Desertification an imminent threat, creating unstable grounds for development

Desertification an imminent threat, creating unstable grounds for development
A total of 45 percent of the food consumed globally comes from the world’s dryland areas — and falling productivity, food shortages and water scarcity in these regions is creating insecurity.
Updated 17 October 2018

Desertification an imminent threat, creating unstable grounds for development

Desertification an imminent threat, creating unstable grounds for development
  • Arable land is turning to desert at an alarming rate, especially in the Middle East — affecting food security, biodiversity, socio-economic stability and economic development
  • With 70-90% of the Arabian Peninsula under threat of desertification, new measures must be attempted to sustain development in the region

DUBAI: More than 3.2 billion people, or two in every five, are affected by land degradation today and up to 143 million could move within their countries by 2050 to escape water scarcity and falling crop productivity caused by climate change.

These are the alarming figures provided this summer by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). And with the report issued this week by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stating that the planet will reach a 1.5C increase in temperatures as early as 2030, leading to extreme drought, food shortage and floods, action must be taken.

“Land is worth so much more than the economic value we attach to it,” said Monique Barbut, UNCCD’s executive secretary. “It defines our way of life and our culture — whether we live in the city or villages. It purifies the water we drink. It feeds us. It surrounds us with beauty. But we cannot meet the needs and wants of a growing population if the amount of healthy and productive land continues to decline so dramatically.”

According to The Global Land Outlook of 2017, 45 percent of the food consumed globally comes from the world’s dryland areas and falling productivity, food shortages and water scarcity in these regions is creating insecurity. It warns that about 20 percent more productive land was degraded from 1983 to 2013, with Africa and Asia facing the greatest threats.

Desertification is the degradation of arable and productive
land, of which the region does not have much to begin with. The added use of intensive agriculture coupled with chemicals, pesticides and salt water, have worsened levels of land productivity.

“We consider desertification a major environmental problem but, in reality, it’s also economic and social in the region mostly,” said Dr. Azaiez Ouled Belgacem, regional coordinator of the Arabian Peninsula Regional Program at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (Icarda) in Dubai. “We have a very precarious and harsh environment with very high temperatures, low rainfall and high humidity but it’s now worsening because of climate change.”

Belgacem, also a rangeland scientist, pointed the finger at socio-economic changes in the region, where pastural communities sustainably managed natural resources for centuries. Their mobility created a balance in the use of resources — called the hema system — allowing rangeland to rest for some period. “They followed rainfall and there was no intensive farming system — only fishing and date palms,” he said. “The movement is a rotational system and complements the use of resources and water.”

The discovery of oil and rising population wealth led to settlements and sedentarization, adding stress to lands. Subsidies increasing livestock numbers, coupled with herd mobility and overgrazing, led to further land degradation, loss of biodiversity and desertification. To date, a third of the world’s land is considered impacted by the phenomenon, excluding natural deserts. “It’s not a national challenge, it’s regional and global,” Belgacem explained. “Each country must establish its national strategy, which should build on international partnerships, because there are no borders in desertification.”

According to the UN, drought and desertification cause the annual loss of 120,000 sq kilometers of land globally — an area larger than the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain combined. It has become one of the dominant present-day environmental calamities, affecting hundreds of millions of dryland inhabitants and an area estimated between 1,000 to 3,000 million hectares. “This has a severe impact on food security, biodiversity, socio-economic stability and economic development,” said Diana Francis, atmospheric scientist at New York University — Abu Dhabi. “The Arab world contains around one third of the world’s deserts.

Most Arab countries have insufficient water resources, making the region especially vulnerable to desertification and drought. However, even with these risk factors, mismanagement of water resources and unsustainable land practices are rife across the region.”

She used Saudi Arabia as an example of an arid country with no rivers and a daily per capita water use double the European average. Iraq, considered a regional breadbasket in the 1970s, also lost a significant amount of its farmland to wars and neglect. “The effects of drought and desertification across the region are not only environmental, but also come at an extreme human cost,” she said. “Desertification not only causes loss of productivity with serious impacts on food production, future food security and economic development but also causes the release of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, thereby accelerating global warming.”

Decomposition of soil organic matter and biomass during the past 7,800 years caused by land degradation and desertification has resulted in carbon dioxide emissions estimated at 450 to 500 gigatons, equating to more than the total amount of CO2 emitted from fossil fuel combustion so far. “The most vulnerable areas are along the coast of the Mediterranean, including Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Turkey,” she said. “It also affects Iran, Kuwait and the UAE significantly.”

The UN estimates some 50 million people will be displaced over the next decade due to the effects of drought and desertification. Statistics estimate global soil degradation by 1 percent annually. “Desertification in the Middle East is caused mainly by four human actions linked to farming and agriculture,” Francis said. “They include overgrazing, overcultivating, deforestation and poor irrigation. Indirect causes of desertification include poverty, population growth and loss of traditional knowledge so public understanding is important.”

According to Dr. Taoufik Ksiksi, associate professor in biology at the United Arab Emirates University, too many wrong types of animals are overgrazing precious regional land, exposing the soil and increasing erosion by wind or water. “These are all anthropogenic problems,” he said. “The added issue is that we’re in a hyper-arid environment — plants grow very slowly and climate change worsens the situation. We don’t have the option to go beyond 1.5C in the future and we’re very close.”

He suggested acting aggressively in legislation to minimize overgrazing, while raising awareness on land management. Monitoring desertification will also prove key, much like the Long Term Ecological Research Network (LTER) in North America, where decades of data have been collected to monitor ecosystems’ health. “These aren’t present in the region and we need to do more on long-term sites where we monitor land yearly so we know where we’re heading,” he said. “Revegetation of a lot of land with native plants in the UAE, such as the Ghaf tree, and Saudi Arabia, with the Samer tree, local to the Gulf, the Andab, a grass-like species, and the Salam and Sidr trees, are promising practices for the recovery of the ecosystem’s health and we should set up protected areas to bring it back to its original status.”

Countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have started planting trees. But it could take five to 10 years for them to affect the land. “Sand is invading the land,” said Dr. Muhammad Shahid, geneticist in the Plant Genetic Resources Program at the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture. “Trees help stop desertification and sand because they are a stabilizer of soil. They have good long root system, so it helps as a wind breaker, as wind is responsible for sand moving from place to place. But it needs funding and expertise, and it should be more of a priority.”

Abu Dhabi is also playing its part with Masdar City, promoting the mitigation of desertification from an ecological perspective. “As water is a key component within a desert environment, Masdar has recommended the treatment of greywater within private plots and sole use of treated sewage effluent within the public realm for landscape purposes,” said Peter Spellmeyer, landscape manager at Masdar City. “Masdar has endorsed a 70 percent minimum use of native and drought adaptive plant species. This sustainable approach will serve the community and fulfill shading requirements related to outdoor thermal comfort.”

Background:

In the Arabian Peninsula, land threatened by desertification ranges from 70 to 90 percent.

“The situation became more difficult with climate change, as even the resilience of the current ecosystem is threatened,” Belgacem said. “Some desert plants adapt to climate change effects up to a certain degree. But if we continue as is, that could stop by 2050. Science and technology must be used to counter this.”

The Gulf is considered a testbed and a laboratory for extreme weather conditions with a number of institutes working on developing solutions. Such conditions are said to take root in North Africa in the future, should no action be taken. “We are working on a 4C temperature increase, as we’re now expecting 1C to 2C,” he said. “We’re working with farmers in the Middle East and North Africa, and all dry areas of the world, including Sub-Sahara, west, south and east Asia, developing (systems) for agricultural drought and heat-tolerant varieties of wheat, barley and food legumes, as well as technologies to harvest rainfall water.”

The center is also attempting to revive the hema system with local communities and ministries. “We’re looking to establish different distributed water points in rangeland, and to close wells each season to have services in other areas for feed and animal health, and to encourage herders to graze in these areas. This would allow sustainably managed natural vegetation and carbon sequestration. Climate change has started its impact and it will disturb the cycle of plants.”


‘Accident’ strikes Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility

‘Accident’ strikes Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility
Updated 11 April 2021

‘Accident’ strikes Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility

‘Accident’ strikes Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility
  • Behrouz Kamalvandi said there were no injuries nor pollution caused by the incident
  • Iran later called the incident sabotage

TEHRAN: Iran's Natanz nuclear site suffered a problem Sunday involving its electrical distribution grid just hours after starting up new advanced centrifuges that more quickly enrich uranium, state TV reported. It was the latest incident to strike one of Tehran's most-secured sites amid negotiations over the tattered atomic accord with world powers.
State TV quoted Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for Iran's civilian nuclear program, announcing the incident.
Kamalvandi said there were no injuries or pollution cause by the incident.
The word state television used in its report attributed to Kamalvandi in Farsi can be used for both “accident” and “incident.” It didn't immediately clarify the report, which ran at the bottom of its screen on its live broadcast. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, the civilian arm of its nuclear program, did not immediately issue a formal statement about the incident on its website.
Natanz suffered a mysterious explosion in July that authorities later described as sabotage. Israel, Iran's regional archenemy, has been suspected of carrying out an attack there, as well as launching other assaults, as world powers now negotiate with Tehran in Vienna over its nuclear deal.
On Saturday, Iran announced it had launched a chain of 164 IR-6 centrifuges at the plant, injecting them with the uranium gas and beginning their rapid spinning. Officials also began testing the IR-9 centrifuge, which they say will enrich uranium 50 times faster than Iran's first-generation centrifuges, the IR-1. The nuclear deal limited Iran to using only IR-1s for enrichment.
Since then-President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, Tehran has abandoned all the limits of its uranium stockpile. It now enriches up to 20% purity, a technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%. Iran maintains its atomic program is for peaceful purposes, but fears about Tehran having the ability to make a bomb saw world powers reach the deal with the Islamic Republic in 2015.
The deal lifted economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for it limiting its program and allowing inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to keep a close watch on its work.


Libya launches COVID-19 vaccination drive after delays

Libya launches COVID-19 vaccination drive after delays
Updated 11 April 2021

Libya launches COVID-19 vaccination drive after delays

Libya launches COVID-19 vaccination drive after delays
  • The country's healthcare system has been strained by years of political turmoil and violence
  • Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh called it a "blessed day" in the fight against COVID-19 after receiving his shot

TRIPOLI: Libya's new unity government launched a long-delayed COVID-19 vaccination programme on Saturday after receiving some 160,000 vaccine doses over the past week, with the prime minister receiving his jab on live television.
While Libya is richer than its neighbours due to oil exports, the country's healthcare system has been strained by years of political turmoil and violence, and it has struggled to cope during the pandemic.
Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh called it a "blessed day" in the fight against COVID-19 after receiving his shot, without saying which vaccine he had been given. At least 100,000 of the doses that arrived this week were Russia's Sputnik V vaccine.
Dbeibeh's interim Government of National Unity was sworn in last month after emerging through a UN-facilitated process with a mandate to unify the country, improve state services and oversee the run-up to a national election in December.
Dbeibeh's government has framed the delivery of vaccines and the national roll-out as evidence that it is improving the lives of ordinary Libyans after replacing two warring administrations that ruled in the east and west of the country.
"Through the political consultations and the efforts of the prime minister, the vaccine is available," said Health Minister Ali Al-Zanati, who has said previously the government had so far ordered enough doses to inoculate 1.4 million of the country's more than six million people.
Libya's National Centre for Disease Control has said more than 400,000 people have registered for vaccination in more than 400 centres around the country.
Libya has recorded more than 166,000 coronavirus cases and nearly 3,000 deaths, though UN envoys have said the true figures are likely far higher.
"I feel sorry that the vaccine arrived late in Libya after thousands were infected. But better late than never," said Ali al-Hadi, a shop owner, adding that his wife had been sick with COVID-19 and recovered.
Many Libyans fear the vaccination campaign could be marred by political infighting or favouritism after years of unrest.
"We hope the Health Ministry will steer away from political conflicts so that services can reach patients," said housewife Khawla Muhammad, 33. 


Suez Canal receives Middle East’s largest dredger

Suez Canal receives Middle East’s largest dredger
A file photo shows a dredger trying to free the Panama-flagged MV Ever Given long vessel across the waterway of Egypt's Suez Canal. (AFP)
Updated 10 April 2021

Suez Canal receives Middle East’s largest dredger

Suez Canal receives Middle East’s largest dredger
  • Its maximum drilling depth is 35 m and the dredger has control, safety and security systems matching the latest standards of international supervisory bodies

CAIRO: Egypt has welcomed the largest dredger of its kind in the Middle East, the “Mohab Mamish,” on board the heavy transport vessel Xiang Rui Kou.

Dredgers are advanced drilling equipment used by the Suez Canal to cleanse the waterway of sand and mud deposits, contributing to its expansion and deepening.

The Suez Canal showed its reliance on dredgers in the rescue and re-float operation of the giant container ship “Ever Given,” which ran aground in the shipping course on March 23. The incident caused the canal’s closure for six days.

Sources said that the dredger, inaugurated by the Dutch IHC Shipyard, would begin its new duties within the Suez Canal fleet soon.

The “Mohab Mamish” has a length of 147.4 meters, a width of 23 m, a depth of 7.7 m, and a draft of 5.5 m. It has a productivity of 3,600 cubic meters of sand per hour over a length of 4 km.

Its maximum drilling depth is 35 m and the dredger has control, safety and security systems matching the latest standards of international supervisory bodies.

The head of the Suez Canal Authority, Osama Rabie, said the “Mohab Mamish” was one of the vessels used to boost the canal’s development and that the dredging fleet was the main pillar in the strategy for developing the canal’s shipping course.

It provided the best guarantee to maintain the canal’s 24-meter depth, allowing the crossing of giant ships with large submersibles.

Rabie added that the canal’s dredging fleet had recently expanded its work, joining in with the development of Egypt’s ports and the disinfection of lakes.

IHC is working on launching another dredger for the Suez Canal called “Hussein Tantawi.” The two dredgers have a combined value of €300 million ($357.06 million).

Rabie also said the authority’s machines would be developed and the tensile strength would be adjusted to carry 250,000 tons, in comparison to the current 160,000 tons to match the tonnage and size of ships crossing the shipping course.


Iran boosts nuclear program in snub to US

Iran boosts nuclear program in snub to US
Updated 11 April 2021

Iran boosts nuclear program in snub to US

Iran boosts nuclear program in snub to US
  • President Hassan Rouhani inaugurates cascades of 164 IR-6 centrifuges and 30 IR-5 devices at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant
  • The new move is a direct challenge to the US, after talks began last week aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal

TEHRAN/JEDDAH: Iran on Saturday started up advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges in breach of its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to curb its nuclear program.

The new move is a direct challenge to the US, after talks began last week aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. Washington said it had offered “very serious” ideas on rescuing the agreement, which collapsed in 2018 when the US withdrew, but was waiting for Tehran to reciprocate.

Tehran’s response came on Saturday, when President Hassan Rouhani inaugurated a cascade of 164 IR-6 centrifuges for producing enriched uranium, as well as two test cascades of 30 IR-5 and 30 IR-6S devices at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant, in a ceremony broadcast by state television.

Rouhani also launched tests on the “mechanical stability” of its latest-generation IR-9 centrifuges, and remotely opened a centrifuge assembly factory to replace a plant that was badly damaged in a July 2020 explosion widely attributed to Israel.

Rouhani again underlined at the ceremony, which coincided with Iran’s National Nuclear Technology Day, that Tehran’s nuclear program is solely for “peaceful” purposes.

Under the 2015 deal between Tehran and world powers, Iran is permitted to use only “first-generation” IR-1 centrifuges for production, and to test a limited number of IR-4 and IR-5 devices.

When the US withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018, Donald Trump reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran, which responded by stepping up its nuclear enrichment to levels prohibited under the JCPOA.

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Iran’s latest move follows an opening round of talks in Vienna Tuesday with representatives of the remaining parties to the deal on bringing the US back into it.

All sides said the talks, in which Washington is not participating directly but is relying on the EU as an intermediary, got off to a good start.

However, US allies in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, believe any revived deal should also cover Iran’s ballistic missile program and its regional meddling through proxy militias in Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere.

Iran has demanded that the US lift all sanctions imposed by Trump before it resumes compliance with the JCPOA. The US insists that Iran must act first.

“The United States team put forward a very serious idea and demonstrated a seriousness of purpose on coming back into compliance if Iran comes back into compliance,” a US official said.

But the official said the US was waiting for its efforts to be reciprocated by Iran.

Iran is also demanding an end to all US restrictions, but the JCPOA covers only nuclear sanctions and not US measures taken in response to human rights and terrorism issues.

(With AFP)


Coptic prayers suspended in Egypt as virus cases rise

Coptic prayers suspended in Egypt as virus cases rise
Egyptian Christians worshippers attend Christmas Eve mass at the Coptic Catholic St. Mark Church in Minya city, in Cairo on January 6, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 10 April 2021

Coptic prayers suspended in Egypt as virus cases rise

Coptic prayers suspended in Egypt as virus cases rise
  • Prayers will be limited to priests and a few deacons during the restrictions

CAIRO: Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church has suspended Mass prayers in seven dioceses following a rise in daily coronavirus cases.

Prayers were suspended at the dioceses of the Virgin Mary in Fayoum, Archangel Michael in Aswan, Asna and Armant in Luxor, Akhmim in Sohag, Tahta and Juhaina in Sohag, Nag Hammadi in Qena, and Sohag.

“The suspension follows a significant increase in coronavirus cases recently,” said Besada El-Anba, bishop of Akhmim.

He said that priests will continue daily Mass with a number of deacons without people attending for an indefinite period.

“The diocese of Aswan started suspending Coptic prayers in churches during the holy week and resurrection,” the bishop added.

“Mass prayers will be limited to priests and a limited number of deacons,” said Bishop Hani Bakhoum of Sohag.

Anba Kyrillos, bishop of Nag Hammadi, said that the suspension of prayers will begin on Monday and will continue on until further notice, depending on health advice.

Prayers will be limited to priests and a few deacons during the restrictions.

Other dioceses have taken precautionary measures to confront the outbreak of the virus, including holding Mass with 25 percent of the church’s capacity, stopping church activities, services, Sunday schools and conferences, and closing cemeteries.

Priests have also been advised against making home visits.