UN Enviroment Programme

Chapter 10. Status of soil pollution in Near East and North Africa


Author: Talal Darwish (FAO-GSP)

The Near East and North Africa (NENA) region consists of 20 countries. These include Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, the Syrian Arab Republic, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen (Figure 1). With a significant part of its territory either desert or degraded lands (more than 80 percent by area), the NENA region has a low proportion of productive soils.

Figure 1. Countries included in the Near East and North Africa (NENA) region as considered in this report.

Source: UN, 2020 modified with data from FAO, 2021.

The total population in the NENA region is over 485 million people, of which rural populations represent approximately 38 percent (FAOSTAT, 2019a). However, Kuwait has no rural population, while Qatar has less than one percent. In Bahrain, Jordan and Lebanon, the rural population is between 8 percent and 10 percent. The rural populations of Libya, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates represents between 10 percent and 20 percent of their total populations. These countries rely mostly on imports for food security and so agriculture is only a minor source of pollution. Algeria, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Iraq, Morocco, Palestine and Tunisia still have rural populations varying between 20 percent and 40 percent of their total populations. Agriculture is more prevalent in Egypt, Mauritania, Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, and Yemen where greater than 40 percent of their populations are rural.

The gross domestic products (GDP) of countries in the NENA region differ widely varying between USD 5.5 billion and USD 30 billion in 2019 (World Bank, 2019). They can be grouped into two categories: wealthy countries (Algeria, Egypt, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Iraq, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates) and less wealthy countries (Mauritania, Palestine, Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen). Qatar has the highest GDP per capita in the region (USD 68 325), and the lowest is in Yemen (USD 797). Fourteen of the 20 NENA countries have a GDP of less than USD 10 000 per capita (World Bank, 2019).

Spanning over 14 percent of the Earth’s surface and hosting 10 percent of its population, the NENA region falls in the hyper-arid, arid and semi-arid climatic zones. NENA pedo-climatic conditions present major constraints for soil development and soil conservation. The soils of the NENA region are predominantly calcareous with poor structure and low concentrations of organic matter (Darwish, Atallah and Fadel, 2018). According to the FAO-UNESCO digital soil map of the world and soil database, the region contains 1 700 geo-referenced soil profiles (FAO, 2007). The predominant soil types in the region are Aridisols (4 670 km2), Lithosols (2 914 km2) and Regosols (1 193 km2). The vast majority of NENA soils are vulnerable to degradation, except Cambisols, Fluvisols and Regosols, which show some resilience to human impact and contamination.

A detailed review of the literature concerning drivers of soil pollution in the NENA region identified many studies on hazards of air quality deterioration by wind-blown contaminated dust, vehicles emissions and energy consumption. Most published papers and reports focus on the polluting effect of dust, and of industry, while fewer papers focus on pollution from the application of fertilizer and pesticides, and their effect on public health, agricultural lands and ecosystems. None of the countries or the region as a whole has established a regular monitoring programme or database for polluted soils. Consequently, this assessment was prepared from information from the literature review, and from the opinions of national experts on soil pollution and their responses to the questionnaire.