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The role of overgrazing as an anthropogenic cause of desertification in the GCC countries: a comparative study of the situation in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia
Andy S. Spiess1, Fareed H. Al-Darwish2
1 Center for International Relations, Hamburg University for Economics and Policy,
Hamburg, Germany, phone: +971 50 7307272, e-mail: Spiess (at) ndrd.org
2 Arid Land Agriculture Department, College of Food Systems, UAE University,
Al-Ain, United Arab Emirates
In recent decades, land degradation in more arid regions of the world such as the Arabian Peninsula has become a serious concern. The threats, manifest as both desertification and land degradation in general, are caused primarily by anthropogenic activities, such as deforestation, excessive cultivation due to inappropriate agricultural projects, proliferation of invasive aliens, overgrazing, and other forms of land resource exploitation such as and oil and gas surveys. Inadequate irrigation practices, persecution and socio-economic changes, the latter apparent in the decline of traditional farming and land-use practices exacerbate this process severely.
Desertification should however be reviewed in the context of sustainable development, since it is directly connected to human challenges such as poverty, social and economic well-being, as well as environmental protection. Since land degradation caused by desertification processes affect the ability of the soil to sustain agricultural production, they concomitantly contribute to poverty. As population increases and demographic concentrations shift towards uncontrolled urbanization, the extent of land subject to stresses by those seeking to wrest subsistence from it has inexorably risen. Since broader environmental issues, such as climate change, biological diversity and freshwater supplies are indirectly related, any effort to resolve this environmental challenge must entail coordinated research efforts and joint action. The failure to act now will greatly compound the cost and complexity of later remedial efforts, and because environmental degradation is beginning to pose a major threat to human well-being, especially among the poor in the region.
Materials and Methods
One of the distinctive characteristics of research motivated by public policy concerns is that such research typically employs a variety of research methodologies. Among the social research techniques to address pressing policy problems such as environmental degradation at local, national and international level it is argued, that a multi-method integration approach reflects the multidimensionality of these concerns. Additionally, a systematic review and a meta-analysis, to collate, synthesize and utilize past research and evidence, will serve as a foundation to the study. This data will be refined, by consulting a number of relevant local experts in the region from the social as well as the natural sciences.
Public policies typically attempt to resolve complex social problems that are composed of a number of dimensions, factors, effects and causes. If solutions to complex problems are imminent, policy research must attempt to study the entire multidimensional nature of the problem. For example, perception and attitude studies still have a propensity to be sidelined in the environmental degradation debate, even thou they tend to play a vital role in finding useful implementation measures. The common view is that such studies produce data that are too subjective and of limited temporal validity. The thrust of the presentation is that understanding local perceptions of environmental change issues is a pre-requisite to effective policy intervention.
The aim of this paper is to review and reassess the land degradation and desertification problem in the GCC countries in respect to overgrazing. In so doing, we will attempt to outline the fundamental environmental constraints and opportunities in livestock production that characterizes the region. A special focus will be on to the situation in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. In this context, the study will try to illustrate the nature, extent and geographical distribution of the major forms of soil and vegetation degradation due to animal husbandry. While trying to identify the principal causes of this type of degradation considering the institutional framework, special emphasis will be given to the urgent necessity to install a network mechanism to monitor the degradation in this region and to define and implement suitable measures towards a sustainable rangeland management. In this respect, an iterative, integrated evaluation framework should be developed to identify potential indicators of degradation due to overgrazing and even other forms of desertification indicators in the GCC countries. Thou the use of formalized rangeland evaluation techniques have been proved to be very limited in the past, as they tend to be time consuming, complex and require specialist training. There is a need to develop by using participatory modes a user-friendly range evaluation tool, which is simple, rapid, inexpensive, objective, robust, reliable and linked to existing range management objectives. Such integrated assessment of rangeland conditions ultimately provides the baseline for evaluating changes in ecosystems over time; it also provides a sound basis for negotiation among stakeholders with different interests. Finally, the paper will aim to outline some important environmental policy issues, which will need to be addressed in the near future.
The native plant biodiversity of the Arabian Peninsula, which comprises roughly over 3500 species, is suffering from rapid depletion. According to a study conducted by ICARDA Arabian Peninsula Regional Program, working in collaboration with the National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS), and other institutions over 90% of the total area now suffers from some sort of overgrazing, and 44% is severely or very severely degraded. In this context, the entire sand dune system in the United Arab Emirates is for example subject to extensive grazing by camels and goats. An increasing part of the permanent pasture areas is subject to erosion because of plant cover loss due to overgrazing, particularly in the northern regions of Saudi Arabia and the southern parts of Oman. Socio-economic changes involving livestock subsidies and the introduction of water tankers have resulted in increased herd sizes and a more sedentary lifestyle amongst the nomads. While traditional grazing by domestic animals (primarily camels, sheep and goats) is a major industry, producing meat, milk and related dairy products, the relatively static livestock herds (nowadays mostly tended by expatriate labor) are in most cases not regulated or subject to any formal control. Grazing management in many contemporary desert regions still tends to be regulated by the pastoralists themselves, yet undeniably while the original socio-economic system has changed so radically, it is likely that a rigid landuse management control mechanism will in due course need to be introduced. In Abu Dhabi a number of sizable desert plots have been proposed by ERWDA as protected areas; similar initiatives to a lesser extend exist in the emirates Dubai and Sharjah. One further complexity, applicable in Abu Dhabi emirate, concerns the dissolution of nomadic practice. Due to the establishment of political boundaries, the traditional cross-country movement once enjoyed in the "Empty Quarter" has ceased to exist. Only within national borders is such movement now easily possible.
To accommodate the shortfall from the rangeland, farmers have relied on growing exotic forages with high water requirements as supplementary feed. These species however have high water requirements and hence have affected the fossil groundwater reserves dramatically. Excessive use of underground water has resulted in lowering of water table, increased salinity and in severe cases the abandonment of croplands. Indigenous grasses on the other hand are adapted to the local climatic conditions and have proofed to respond significantly to very small amounts of water.
Interdisciplinary environmental research in this field is of utmost importance since it will provide the information and understanding needed to enhance development pathways that provide alternatives to economically costly and socially detrimental environmental degradation. Furthermore it will increase scientific and institutional capacity to anticipate and cope with environmental change at all scales—local to global—with reduced social and economic disruption as well as anticipate and reduce resource-driven conflict, both inter- and intranationally.
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in PDF format
[Paper presented at the International Conference on Human Impacts on Soil Quality Attributes In Arid and Semi – Arid Regions, Isfahan University of Technology, September 12-16, 2005, Isfahan, Iran]