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Alternative Policy Study: Land and Water Resources in Arab African Countries

This study was carried out by the Centre for Environment and Development for the Arab Region and Europe (CEDARE), Egypt, as part of the preparation for UNEP's GEO-2000 report.


Land and water resources in the Arabic-speaking countries of North Africa are generally scarce and the population of the sub-region is increasing rapidly, threatening food security in the future. Current policies do not aim to conserve resources and utilise them in the most efficient way.

Alternative policies can achieve food security combined with resource conservation within each country and on a regional level. Countries with high natural resource potential are encouraged to export food; countries with limited land and water resources are encouraged to optimise the use of available resources and invest in other sectors of higher relative economic advantage. However, such policies will not be successful without an effective strategy to reduce population growth rates.



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The Arabic speaking countries of Africa consist of ten states: Algeria, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Somalia, Sudan and Tunisia. This sub-region has a widely diverse climate spanning equatorial humid tropics in the southernmost countries to a Mediterranean climate in the north. The sub-region is afflicted by erratic climatic conditions and prolonged periods of drought. These conditions cause wide disparities in food production between countries and considerable fluctuations in annual production levels within countries.

The human population of the Arabic speaking countries of Africa has been steadily increasing over the last three decades. By 1995 it had reached 172 million; by 2025 the sub-region's population is projected to reach 274.4 million. This will exert extremely high pressure on limited water resources and on productive land, and it is certain to escalate the rate of degradation and limit the productivity and sustainability of the sub-region's natural resources.

The sub-region is traditionally a large net importer of food. The gap between food imports and production, which was close to 4.5 million tonnes for the 1960-1961 period, increased to more than 19 million tonnes by the 1995-1996 period. Although most of the Arabic speaking African countries have made impressive progress in their economic growth over the last three decades their food security remains insecure.

Economic reform programmes encouraging more efficient use of resources by removing structural imbalances in national economies have occurred within a framework lacking policies and institutions to monitor and protect the environment. Moreover, in many instances, low income groups face increasing poverty and precarious food security levels. They are then compelled to over-exploit their limited resource base, which is causing increasing environmental degradation.

Priority Issues

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The key question for the Arabic speaking African countries is whether current policy frameworks for water use and land use will lead to the achievement of the sub-region's food security objectives. Food security is a priority issue. It will be achieved by enhancing economic growth, sustainably managing agriculture and the land and water resources on which it depends, and managing population growth to reduce the pressures on limited resources.

Current policy frameworks in the sub-region fail to promote more efficient measures for sustainably managing scarce water and agricultural land. This represents a fundamental constraint to accelerated economic growth. Although some countries have started to introduce concepts of integrated water and land management the institutional capacity and popular participation necessary to avoid conflicts and adverse economic and social impacts during the adjustment process need strengthening.

Urban and industrial pollution and increased agricultural run-off, as well as being serious health hazards, are contributing to deteriorating water and land quality and compounding water scarcity and desertification.

Current water resources are estimated at 217 cubic kilometres a year for surface fresh water and a further 28.3 cubic kilometres of renewable groundwater. While fresh water resources will remain more or less constant, and may even decrease due to increased drought in some countries of the sub-region, the human population is increasing. As already stated, the total population of the sub-region in 1995 was 172 million; water demand had already exceeded the actual water available in the sub-region by about 46 per cent. By 2025, with the total population projected to reach 274.4 million, there will be a further serious reduction of the per capita share of water resources.

Such serious stress on available water resources reduces countries' ability to utilise cultivable lands to their full potential. Djibouti, Mauritania, Somalia and Sudan are currently cultivating less than 5 per cent of their potential agricultural land, while Algeria and Tunisia are cultivating about 50 per cent. The only countries which come close to full potential are Egypt and Morocco.

Moreover, development in the sub-region is constrained by the uneven distribution of resources including water, land suitable for agriculture, infrastructure, and technology. For example, Sudan has the largest arable area in the sub-region, with 129 million acres, and renewable water resources of approximately 88.5 cubic kilometres a year. Yet, because it only irrigates 11.9 per cent of its arable land - much less than the potential suitable area - vast areas of the Sudan are not productive. As a result, Sudan's imports represent about 58 per cent of its consumption.

In addition, cultivated lands are experiencing declines in quality due to desertification. Specific quantification of the extent of desertification in the sub-region is not possible due to lack of data, but it is estimated that approximately 432.5 million hectares - representing about 57 per cent of the total land area of the region and between 30 to 60 per cent of the cropped, range and forest lands - are at risk. Desertification can be caused by wind erosion, water erosion, salinisation or alkalisation, or by sand encroachment. Wind and water erosion are caused when the vegetation cover protecting the soil is damaged by deforestation or overgrazing. The exposed fertile topsoil is carried away by wind and water. The result: a desert-like landscape.

Although desertification is partly a natural phenomenon, it is generally exacerbated by human activities. Encroachment on forest lands for agriculture in the Maghreb countries has increased the phenomenon of soil erosion. Poorly maintained drainage systems and the poor quality of irrigation water in Egypt are exacerbating the problem of salinisation.

Human impacts on the sub-region's land and water resources need to be regulated. This can only be achieved through promoting sound land and water management policies and correcting current developmental trends.

Baseline Scenario

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Current development trends emphasise expanding agricultural land and increasing its productivity to meet the needs of the sub-region's growing human population. To achieve these objectives, irrigated lands as a percentage of arable lands almost doubled in Algeria, Libya and Tunisia between 1980 and 1994.

While the aim has been to maximise the return from current land resources, little attention has been paid to sustainability. Governments have assumed the leading role in operating and maintaining infrastructure without encouraging the beneficiaries to assume a more responsible role in the future sustainability of irrigation and drainage schemes. This has led to inefficiencies in the performance of the schemes, as well as exacerbated land degradation issues such as salinisation and waterlogging.

Furthermore, governments have so far focused more on public assistance for rehabilitating degraded lands rather than correcting the incentive structure to individuals and institutions to encourage them to do so. This has led to added burdens on government budgets which have almost always fallen short of fulfilling requirements.

Structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) in the agricultural sector are now a main development trend in the North African sub-region, aimed mainly at liberalising and privatising the sector. Such programmes, by removing market distortions, also contribute towards the sustainability of agricultural activities. For example, the Egyptian SAP has, among other measures, removed farm input subsidies, including subsidies for fertilisers and pesticides which cause water quality deterioration. Sudan has also removed input subsidies, employing a system of targeted subsidies instead. However, some countries have yet to remove subsidies to agrochemicals. This leads to overuse and, in turn, pollution of land and water resources. For instance, organic residues from agrochemicals cause eutrophication of reservoirs, like in Sidi Salem in Tunisia where biological oxygen demand (BOD) has trebled over the last ten years.

Even with the implementation of SAPs, market distortions continue to exist in the form of subsidies which are harmful to the environment. Although water pricing is adopted to a certain degree in some countries of the sub-region such as Sudan, water remains priced at very low rates. The majority of countries now aim to recover only their operation and maintenance costs through water tariffs. Hence, investments in the water resources sector (including agricultural water) of approximately US$12 500 million a year for the sub-region go unrecovered. Also, price paid certainly does not reflect scarcity of water as a resource. This encourages overuse. Such subsidies play a role in distorting the incentives of users to preserve the resource or to use it in a cost-effective way. Costs of overuse of water, although not borne by water users, are borne by society since the sustainability of the resource will be practically impossible within current policy frameworks. Overuse of water also compounds land degradation problems. For example, the low price of water in Egypt has led to expansion in rice cultivation, which in turn has increased waterlogging.

Worthy of mention are governmental efforts within each country to initiate a policy framework to ensure sustainability of natural resources, including land and water resources, for development purposes. However, there are notable drawbacks of such policies. The command-and-control approach is the most widely used policy instrument. Although past research and theory have shown that this is the least cost-effective approach, other approaches which aim at engaging beneficiaries in natural resource management have not been explored. In order to ensure the proper enforcement of such policies, property rights should be well-defined. This is enforced in varying degrees among countries of the sub-region. In Egypt, for example, all agricultural lands are either owned or rented by individuals or corporations. In Sudan, on the other hand, tribal systems in agriculture (communal land tenure) still prevail, especially in middle and southern Sudan, leaving agricultural and range lands, to some degree, as an open access resource. This reduces incentives to conserve land resources. Water ownership is mostly undefined throughout the countries of the sub-region, except for a selected minority such as Tunisia and Mauritania and the Western Desert oases in Egypt.

Environmental Impacts of the Baseline Scenario

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As has already been stated, populations continue to grow at a fast rate - 2.3 per cent a year. It is anticipated that by 2025 the population of the sub-region will be twice what it was in 1990, while actual renewable water resources and the land area under cultivation will remain constant at best. The drive to increase the productivity of the land and expand areas under cultivation will lead to extensive withdrawals from groundwater resources and the reuse of waste and drainage water. This will increase the rate by which salt intrusion pollutes the groundwater reservoir and will also increase salinity in areas under irrigation. Rainfed areas will be further exposed to desertification due to increased cultivation in fragile ecosystems.

Water stress is bound to reach critical levels, constraining development in all sectors and enhancing conflict between sectors to meet their respective demands. Conflicts between countries sharing transboundary water resources are likely to increase as a result of the build-up of tension between conflicting claims. Economic growth is likely to stall as a result of the per capita reduction of water and land resources leading to increased poverty and unemployment and widespread malnutrition and diseases. The overall food security of the region will be impaired by rising food demands and less foreign exchange available to import the necessary food. These pressures are bound to irreversibly accelerate the environmental degradation process in the sub-region. The cost of mitigating this environmental catastrophe in the making will exceed the capacity of the sub-region's economies, leading to breakdowns in governance systems and the spread of civil unrest.

Alternative Policy Options

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Considering that food security remains an objective of the sub-region, particularly since it is regarded by states as an integral part of national security, current development trends which seek to expand agricultural production are adequate. However, current policies must be adapted to ensure not only achievement of food security at the present time, but also its sustainability over time. Therefore, access to scarce resources, which will become more scarce over time due to population pressure, should be properly regulated.

In light of the diversity of land degradation and water resource issues, it is difficult to highlight a specific policy approach to be adopted for regulating access to land and water resources. However, there are several common issues to be considered if problems of land and water management, as well as food security, are to be resolved by 2025. First of all, existing agricultural and water policies which exacerbate environmental problems should be corrected. Agricultural input subsidies should be reduced, off-farm income generating enterprises encouraged, economic pricing systems for resource use implemented, and other measures undertaken to improve the quality of water and land, like mitigating and preventing pollution factors, reducing the hazards of specific ions (Na, CL, and B) and total salinity through the use of amendments and the proper mixing of water resources, and adopting appropriate on-farm management techniques. Correcting market distortions will create an incentive for users to innovate in order to conserve water and land resources. This will lead to more efficient resource use.

In order for policies to work effectively, realistic objectives should be set. The first step is setting the objective as well as the strategy for achieving it. In this context, the required objective should be whether to slow down, stop or reverse the degradation process. Also, the necessary extent of water conservation should be identified. This will have a direct impact on the level of stringency of adopted standards. These standards should not be set by environment ministries in isolation but should be a product of debate between involved sectoral ministries and organisations, and should involve the public and the business sector.

Investments should also be encouraged in other sectors, particularly in countries where natural resources have been exploited to their full potential. If international competitiveness is attained in other sectors, then sources of foreign exchange will be secured and the ability to import food will be higher.

Outside the agricultural sector, a reduction in the rate of population growth is an important objective. The above development objectives and policy frameworks will not guarantee the sustainability of food security if population growth continues at the same rate. Efforts to raise public awareness of the benefits of birth control should continue so that available natural resources will be able to satisfy the needs of the sub-region's population.

Environmental Impacts of Alternative Policies

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Although these alternative development trends and policies will not change the available stock of natural capital, they should help in better resource use through exploiting to the highest degree possible the opportunities for substituting man-made capital for natural capital. The aim is sustained development with the lowest possible impact on natural resource quality and availability. Increasing populations, at a continuously lower rate, will remain food-secure through local production added to imported food items. Countries of the sub-region which have not exploited natural resources to their full potential, such as Sudan, could export food to the rest of the region, while countries which have reached the full potential in terms of natural resource exploitation could direct investment to other sectors to secure foreign exchange.

 GEO-2000 Technical & regional reports 
GEO-2000 complete report 
GEO-2000 home page