How MENA's economic and climate crises add fuel to wildfires

A Syrian man inspects a scorched area in the aftermath of a forest fire which ravaged swathes of land in the countryside of the western city of Tartus
05 September, 2023
Arid climates, deforestation, and urbanisation have each aggravated the risk of wildfires in the MENA region. Countries have scrambled to find strategies to mitigate this, however, without resources, they remain at the mercy of the climate crisis.

Researchers said that July 2023 would be the hottest month on Earth in history. According to the World Meteorological Organization, the global average temperature for July was 16.95 °C, exceeding the previous record set in 2019 by a third of a degree Celsius. 

In the Arab region, temperatures soared to unprecedented levels with Egypt and Algeria experiencing temperatures exceeding 45 °C, while some cities in Iraq recorded temperatures close to boiling point.

The world has experienced intense heatwaves in the past six weeks, which led to numerous forest fires in various countries, including those in the Middle East and North Africa region. Countries such as Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon have suffered casualties and significant losses in vegetation and animal life due to these fires.

"Drought is a perfect condition for fires. It is not the only reason for wildfires in the MENA region however as human activities such as deforestation and burning rubbish or agricultural waste close to the forest also cause wildfires"

Perfect conditions

The eastern Mediterranean countries of Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and Palestine, as well as the northwest African countries of Algeria and Morocco, are among the most vulnerable to wildfires in the MENA region. 

It is anticipated that heatwaves can have negative effects on wildfires in the MENA region. A simple explanation is that vegetation can dry out during unusual heat events, making it more flammable. Excessive evaporation of soil moisture during these prolonged heat events also stresses vegetation and makes it more prone to fire, according to Ahmed Kenawy, professor of climatology at Mansoura University, Egypt. 

Ahmed told The New Arab that some of the common plant species in the region's drier areas, particularly those that have adapted to the dry climate, contain oils and resins that can be very combustible, especially during heat waves. However, depending on the prevailing weather conditions, these effects can vary greatly from one region to another. 

Hotter temperatures dry crops and increase the chance of wildfires
Hotter temperatures dries out crops and increases the risk of wildfires [Getty Images]

Professor Ahmed Kenawy also pointed out that increased humidity during these heat events may reduce the likelihood of wildfires in coastal areas.

Lower humidity accelerates the drying process of vegetation and decreases the moisture level of lifeless organic matter, such as leaves, twigs, and grass, which makes them more prone to burning in interior regions. In certain parts of North Africa, like Egypt, local hot winds, such as the Khamisin, can rapidly spread wildfires, particularly in late spring.

Hesham Eissa, an environmental expert, told The New Arab that winds can rapidly spread wildfires, making them difficult to contain and control.

Also, human activities in the extreme heat during heatwaves may lead to increased use of fire-related activities, such as outdoor cooking or burning waste, which can inadvertently spark wildfires.

Hesham explained that climate change is also affecting wildfires by releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, further exacerbating global warming. "This, in turn, can lead to more frequent and intense heat waves, creating a vicious cycle that increases the risk of wildfires in the region." 

Regional struggle

Morocco is one of the countries in the region most affected by forest fires, and the authorities used Canadair (amphibious) planes to extinguish the fires while evacuating the residents of the areas near this forest. The temperature was recorded at 50.4 degrees Celsius in the city of Agadir, in the centre of the country. 

At the end of last July, the National Agency for Water and Forests in Morocco announced that the number of fires registered from the beginning of January to the date of July 24, 2023, amounted to 222, in which the fires swept 10,000 square meters. Forests cover 12 percent of the country. 

Since the start of this summer, numerous fires have erupted in various regions of Algeria, with the most intense one hitting the northeast of the country, causing the death of 34 individuals, including ten soldiers, in late July. Additionally, the Algerian authorities have disclosed that the fires that affected multiple states last month resulted in the damage of 11,500 people, 972 buildings, and 24,000 hectares of land.

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In Libya, the National Center of Meteorology announced last week that temperatures had risen, touching 49 degrees Celsius in some internal areas. At the same time, fires continued to break out, causing no deaths or injuries, but palm trees were damaged in different parts of the country. 

The same dangers extended to Tunisia, which witnessed the outbreak of seven fires that spread to some populated areas as well as the destruction of large areas of agricultural crops close to the Gall ranges. Fires of varying size and strength also broke out in Lebanon and Palestine. 

In Syria, the high temperatures caused fires to break out in agricultural and forested areas, especially on the Syrian coast, which witnessed widespread damage. The largest fires were in the countryside of Latakia Governorate, which lasted for five consecutive days in the coastal forest areas and required the intervention of Russian helicopters, along with Syrian ones, to extinguish them. 

Professor Ahmed Kenawy believes that wildfires are common in these countries because of the typical Mediterranean climate: wet winters and dry, hot summers. "Symbolic cedar trees, for instance, are a common target of forest fires in Lebanon. The 2010 Carmel forest fire in Palestine was one of the deadliest in the country's history. Importantly, the high rates of urbanization in these countries, especially in close proximity to forested areas, raise the danger of forest fires, especially those started by humans." 

Mitigation is a must

Theresa Wong, a geographer and Climate Change Officer in the FAO Regional Office for the Near East and North Africa, said that the region is highly vulnerable to climate change and that the climate is expected to be hotter and drier in the future. "Drought is a perfect condition for fires. It is not the only reason for wildfires in the region however as human activities such as deforestation and burning rubbish or agricultural waste close to the forest also cause wildfires." 

She explained to The New Arab that wildfires have significant environmental impacts, affecting various ecosystems and natural processes. Some of the major environmental impacts of wildfires include loss of biodiversity, soil degradation, maintaining the water cycle, and air pollution. It also makes the livelihoods of people who rely on these forests difficult. 

Wong mentioned that the FAO supported the creation of a regional network on forests and wildland fires (Near East Network on Wildlands Forest Fire, NENFIRE). "We supported countries to have a fire management plan, such as Morocco, Lebanon, and Algeria. It is important for countries to include fire mitigation processes in their national strategies to combat climate change."

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Nevertheless, Ahmed Kenawy said that implementing cutting-edge monitoring systems that make use of satellite technology, drones, and ground sensors to spot potential fire spots is one possible form of early warning. "In addition, it is crucial to encourage international partnerships that pool knowledge, skills, and labour."

The professor of climatology affirmed that since wildfires know no international boundaries, fighting them may be more effective if done at the regional level. "In the affected regions, it is also crucial to establish buffer zones between wilderness and populated areas. Community participation in fire prevention efforts is also encouraged through volunteer fire departments.

Mohammed El-Said is the Science Editor at Daily News Egypt. His work has appeared in Science Magazine, Nature Middle East, Scientific American Arabic Edition, SciDev and other prominent regional and international media outlets

Follow him on Twitter: @MOHAMMED2SAID