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Ecology, Culture, and Nature's Distressed Equilibrium -
Desertification in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) States of the Arabian Peninsula.

Andy Spiess
Associated with
University of Hamburg
Department of Economics and Policy
Center for International Relations


Recently land degradation in more arid regions of the world such as the Arabian Peninsula has especially in the view of progressive population growth become a serious concern. The threatening phenomenon manifest as desertification may be defined as a condition of human-induced land degradation, which is primarily caused by anthropogenic activities, such as excessive cultivation due to inappropriate agricultural projects, proliferation of invasive aliens, overgrazing, deforestation and other forms of land resource exploitation in particular oil and gas surveys. Inadequate irrigation practices, persecution and socio-economic changes, the latter apparent especially in the decline of traditional farming and land-use practices, such as the dissolution of nomadic rotational grazing patterns, exacerbate this process severely. From this perspective 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. Nomadic grazing systems in arid and semi-arid regions on the other hand have evolved over many centuries into a complex set of practices and knowledge that has permitted the long-term maintenance of a sophisticated “triangle of sustainability” that includes plants, animals, and people as a rational response to erratic climates with limited annual precipitation. Yet in recent years the accelerating economic development in most of the GCC countries has resulted in a more sedentary nomadic lifestyle. While the traditional pastoral nomadism as a production system no longer exists, the dependency on range forage as a basic fodder resource has declined from 100 to less than 20%. Nomadic movements have been mechanized and operations commercialized. In addition a great shift from traditional camel-rearing to sheep-raising took place. Socio-economic changes involving livestock subsidies and the introduction of water tankers increased herd sizes manifold to suit the new economic conditions. This expansion in the sizes of production operations, besides other social changes, resulted in a growing demand for expatriate labor. In order to accommodate the shortfall from the rangeland, farmers have relied on growing exotic forages with high water requirements as supplementary fodder. 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. Desertification should however, be reviewed in the context of sustainable development, since the phenomena 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. Broader environmental issues, such as climate change, biological diversity, and freshwater supplies, are indirectly related, so any effort to resolve this environmental challenge must entail coordinated research efforts and joint action. However, even though the social consequences of desertification, such as a decline of productivity and an increase in poverty, have been recognized, desertification studies generally lack an analysis of underlying socio-cultural forces. 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. The aim of this paper is to review and reassess the land degradation and desertification problem in the GCC countries especially 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. While trying to identify the principal causes of this type of degradation considering the institutional framework, special emphasis will also be given to the perspectives of culture, ecology, and the dynamic relationship between the two. 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 our 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.