Torrid wildfires further ignite threats from climate change

Unprecedented wildfires have ravaged the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa in recent weeks [Getty Images]
13 August, 2021
In recent weeks, wildfires have ravaged the countryside of North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean, resulting in human and livestock casualties, scorching the earth beyond repair. After the damning IPCC report, what can we do, or is it too late?

Wildfires are raging across Europe and North America, a testament that climate change affects the Western world as much as any other corner of the globe.

Concurrent blazes in the Middle East and North Africa, a region better known for breath-taking deserts than for serene forests, have received far less attention.

Nonetheless, the wildfires that have struck Algeria, Lebanon, and Turkey remain just as dire as the infernos licking the skylines of California and Greece. Summer by summer, global warming is starting to make its presence felt over the world.

The rapidity with which these wildfires have jumped from one country to another suggests that the Middle East and North Africa will have to brace themselves for a deadly summer

The blazes first hit Turkey in late July, spreading across 15 kilometres and forcing evacuations from the southwestern Manavgat district.

By early August, the wildfires had extended across the country’s southern coastline, displaced thousands of Turks, and caused at least eight deaths. “The fires that happened this year never happened in our history,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said after the flames breached a coal-fired power station in Milas.

Coinciding with the emergence of the wildfires in Turkey, reports of forest fires have arisen in Lebanon. Before the end of July, the blazes took the life of a teenager volunteering with Lebanese firefighters and – by the estimate of one mayor –consumed two million square metres of trees.

The wildfires soon found their way to Syria, forcing Syrian authorities to deploy military helicopters to contain the burning. Meanwhile, Lebanese President Michel Aoun sought assistance from Cyprus, a previous ally in forest protection, to halt the advance of the flames.

Algeria has suffered perhaps the most devastating wildfires in the region in recent weeks. Blazes there have resulted in at least 65 deaths, among them 28 soldiers who lost their lives battling the inferno; another 12 soldiers fell into critical condition.

The forest fires, which started on August 9, soon multiplied across the north of the country. The European Union, tackling its own set of blazes in Greece, agreed to provide Algeria with two planes for aerial firefighting.

Rather than representing the height of climate change’s consequences, the wildfires in Algeria, Lebanon, and Turkey seem only a portent of what may become a regular occurrence.

Forest fires have since appeared in Tunisia, Algeria’s western neighbour, a disturbing development for a country already struggling to contain a COVID-19 outbreak that is claiming dozens of lives a day.

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The rapidity with which these wildfires have jumped from one country to another suggests that the Middle East and North Africa will have to brace themselves for a deadly summer.

Experts attribute many of the world’s new infernos to heatwaves induced by global warming. Even Siberia, notorious for its icy temperatures, is succumbing to wildfires for this very reason.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, an American government agency better known as “NASA,” recorded a “scorching” heatwave that rolled over the Middle East in June, leading to temperatures above 50°C in Iran, Kuwait, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.

While the future likely holds many more forest fires for the Middle East and North Africa, the experiences of this summer will incentivize taking additional precautions in anticipation of an escalating threat

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an arm of the United Nations, released a headline-grabbing report the same day as the wildfires in Algeria began. Offering further reason for alarm, the report’s authors observed “strong precipitation deficits” in the Middle East in recent years.

They also predicted a “​​continuing decline in glacier mass and area in the coming century” in the region, a worrying prospect for the dwindling glaciers in Iran and Turkey. Anadolu Agency, part of Turkey’s state-owned media, called the report’s findings “sobering.”

As the likelihood of wildfires in the Middle East and North Africa increases with each year, the importance of protecting the forests that remain will also grow.

In 2019, a series of wildfires destroyed 3 million trees, reversing 15 years of Lebanese progress on reforestation

Past blazes already contributed to substantial losses of tree life in the Middle East. An inferno in Lebanon, described as the worst in decades, burned trees across 1,200 hectares in October 2019. Earlier that year, a series of wildfires destroyed three million trees, reversing 15 years of Lebanese progress on reforestation.

Algeria, Iran, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey have experienced their own wildfires in the last few years. This problem has become a region-wide environmental issue, which may engender cooperation between the governments of the Middle East and North Africa.

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Egypt has dispatched military helicopters to help other countries combat wildfires, an indication of its willingness to partner with its neighbours. Oman, a long-time model for environmental protection, has also taken a proactive approach to forest management.

The Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, two of the Middle East and North Africa’s most popular forums for regional diplomacy, have dedicated resources to preparing for the effects of climate change.

However, dealing with global warming will require greater collaboration. Soon, countries from Algeria to Saudi Arabia may take advantage of these channels to develop a joint strategy for battling wildfires and overcoming heat waves.

While the future likely holds many more forest fires for the Middle East and North Africa, the experiences of this summer will incentivize taking additional precautions in anticipation of an escalating threat. The blazes in Algeria, Lebanon, Turkey, and further afield have served as a deadly reminder of climate change’s role in oncoming devastation the world over.

Austin Bodetti is a writer specialising in the Arab world. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired. Any opinion or analysis expressed in his work is by him alone and is not associated with any other entity with the exception of appropriate source attribution.