The world has been watching the burning Amazon rainforest with horror and dismay since early August 2019. With nearly 73,000 fires this year in the Amazon, which were caused by farming and logging the rainforest, there is fear that more carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere as huge swaths of tropical trees disappear in an inferno. The consequences of these fires could ripple through the entire planet, affecting global weather patterns and air quality and leading to the outbreak of diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever.
As the global climate rapidly changes, the importance of forests cannot be overstated. Absorbing billions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year, forests are the first line of defense against the changing climate. In fact, a recent scientific study says that planting a trillion trees across the world could be the most important tool to tackle climate change.
Deforestation and desertification of the land continue to be an existential problem for the region with very few forests compared to other parts of the world.
While the Middle Eastern region is typically associated with sand dunes, scorching sun, and water scarcity, it has had lush forests and grasslands in the past. They have shrunk significantly over many centuries, however. These days, the Middle East has more arid and dry lands than forests, but the latter still exist. In fact, according to the World Bank, the region increased its forested areas between 1990 and 2015. However, deforestation and desertification of the land continue to be an existential problem for the region with very few forests compared to other parts of the world.
Overgrazing, worsening of pasture lands, expansion of agriculture, drought, illegal logging, wars, wildfires, and deliberate arson have led to the widespread demise of forests in this region in recent years. Deforestation is closely linked with desertification of the land, which is a huge problem in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, and Turkey. Disappearance of trees exposes the ground to elements and leads to soil erosion and land degradation. Subsequent desertification turns fertile land into an arid one, directly affecting farming productivity and people’s very way of life.
With forests covering only just over 1 percent of the kingdom’s territory, Saudi Arabia has been concerned with the rapid decline of its scarce green spaces. Jordan has been walking a fine line between maintaining its shrinking forests and expanding additional development projects. Turkey is confronting a similar dilemma.
War-torn Syria has lost a quarter of the surface area of its forests to fires between 2010 and 2018. Syria and Iraq—each with 2.7 percent and 1.8 percent of forests covering their territories, respectively—face an uphill struggle to save their forests from continuous wars, arson, and illegal logging by poor and desperate people with no choice but to rely on wood as a relatively cheap (compared to gas or oil) source of fuel and/or income.
In Syria, uncontrolled logging has exposed flammable resin oil present in pine trees to fires. Because charcoaling is a good source of income for poor families in Syria, widespread illegal charcoaling has been responsible for some of the forest fires in the country. Iraq fears that terrorists from the shattered Islamic State, also known as ISIS, may regroup and cause more damage to forests and drive farmers away from their lands, as they had done before.
The disappearing vegetation and trees are increasingly devastating the region that is already on the frontlines of global climate change.
While it might seem that the Middle East with already negligible areas of forests would not feel the effects of deforestation and desertification, just the opposite is true. The disappearing vegetation and trees are increasingly devastating the region that is already on the frontlines of global climate change. Loss of trees carry many consequences for this region. Floods worsen and become deadlier as water levels rise higher when there are no trees to soak up water, as evidenced in Iraq in recent years. Dust storms feel more intense because of less vegetation. Fertile lands deteriorate and soil erosion worsens as vegetation disappears.
As a result, public health problems, such as respiratory illnesses, are increasing. Fewer green areas also mean less food for animals, so farming becomes more difficult. As a result, deforestation is directly tied to reduced food security, higher rates of poverty, and increased migration to urban areas, all factors that further exacerbate social and economic tensions in already volatile countries.
The major challenge to the recovery of forests in the Middle East is the human factor.
The major challenge to the recovery of forests in the Middle East is the human factor: the rate of conservation of green spaces and afforestation (i.e. creating a forest in a barren land) has to keep up with devastating wars, expansion of agricultural lands, population growth, unsustainable farming, and/or logging to earn money or burn wood for heating or cooking. It may be unrealistic to expect that dedication of years and decades necessary for painstaking conservation and restoration of the ecosystem, which may still never fully recover, would be a high priority for many countries in the region, particularly, in war-ravaged areas of Iraq and Syria. Once forests are destroyed, it is hard, although not impossible, to grow them back.
But there is some glimmer of hope. Israel’s successful restoration of forests could be an example to the rest of the dryland Middle Eastern region. A long-term, massive afforestation campaign that began in 1901 by the Jewish National Fund has led to a net gain in the number of trees now in Israel. Conservation, afforestation, and cutting back on grazing and logging helped recover the vegetation on semi-arid lands near the Judean Mountains that traverse Israel and the West Bank after the ecosystem was degraded from overuse and abuse more than a hundred years ago.
Another glimmer of light is the tropical coastal cities in the Middle East which are now benefiting substantially from preserving mangrove trees that protect shorelines from erosion and floods.
Another glimmer of light is the tropical coastal cities in the Middle East which are now benefiting substantially from preserving mangrove trees that protect shorelines from erosion and floods. Salt-tolerant mangroves are also important habitats for fish. Abu Dhabi, for example, made protection of mangroves a priority as the city rapidly developed and grew. To protect mangrove forests, authorities in this sheikhdom instituted strict real estate development permitting processes. They are also helping restore damaged trees.
Climate change is rapidly draining the Middle East’s scarce natural resources, such as woodlands, arable lands, and freshwater. A United Nations climate panel stressed in August that reducing fossil fuel use alone would not be sufficient to slow down climate change. It argued that addressing problems of deforestation and agricultural practices would be crucial for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, which trap and keep heat in the atmosphere and lead to global warming. The opportunity to conserve and restore these sources of life in the Middle East is now.