Heat wave, raging fires take toll across Maghreb
Tunis- More than 18,000 hectares of the Maghreb’s forest cover have been lost in about 1,700 fire outbreaks in recent weeks, when extreme weather fanned blazes and forced hundreds of people to flee homes and farms at the edge of forests.
Farmers have lost hundreds of fruit trees and parts of their herds to the fires, some of which were deliberately set, officials said.
Two shepherds, aged 44 and 45, died August 8 while trying to save their herds trapped by fire in Bou Shaba forest in north-eastern Algeria, the Interior Ministry said.
Temperatures of more than 47 degrees Celsius were recorded across the Maghreb, amplifying the effects of an extended drought in some areas.
Tunisian emergency department services official Salah Korbi said that, as of July 29, there had been 94 forest fires across eight provinces. Tunisian Secretary of State for Agricultural Production Omar El Béhi said nearly 2,000 hectares of forest had been lost to fires.
Algerian Agriculture Minister Abdelkader Bouazgui told farmers during a meeting in the eastern region of Jijel that 1,600 fires were reported since early July, causing the loss of more than 15,000 hectares of forest across northern Algeria.
He said an unknown number of fruit and olive trees, herds and honey bee hives had been lost by farmers across the country because of the fires.
Algerian Interior Minister Noureddine Badaoui said farmers could receive government compensation for damages but only after investigations had been conducted.
Authorities in Algeria and Tunisia said they suspected some fires had been deliberately set. Investigators’ suspicions were raised by the rapid spread of fires and relatively high number of incidents compared to those in similar areas in previous years.
Officials in Algiers blamed a “charcoal mafia” for staging most of the fire outbreaks. In Tunisia, authorities arrested more than 17 people, most of them suspected of instigating the fires in the hope of drawing benefits from the arson.
“A charcoal mafia had caused the fires to collect the wood they would sell as charcoal during the Eid al- Adha feasts,” said Algerian Director General of Forests Azzedine Sekrane.
He said the fires amounted to “the highest number of blazes in Algeria’s history.”
Colonel Major Khalifa Chibani, spokesman of the Tunisian National Guard, said at a news briefing that authorities had opened 26 investigations of suspected arson perpetrators.
“Investigations proved that some former forest temporary workers had staged fires under the assumption that the government would call them back to work to help put out the fires,” he said.
Chibani did not comment on a report by the Al Chourouk daily, which quoted “security sources” as saying “the outbreak of the dozens of fires at the same time in the north-western forest strip in Tunisia is linked to a plot by terrorist groups based in Libya.”
“The terrorists plotted to stage a huge attack throughout the border at a time when military and police forces were to be deployed to help put out the fires,” the newspaper reported, adding that “top security officials were rushed from Tunis to check reinforced security measures at the border to ward off the plot.”
An ominous signal for the region about the effects of the heat wave came from the Sahara Desert, north of Mauritania, where at least ten camels died because of extreme weather. Camels have long been a symbol of resistance to extreme heat in the region.
Scientists in the Maghreb warned that forest fires and scorching weather were giving the region a taste of the effects of climate change in the coming decades.
Algerian climatologist Kadi Lamine said: “Indeed, hot weather is the beginning of a long period of heat wave because of climate change.
“The impact of that change would be swift and brutal. We will experience extreme weather conditions during summer and winter. The region will switch from period of heavy rains to severe drought without passing by moderate seasons of spring and autumn.”
Tunisian researchers Sahla Mezghani and Yadh Labbene, modelling studies about climate change, said that “the heat waves will increase, adding to the conditions that help spark forest fires.”
They urged Tunisian officials to prepare a “national strategy that would adapt farming, water resources and the ecosystem to climate change.”
Moroccan climatologist Mohammed-Said Karrouk also predicted rising cycles of drought, a high frequency of heat waves and rare instance of rainfall in Morocco and the region in the coming decades.