Climate Connections: Algeria vs. the Sahara
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
Our yearlong series on climate change continues today with a look at issues facing one North African nation. Algeria is the second largest country in Africa, much of it Saharan Desert. Problems of drought and desertification are threatening the country's food supply. And experts fear that changing weather patterns could bring a recurrence of natural disasters, like the flash floods that killed more than 700 people in 2001.
NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.
PETER KENYON: After the French conquered Algeria in the 1830s, legions of colonial farmers greatly increased the country's arable land base, turning mosquito-infested swamps into productive farmland. At its peak, colonial Algeria provided for more than 90 percent of its own agricultural needs.
Today, Algeria imports more than 60 percent of its grain, in large part, experts say because of the socialist policies of Algeria's post-independence governments. The climate change is also contributing to oblique outlook for Algeria's farmers.
Mr. KEMAL JUMARI(ph) (Deputy Minister, Ministry of Environment, Algeria): As you know, Algeria is one of the African countries, which is very vulnerable to the climate change and the global warming.
KENYON: Kemal Jumari, deputy minister of environment, is Algeria's point man on climate change. He says farmers are threatened by irregular water supplies and other problems related to global warming. He says salt levels are rising in the soil and despite the country's huge land mass, the spreading desert is adding more pressure to the fertile lands in the north. A one-degree rise in temperature, he says, could accelerate all of these problems.
Despite its current worries, Algeria is proud of the fact that it was one of the first African countries to recognize one piece of the changing environment - desertification. In a massive project in the 1970s, the Algerian military was converted into a tree-planting army, erecting what became known as the Green Wall in an effort to slow the spreading sands of the Sahara.
Moqtar Farhad(ph), a meteorologist with Algerian State Radio, says the Green Wall put Algeria on the climate change map long before many other African countries recognized the problem.
Mr. MOQTAR FARHAD (Meteorologist, Algerian State Radio): (Through translator) It was built in the '70s for almost 1,500 kilometers from the Moroccan border to the Tunisian border. So it was one of the biggest to challenge. In fact, it was one of the biggest fields of the environment in the '70s.
KENYON: But as with any early environmental efforts, mistakes were made. Deputy Environment Minister Jumari says planting thousands upon thousands of Aleppo pines did help, but their reliance upon a single species left the Green Wall vulnerable to disease.
Mr. JUMARI: The most important problem was the (unintelligible) into this Green Wall. It was only one species used and it was the many disease on it. For now, these many efforts and the national plan for reforestation, these many other species of trees, which are planted in the Green Wall.
KENYON: Besides the threat to food and water supplies, people living in some Algeria's neighborhoods are worried that changing weather patterns could bring more extreme weather events. In 2001, more than 700 residents of the poor Bab el-Oued neighborhood perished in a flash flood.
Student Whalid Benkharush(ph) lives in one of the crumbling shacks built on impossibly steep slopes above Bab el-Oued, which means gate of the riverbed. He says when the floods came, nature returned Bab el-Oued to its origins and all he could do is watched the water destroy everything in its path.
Mr. WHALID BENKHARUSH (Resident, Algeria): (Through translator) It took several things - the people, the cars, the trucks. People dying, we've seen a lot of people screaming and they've been in the buses, and they're screaming and even with that, I couldn't help them and we've seen them going to die.
KENYON: Down below on the main street at the bottom of the hill, 29-year-old Elias Nowaser(ph) says he lost his brother Selene(ph) that morning as a wall of water and mud more than 20 feet high roared to the neighborhood on its way to the sea. He says the water had nowhere to go in part because the government had closed the colonial era sewer system after Islamist militants used it to carry out attacks during clashes in the 1990s.
Mr. ELIAS NOWASER (Resident, Algeria): (Through translator) Today's sewer system left by the French, they're huge and terrorists, they go inside, the government's locked them and the whole water has been stopped(ph).
KENYON: Government officials say they've learned the lessons of 2001 and it built new infrastructure in Bab el-Oued and other neighborhoods that are vulnerable to flash floods. But the shinny towns are still lining the hills above Bab el-Oued with no more protection than they had then. And residents are wondering what other surprises North Africa's changing climate may have in store for them.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Algiers.
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