North Africa’s wildfires are a grim warning

Published online 26 August 2021

This summer’s wildfires in Algeria and Tunisia are a warning of the global warming effects predicted by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report if the world doesn’t soon switch direction.

Nadine El Sayed

Villagers attempt to put out a wildfire in Achallam village, in the mountainous Kabylie region of Tizi Ouzou, east of Algiers, Algeria. Picture taken August 11, 2021.
Villagers attempt to put out a wildfire in Achallam village, in the mountainous Kabylie region of Tizi Ouzou, east of Algiers, Algeria. Picture taken August 11, 2021.
Abdelaziz Boumzar/ REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo
Wildfires are common in Algerian forests. But this year’s fires have caused more damage in two weeks than all fires have over the past 12 years. More than 100 wildfires have broken out since August 19, killing at least 90 people and destroying tens of thousands of hectares surrounding Larbaa Nath Irathen, Beni Douala and Ait Mesbah. Forests in Tunisia also began catching fire in June, affecting around 5,000 hectares of land.

“Forest fires are a natural phenomenon, especially during heat waves,” says agronomist, Larid Mohamed, at Abdelhamid Ibn Badis University of Mostaganem in Algeria. “This year has been exceptional, probably strongly linked to global warming.”

Algeria has around 1.7 million hectares of forests, important for protecting watersheds against water erosion, siltation of dams and mudslides. 

The fires came amid extreme weather conditions sweeping the region, presenting a dire manifestation of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report warnings. The report, which was released the same day the Algerian fires broke out, predicts a global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels within the next 15 years; a far cry from the international goal set by world leaders in 2015 to limit warming to 1.5°C by the end of the century. 

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is not only heavily affected by these changes, but also greatly contributes to global warming. “Greenhouse gas emissions are the main human influence on the observed climate changes,” says Sonia Seneviratne, professor of land-climate dynamics at ETH Zurich. “These are mostly associated with the burning of fossil fuels, such as petrol, coal and gas. The Middle East and North Africa [regions] strongly contribute to these emissions, both through their consumption and their export.” 

The effects of global warming

The IPCC report indicates that burning fossil fuels and releasing gases that heat the Earth has warmed the planet by 1.1°C compared to the average temperatures between the period of 1850 to 1900. 

“All countries in the Middle East are already strongly affected by climate change,” says Douglas Maraun, climate researcher at the University of Graz, in Austria, and lead author of the Working Group 1 contribution to the IPCC’s report. “Rainfall has been decreasing since the 1980s for much of the region, apart from southern Egypt and the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula.” 

Seneviratne adds that while all MENA countries are affected by heat waves, this tendency will become stronger with increasing global warming. “Both the Mediterranean region, which includes North Africa, and West-Central Asia are displaying a trend towards an increase in agricultural and ecological droughts,” she says. “In the Mediterranean region, there is also a demonstrated human contribution to this trend.”

If the current practices continue, Maraun says the MENA region could see substantially stronger warming of 3 to 4.5°C. “Away from the coast, this would translate into more than 40 additional days per year with daily maximum temperatures above 40°C.” This means extended dry periods along the Mediterranean coast. 

What can be done

The report predicts the trend could be reversed if governments take immediate and drastic actions. Algeria, for instance, still has a chance to help its forests regenerate. “Algeria needs to strengthen the forestry sector with sufficient human and material resources to renew its recently burned forests,” says Mohamed. “Reforestation plans exist and are being implemented in different regions of the country. They focus on the biodiversity of forest species, especially those that are less sensitive to fire, and on anti-fire management plans,” he adds. 

Maraun explains that limiting global warming to less than 0.5°C compared to the present climate, or 1.5°C compared to preindustrial conditions, would drastically limit the projected changes. “But reaching this target would require immediate, fast and large-scale cuts in greenhouse gas emissions,” he says. 

The most important legislation changes in the region, according to Seneviratne, should be related to fostering alternatives to fossil fuel consumption and export. “The region should invest in alternative economic options,” she says.