature implemented an approach that integrates conservation of nature with income-generating programs such as ecotourism and marketing of olive oil based products. The Society trains local farmers and works with the local experts in producing and marketing olive oil based products (Adeel and Safriel 2008).

  1. Abahussain, A. A., A. Sh. Abdu, W. K. Al-Zubari, N. A. El-Deen and M. Abdul-Raheem. 2002. Desertification in the Arab Region: analysis of current status and trends. Journal of Arid Environment (51): 512-545.

  2. Abu-Sharar, T. M. 2006. The Challenges of Land and Water Resources Degradation in Jordan: Diagnosis and Solution. In Desertification in the Mediterranean Region: a Security Issue NATO Security through Science Series, ed. W. G. Kepner, J. L. Rubio, D. A. Mouat and F. Pedrazzini, 201-226. Netherlands: Springer.

  3. Adeel, Z. and U. Safriel. 2008. Achieving sustainability by introducing alternative livelihoods. Sustain Sci (3):125-133

  4. Al-Awadhi, J. M., R. F. Misak, S. S. Omar. 2003. Causes and Consequences of Desertification in Kuwait: a Case Study of Land Degradation. Bull Eng Geol Env (62): 107-115.

  5. Avni, Y. 2005. Gully incision as a key factor in desertification in an arid environment, the Negev highlands, Israel. Catena (63): 185-220.

  6. United Nations Development Programme. 2009. Executive Summary. In Challenges to Human Security in the Arab Countries, ed. Regional Bureau for Arab States. 1-16. Beirut: Alarm SARL.

  7. Nielsen, T. T. and H. K. Adriansen. 2005. Government Policies and Land Degradation in the Middle East. Land Degrad. Develop. (16): 151-161.

  8. Safriel, U. N. 2006. Dryland Development, Desertification and Security in the Mediterranean. In Desertification in the Mediterranean Region: a Security Issue NATO Security through Science Series, ed. W. G. Kepner, J. L. Rubio, D. A. Mouat and F. Pedrazzini, 227-250. Netherlands: Springer.

  9. Wachs, E. and A. Tal. 2009. Herd no More: Livestock Husbandry Policies and the Environment in Israel. J Agric Environ Ethics (22): 401–422.