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The Nile Delta’s Disappearing Farmland

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The Nile Delta’s Disappearing Farmland is a story by Adam Voiland based on NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The above image is for illustration and is of The Nile, Egypt.

During the time of the pharaohs, the fertile soils along the Nile River likely supported a civilization of roughly 3 million people. Now there are 30 times that number of people living in Egypt, with 95 percent of them clustered in towns and cities in the Nile’s floodplain. Much of the growth has come in recent decades, with the Egyptian population soaring from 45 million in the 1980s to more than 100 million now.

July 25, 1984, JPEG
August 16, 2021, JPEG

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Just 4 percent of Egypt’s land is suitable for agriculture, and that number is shrinking quickly due to a wave of urban and suburban development accompanying the population growth. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is a crisis,” said Nasem Badreldin, a digital agronomist at the University of Manitoba. “Satellite data shows us that Egypt is losing about 2 percent of its arable land per decade due to urbanization, and the process is accelerating. If this continues, Egypt will face serious food security problems.”

The pair of Landsat images below shows how much farmland has been lost to development around the city of Alexandria between the 1980s and 2021. Cultivated areas appear green; towns and cities are gray. According to one analysis of Landsat observations, the amount of land near Alexandria devoted to agriculture dropped by 11 percent between 1987 and 2019, while urban areas increased by 11 percent. The images above show urbanization eating into farmland around the cities of Tanta and El Mahalla El Kubra and between the Rosetta and Damietta branches of the Nile.

July 25, 1984 – August 16, 2021

While the conversion of farmland to human settlements here has occurred for decades, multiple researchers observed sharp increases in the practice after the “Arab Spring” roiled the political and economic climate in Egypt starting in 2011. In recent years, Egyptian authorities have vowed to put an end to unlicensed building on farmland, though it remains a difficult practice to stamp out.

Urbanization is not the only process putting pressure on Egypt’s farmland. Sea level rise of 1.6 millimeters per year has contributed to problems with saltwater intrusion and the salinization of farmland in Egypt, particularly in the fringes of the delta southwest of Alexandria. About 15 percent of Egypt’s most fertile farmland has already been damaged by sea level rise and saltwater intrusion, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. While global warming is responsible for about half of the sea level rise affecting the Nile Delta, the sinking of the land (subsidence) is responsible for the other half. Natural compaction, as well as the extraction of groundwater and oil, contribute to subsidence.

One response to the loss of farmland has included efforts to reclaim and green-up parts of the desert. For instance, Farouk El-Baz, Boston University scientist and a member of the Apollo 11 field crew, has long promoted a plan to build an extensive corridor of highways, railways, water pipelines, and power lines to spur development and the establishment of new farmland in deserts west of the delta.

July 25, 1984 – August 16, 2021

While that project has not come to full fruition yet, large swaths of desert have been converted to farmland in recent decades. The pair of images below shows new farmland and the emergence of several new towns along the Cairo Highway. A mixture of center-pivot irrigation and drip irrigation—fed by groundwater pumps—makes farming in this area possible, explained Badreldin. While small-scale sustenance farming is common in the main part of the delta, most of the growers on the desert edge raise grains, fruits, and vegetables for export abroad.

“It is certainly possible to establish new farmland from the desert by tapping groundwater resources, but it’s a difficult, resource-intensive, and expensive process,” said Badreldin. “The poor soils and the intensive resources needed to farm in the western desert are a poor replacement for the richer, more fertile soils in the delta.”

Boston University researchers Curtis Woodcock and Kelsee Bratley have analyzed decades of Landsat observations as part of a Boston University effort to track how the availability of farmland in the delta is changing over time. “We certainly see expansion into the desert, but there’s nuance to this story,” said Woodcock. “After being farmed for a time, we also see a significant amount of that new farmland being decommissioned and reverting to desert.”

NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Adam Voiland.

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Africa’s “Green Wall” also makes economic sense

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It is about Africa’s “Green Wall” that not only makes economic sense but is also an important contribution to combating climate change.

However, a study by the University of Bonn shows that this does not apply to all regions in the Sahel.

Fifteen years ago, the African Union decided on an ambitious program: degraded ecosystems in parts of the Sahel are to be successively restored in order to secure food for the people living there and to protect the soil against further degradation. At the same time, the African Great Green Wall is an important contribution to combating climate change. A study by the University of Bonn and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) now shows that it also makes economic sense – although not everywhere in the Sahel. The analysis also shows how much violent conflicts threaten the success of the program. It has now been published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

The Sahel extends south of the Sahara from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east of Africa. Vast areas of the formerly fertile region are now virtually uncultivated. Reasons are droughts, poor agricultural cultivation methods as well as overuse due to the growing demand for food and firewood.

The “Great Green Wall” initiative aims to compensate for and reverse this loss through mass planting of native trees and grasses. 100 million hectares of land are to be restored in this way. So far, however, this ambitious goal is very far from being achieved – partly because of a lack of financial resources.

However, this could change in the future: Earlier this year, various donor countries pledged nearly $15 billion to the project at the One Planet Summit for Biodiversity. “In order to use these funds efficiently, we now have to ask ourselves where and for which measures they should be used most sensibly,” emphasizes Dr. Alisher Mirzabaev of the Center for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn.

Every dollar invested yields a 20-cent of net returns

The agricultural economist has led a study that provides an answer. The researchers divided the Sahel region into 40 million plots of 25 hectares each. For each of these, they then analyzed which land restoration measures would be possible and how much they would cost. They compared this calculation with the economic benefits that could be achieved.

“On the one hand, these include the so-called provisioning services,” explains Mirzabaev: “These are the things that are produced by the ecosystems: Food and drinking water, raw materials such as wood or medicinal plants.” There are also other effects, such as a better climate, less wind erosion or pollinators services, which in turn increase the farmers’ crop yields. They, too, can have a price tag attached to them today.

The results show that building the “Green Wall” is also economically worthwhile. But how much depends on a number of factors. As a rule, reforestation would be the most advantageous economically and ecologically. But it takes decades for a few hundred seedlings to grow into a forest. The investment therefore only bears fruit in the very long term.

The situation is different when degraded areas are converted into farmland. “Ideally, the first harvest is then possible after just one year,” says Mirzabaev. Cropland restoration can thus pay for itself comparatively quickly, with many poor smallholder farmers also preferring quick returns from their restoration activities. However, the profits that can be achieved as a result are significantly lower, as are the environmental effects.

“In our analysis, we work with different scenarios, some of which are aimed more at short-term benefits, while others are more long-term,” explains the agricultural economist, who is a member of the Transdisciplinary Research Area “Sustainable Futures” at the University of Bonn. The so-called baseline scenario, for example, includes a mixture of both short-term and long-term returns. In it, every dollar spent yields an average net return of 20 cents.

Half of the profitable regions are too uncertain for action

However, there are huge regional variations in this. The most positive economic balance is for parts of Nigeria, Eritrea and Ethiopia. This is where the investment in the “Green Wall” is most worthwhile. To finance all the proposed measures in this scenario, a sum of 44 billion U.S. dollars would be needed. This would allow 28 million hectares of land to be restored.

However, the analysis also shows that this will probably only work in theory. The reason is that, due to violent conflicts, many of the regions where it would make sense to build the Green Wall are simply too unsafe for such measures. “If we take out these areas, we are left with just 14 million hectares,” Mirzabaev points out. “This shows how much such disputes not only cause direct human suffering, but also prevent positive development of the affected regions.”

Funding:
The study was funded by the European Union.

Publication: A. Mirzabaev, M. Sacande, F. Motlagh, A. Shyrokaya und A. Martucci: Economic efficiency and targeting of the African Great Green Wall; Nature Sustainability; DOI: 10.1038/s41893-021-00801-8
https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-021-00801-8 Preparation for restoration – of the “Green Wall” in Burkina Faso© FAO, http://www.fao.org/in-action/action-against-desertification/en

A Sahel village – near Timbuktu on the edge of the “Green Wall”© FAO,
http://www.fao.org/in-action/action-against-desertification/en

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Bedouins Without Borders Helps the Bedouins

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BORGEN Magazine World News elaborates on how Bedouins Without Borders Helps the Bedouins.

The picture above is for illustration and is of BEDOINS WITOUT BORDERS.

Photo: Flickr

Bedouins Without Borders Helps the Bedouins

SAN FRANCISCO, California — Historically, the indigenous, tribal peoples of the Middle East, called the Bedouins or the Bedawi, have often been excluded or overlooked compared to the settled populations within the Levant region. Although a majority of the Bedouin community reside in the Negev desert, which is located in southern Israel by the border of Egypt, Bedouin individuals also live across the Levant, sometimes traveling into Palestine, Syria, Egypt and Iraq, among other countries. Bedouins come from a diverse range of ancestors, with a portion of the Bedouin community in Palestine originating from Sudan and other African nations.

The Modern Plight of the Desert Dwellers

Unfortunately, poverty and food insecurity are prevalent in Bedouin communities. The families within these groups are largely unable to access government programs and resources to aid them financially due to their nomadic lifestyles. Although research materials on the Bedouin community are difficult to find, some studies have been executed to investigate the population’s economic situation. As part of a study performed in 2008, Suleiman Abu-Bader and Daniel Gottlieb found that less than 9% of Bedouin females were part of the workforce in 2004 and more than three-quarters of the population experienced poverty in unregistered villages.

The nonprofit organization Bedouins Without Borders, created in 2015, aims to create awareness of the Bedouin community and advocate for the rights of Bedouins. As with other indigenous populations, the Bedouin people’s records are difficult to find, and thus, it is more difficult for them to access the resources they need. Therefore, part of the Bedouins Without Borders’ mission is to survey the Bedouin population and analyze the challenges they face in daily life.

Creating Bedouin Records

To aid in better serving the community and keeping track of the resources that families need, Bedouins Without Borders has established the Bedouin Data Bank for collecting basic information and the Bedouin Map to maintain a better understanding of the Bedouin movement over time. In working with mobile communities such as the Bedouin community that are always passing from place to place, it is necessary to log the activity of each tribal group and assess how their current circumstances shape factors such as food security.

The Bedouin youth themselves run these documentation programs, receiving training under the ALFURSAN initiative that Bedouins Without Borders developed to empower and motivate young people in the community. Organizational efforts such as these are crucial in providing the future skills that the Bedouin youth may need for their careers and bridging the cultural gap between the Bedouin community and other communities, making it beneficial on two fronts.

How Bedouins Without Borders Helps

One example of a program that Bedouins Without Borders offers to encourage development is Guardians of the Desert. Like the ALFURSAN program, Guardians of the Desert centers on self-empowerment and community strengthening efforts simultaneously through the youth’s direct engagement. Each of these programs offers valuable leadership positions to Bedouin teenagers and gives young Bedouin individuals the chance to spread awareness about their community and advocate for expanding economic opportunities.

As the Bedawi way of life shifts due to climate change, water shortages and the commercialization of desert areas, community leaders must rise to meet the challenge and tackle the economic issues faced with new methods. In response to increased financial insecurity, young adults in the Bedouin community have opted to become tour guides and implement their knowledge of the environment to educate others and produce revenue in the process.

In this pivot toward sustainable development and practices, ecotourism has become integral to creating a balanced way of life for the Bedouin people. To describe this economic sector succinctly, ecotourism is a method of promoting increased tourism to more remote areas of the world such as the Sahara Desert while also protecting the local ecosystem and informing visitors of how to support conservation efforts. In this manner, Bedouin nomads can produce the income needed for their daily lives without endangering the spaces they inhabit.

Thanks to the Bedouins Without Borders organization, Bedouin leaders and volunteers have designated specific regions as environmentally protected. The goals of establishing a protected area such as the Oasis include preserving land for animals to feed and ensuring that the Bedawi food sources remain abundant and plentiful despite climate change.

The Road Ahead

As a relatively new organization, Bedouins Without Borders has already established a dedicated group of volunteers and launched some promising projects to support its cause. As settlement conflicts continue in Palestine and Israel, Bedouins Without Borders remains diligent in protecting Bedouin interests and ensuring community safety. Currently, Bedouins Without Borders proceeds in its mission to inform people about the community and raise awareness by spotlighting young voices in the Bedouin Monitor section of its website. In 2021, it is hopeful that Bedouins Without Borders will further develop its environmental conservation and poverty reduction efforts for a better tomorrow.

– Luna Khalil

Extreme temperatures, heat stress and forced migration

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Ignoring the signs of climate change will lead to unprecedented, societally disruptive heat extremes in the Middle East and North Africa. Max Planck Institute predicts that Extreme temperatures, heat stress and forced migration would be the result in the near future.

March 23, 2021

The Middle East and North Africa Region (MENA) is a climate change hot spot where summers warm much faster than in the rest of the world. Some parts of the region are already among the hottest locations globally. A new international study led by scientists from the Climate and Atmosphere Research Center of the Cyprus Institute and the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry predicts that ignoring the signals of climate change and continuing business-as-usual with increasing greenhouse gas emissions will lead to extreme and life-threatening heatwaves in the region. Such extraordinary heat events will have a severe impact on the people of the area.

Ignoring the signals of climate change and continuing business-as-usual will lead to extreme and life-threatening… [more]© Jo Raphael/shutterstock

The study, building on cooperation between climate scientists from the MENA region, aimed at assessing emerging heatwave characteristics. The research team used a first-of-its-kind multi-model ensemble of climate projections designed exclusively for the geographic area. Such detailed downscaling studies had been lacking for this region. The researchers then projected future hot spells and characterised them with the Heat Wave Magnitude Index. The good match among the model results and with observations indicates a high level of confidence in the heat wave projections.

“Our results for a business-as-usual pathway indicate that especially in the second half of this century unprecedented super- and ultra-extreme heatwaves will emerge”, explains George Zittis of The Cyprus Institute, first author of the study. These events will involve excessively high temperatures of up to 56 degrees Celsius and higher in urban settings and could last for multiple weeks, being potentially life-threatening for humans and animals. In the second half of the century, about half of the MENA population or approximately 600 million people could be exposed to such annually recurring extreme weather conditions.

Calculations show that the number of ultra-extreme heat events will increase sharply in the coming decades. (MENA:… [more]© doi.org/10.1038/s41612-021-00178-7.

“Vulnerable citizens may not have the means to adapt to such harsh environmental conditions”, adds Jos Lelieveld, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and leading the research team. “These heat waves combined with regional economic, political, social and demographic drivers have a high potential to cause massive, forced migration to cooler regions in the north.”

To avoid such extreme heat events in the region, the scientists recommend immediate and effective climate change mitigation measures. “Such measures include drastic decreases of the emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, but also adaptation solutions for the cities in the area”, says Lelieveld. It is expected that in the next 50 years, almost 90 percent of the exposed population in the MENA will live in urban centers, which will need to cope with these societally disruptive weather conditions. “There is an urgent need to make the cities more resilient to climate change”, emphasizes Zittis.

Jos Lelieveld, Max Planck Institute for Chemistry

Georgios Zittis, The Cyprus Institute, Cyprus

Hydrocarbon Resources and Their Spillover Effects

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Despite the high oil revenues reaped from hydrocarbon resources and their spillover effects on all oil and non-oil producing countries, most MENA region economies suffer from structural problems and fragile political systems, preventing them from adopting effective politico-economic transformations.

The capital was available, but investments were typically misdirected to form in all cases ‘rentier’ economies, with Arab countries economies remaining very undiversified.  They primarily rely on oil and low value-added commodity products such as cement, alumina, fertilisers, and phosphates. 

Demographic transitions present a significant challenge: the population increased from 100 million in 1960 to about 400 million in 2011.  Sixty per cent are under 25 years old.

Urbanisation had increased from 38 per cent in 1970 to 65 per cent in 2010.

Rural development being not a priority; the increasing rural migration into the cities searching for jobs will put even more strain on all existing undeveloped infrastructures. 

Current economic development patterns will increasingly strain the ability of Arab governments to provide decent-paying jobs.  For instance, youth unemployment in the region is currently double the world average.

The demand for food, water, housing, education, transportation, electricity, and other municipal services will rise with higher learning institutions proliferating; the quality of education below average does not lead to employment. 

Power demand in Saudi Arabia, for example, is rising at a fast rate of over 7 per cent per year.

Amman, Cairo, and other Arab cities gradually lose their agriculture space because of the suburbs’ expansion.  Gated communities and high-rise office buildings are sprawling while ignoring low-income housing. 

In the meantime, the real world feels the planet is in danger of an environmental collapse; economists increasingly advise putting the planet on its balance sheets. For over a Century of Burning Fossil Fuels, to propel our cars, power our businesses, and keep the lights on in our homes, we never envisioned that we will paying this price.

In effect, a recent economic report on biodiversity indicates that economic practice will have to change because the world is finite.

For decades many have been aware of this reality. However, it is a giant leap forward for current economic thinking to acknowledge that Climate change is a symptom of a larger issue. The threat to life support systems from the plunder and demise of the natural environment is a reality.

Society, some governments, and industry are recognising that climate change can be controlled by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, electric cars and reducing emissions from every means of production.

Talking about replacing fossil fuels would mean a potential reduction of the abovementioned revenues.

However, would the spreading of solar farms all over the Sahara desert constitute compensation for the losses?