Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment and Development magazine

From Disaster Management to Resource Management

The phrase “unprecedented” has become a common description in the past years, in media reports about natural disasters such as forest fires, droughts and floods. It sounds as if the world is witnessing a streak of record-breaking calamities, matching breaking records in sports, except that those are not harmless competitions as in basketball and swimming.

Natural disasters cause huge human losses and billions of dollars’ worth of damages to infrastructure and properties. What makes things worse is that these are expected to become more frequent and stronger, due to climate change, and what we consider “unprecedented” today will become a “precedent” a year later.

While it is true that these natural disasters are in large part due to the effects of climate change, it is also true that one underlying cause is due to failure in planning, from land use to forests and water, and management of natural resources in general. Therefore, it shouldn’t be acceptable to stand by and wait for the required reduction in carbon emissions to limit rising temperatures and confront climate change.

Climate change has become an excuse that some officials use to justify shortfalls, as if they had no power or ability to prevent deterioration. In many cases, action is almost limited to preparing to deal with disasters after they occur, such as spending huge budgets on firefighting equipment, including sophisticated vehicles, planes and gear, while neglecting the proper planning and personnel training.

Forest fires will increase, and the Arab region will not be spared.

This will not be the last time that fires destroy forests in Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, or dry up the waters of rivers and underground wells, from North Africa to West Asia, including the Nile Valley and the Gulf. Nor will the temperature in Basra reaching the maximum ever recorded on earth, as happened early this month, be a passing event.

All these call for a rapid shift from disaster management to resource management, according to integrated scientific programs, in addition to developing proactive plans to confront emergency situations, starting with predicting them well before they occur.

One of the basic measures in forest management is to plant several different types of trees. Some trees are more susceptible to drought and thereby more susceptible to burn, which helps the fire spread quickly to large areas.

The diversity of forest trees also helps in the fight against diseases and harmful insects, such as one type of worm, whose flocks move in processions, and strike oak trees after they nest in them. In addition to killing trees, this poisonous worm with bristles has a dangerous effect on humans, as it causes fatal injuries to the eyes and respiratory system.

Oak has spread in vast areas across Europe, for its ease of cultivation and rapid growth, while other species were neglected. The spread of the poisonous worm was aided by the diminishing of its natural enemies, such as birds and insects.

For years, extensive campaigns have been carried out to restore diversity to forest trees, with the aim of giving them immunity. When some oak trees dry up and become an easy target for fire, other types of trees will remain to keep the forest surviving.

While it was believed that dead leaves, twigs, and trunks should be left on the forest floor because they help nourish the soil, rapid climate changes today require the removal of a large part of them, because they cause fires.

Contrary to what some environmental groups demand, in good faith, to not build roads within forests and to prevent any cutting of trees, it is necessary to build corridors and establish spaces free of trees, in order to divide the forest into different areas isolated from each other by spaces that block the spread of fires.

This also facilitates the access of firefighting teams in case of emergency. A useful measure is to encourage grazing of animals in these areas to clear them of weeds.

Some people were surprised to learn earlier this year that the US Forest Service had started fires that covered large areas of forests between the United States and Mexico. These fires, which got out of control due to errors in execution, were deliberately intended to prevent larger fires.

It is a traditional practice known since old days, where the indigenous people set fire to a specific drought-stricken area, after isolating it from its surroundings, as a preemptive step to prevent the sudden outbreak of fire at an inopportune time and its spread uncontrolled to other areas.

It is equally necessary to strengthen monitoring capabilities to detect the outbreak of fires at an early stage, whether by human monitoring or by installing sensors or via satellites, which can detect the rapid rise in the temperature of a particular area. This has to be accompanied by the identification of locations which are most at risk, and classifying them as hot spots requiring special attention.

Since many of the forest areas are private properties, it is necessary to educate owners and residents of the neighborhood and train them on the ways of preventive care, besides techniques of responding to fires.

No less important than wildfires are the recent exceptional droughts, which cannot be resolved by ad-hoc emergency measures, and cannot wait for reduction of carbon emissions.

Climate change certainly exacerbates droughts and water scarcity, but this does not mean that there aren’t quick measures that can be implemented through better water management and sustainable food production.

In the Arab region, the conviction is growing that before other countries can claim the inalienable right to a greater share of river water, the downstream countries must enhance water efficiency and reduce waste. They should also plan to enhance food security by choosing types of crops that are suitable for dry areas and require less water, even if this requires a shift in some food habits.

The droughts that hit Europe this summer have prompted governments to discover major policy and management gaps, with a lack of proactive planning.

The Netherlands, for example, found that low water prices do not encourage consumers to save water. Spain also discovered the danger of continuing to play the role of Europe’s vegetable and fruit garden, just to meet demands of greedy markets and generate more profits. Hundreds of dams that Spain had built in its dry regions are no longer enough to irrigate ever expanding land dedicated for cultivating profitable export crops, as well as to irrigate golf courses for tourists.

The problem, therefore, cannot be reduced to the exacerbation of drought and water scarcity due to climate change, but also to the imbalance between the limited renewable resources and economic ambitions.

Rational management of resources, which respects the capabilities and limitations of nature, is cheaper and more feasible than being satisfied with advanced equipment to confront disasters.