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Chapter Two: The State of the Environment - West Asia

Land and food

 Arable land per capita


(Click image to enlarge)

Source: data compiled by UNEP GRID Geneva from FAOSTAT 1997

 
Population growth, the degradation of farmland and urban expansion are reducing the area of arable land available per capita

Traditionally, grazing and subsistence farming were the main forms of agriculture but, by the middle of this century, modern agricultural systems had been introduced to increase food production. Marginal lands and some rangelands were put under cultivation to cope with increasing food demand. The aridity of the environment, deforestation, overgrazing and the extension of cereal crops onto rangelands have led to the deterioration of natural vegetation cover there and accelerated desertification (Nahal 1995). During the 1980s, population growth and other demographic changes led to urbanization, increasing food demand, the intensification of land exploitation and a diminishing per capita availability of cultivated land (see figure above) in all countries except Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Lebanon (FAOSTAT 1997).

Rangelands occupy much of West Asia and are the main form of vegetation cover. The rangeland area varies with annual rainfall fluctuations but in 1994 was estimated at about 150 million hectares or 38 per cent of the total area of the region (FAOSTAT 1997).

In the past, nomadic tribes developed a number of forms of rangeland protection (known as the Al-hema, Hamiyah and Sann systems) which are among the oldest in the world. These systems set aside large tracts of rangeland to be used as reserves during periods of stress. During the 1950s, two major events caused many nomads to abandon their traditional grazing systems: new land-use laws were introduced in several countries which designated rangelands as public property; and agricultural machinery was widely introduced, with some rangelands being ploughed up for cereal farming, particularly barley. As a result of these and other trends, rangelands are deteriorating throughout the region (see box).

 The deteriorating rangelands
 

Drought, overgrazing, collecting and uprooting woody species for use as fuel, ploughing and the mismanagement of water resources are the principal causes of rangeland deterioration. Desirable range species have been slowly disappearing and several important medicinal and forage plant species have been destroyed. More than 30 per cent of grazing land in Saudi Arabia is deteriorating as a result of overgrazing, the gathering of woody plants and dryland farming (El-Khatib 1974).

Sheep density on some rangelands is more than one mature head per hectare, some four times the natural carrying capacity (Le Houerou 1995). This is made possible by heavily subsidized complemenatary feeding but leads to impoverished rangelands which become invaded by unpalatable species. Dust storms, sand dunes, desert pavements and various forms of wind and water erosion follow. Deterioration of rangelands and the increasing dependency of the sheep industry on the world grain market could have serious long-term effects, jeopardizing food security in the region.

Governments have taken several steps to restore ecological balance in the rangelands. For example, laws and decrees have been enacted to prevent cultivation of rangelands and a number of protected rangeland areas have been declared - there are now more than 60 in Syria and Jordan alone (ACSAD 1997a). However, most of these plans have failed to produce significant results; rangelands are continuing to deteriorate mainly because these ecosystems are so fragile and because the grazing stock far exceeds the carrying capacity of the land.

 

Land degradation has been a dominant problem throughout the past decade. Most land is either desertified or vulnerable to desertification (see figure below). The percentage of desertified land ranges from 10 in Syria to nearly 100 in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. In Jordan, Iraq, Syria and the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, desertification has affected wide areas of rangelands. In Lebanon degradation is serious on steep mountainous land. Salinity is also a serious problem in Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Oman, Syria and the United Arab Emirates (CAMRE/UNEP/ACSAD 1996).

The following paragraphs summarize the key issues affecting land and food in West Asia:


 Desert status of West Asian land


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Source: FAO/RONE 1994

 
Much of the West Asian region is desert, has been desertified or is vulnerable to desertification. Overall, only 4.4 per cent is not at risk

Land degradation is expected to continue unless countries undertake more mitigation measures. Fortunately, most countries have now launched national action plans to combat desertification.


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