“The Forests of Al Jabal Al Akhdar”: the lung of Libya in the face of climate change

After their home in Tripoli, Libya’s capital was destroyed, Saleh Khaled and his family relocated to Al-Bayda in the Al-Jabal Al-Akhdar district. Saleh was not the only one, as many Libyans sought shelter from the ravages of war in the quiet Jabal Akhdar region.

Saleh, who had fled the battles and conflict between armed militias and the political apparatus, worked as a farmer in Al Jabal Al Akhdar region to support his family, but he soon found himself in the middle of another war: climate change, human encroachment on the area, and cutting down trees for the purpose of investing in it.

“Saleh,” a young guy in his thirties, encounters heavy rain every year, but in recent years, those rains have developed into huge floods and torrents that eat green and dry on their path and wash away the upper part of the soil, which loses its fertility and quality, and productivity declines as a result.

Climate change impacts coincide with some human influences in Al Jabal Al Akhdar region. “In recent years, the area has been subjected to significant cuttings of trees, in addition to haphazard building in the roads and paths of the annual rains, which led to huge floods and torrents, resulting in human and economic losses to the area,” says Qassem Mahjoub, a resident of the area.

Al Jabal Al Akhdar region is considered Libya’s most humid region since it receives more annual rainfall than the rest of the country, exceeding 600 mm on occasion compared to 50 mm in other places.

Al Jabal Al-Akhdar region is located in the northeast of Libya and is characterized by its diverse vegetation cover, which contains 75-80 percent of Libyan species and 50 percent of the total number of endemic plants. The region also has more than 100 plant species that are widely used in folk medicine, in addition to their economic values such as honey production or industry.

Libya lost 273 hectares of vegetation cover between 2001 and 2020; accounting for 4% of its total area, the first region responsible for this loss by 54% was the Libyan Al-Jabal Al-Akhdar region, which alone lost 147 hectares in the same period.

This resulted in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide equivalent) of approximately 22,182 million tons over the same period.

According to Dr. Muhammad Ali Khalifa, Head of the Department of Forestry and Range at the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Omar Al-Mukhtar University, the effects of climate change in the Al-Jabal Al-Akhdar region are represented by fluctuations in the amount of rain, so the rainy cycle has become unknown in time and space, and hurricanes have resulted, the causes of which we do not understand.

Similarly, torrential rains are a new and emerging phenomenon in Jabal Al-Akhdar, he added. There are seasonal rains, and we know where they come from or how they end, which is natural. However, in the last three years, they have become surprising and have taken a different path.

Abdulsalam Agwaida, an environmental activist and faculty member at Omar Al-Mukhtar University, concurs. He claims that the amount of rainfall varies from year to year, which is normal, and that this is due to a variety of factors, the most important of which is the extent of the impact of atmospheric depressions and their proximity to plants, as well as the rain of the convection currents, but in general, the rainfall in the region tends to decrease over time.

The danger, according to Agwaida, is in changing the behavior of rain. In the event of prolonged and strong rainfall, the soil becomes saturated with water and loses its ability to absorb other quantities, resulting in vast amounts of water rushing on the earth’s surface, generating torrential torrents, and the situation becomes more dangerous in the case of slopes as is the case in the regions of Al Jabal Al akhdar.

According to Aguider, the human intervention resulted in the transformation of the shape of the land through the random and unplanned construction of some buildings and housing units, which caused an imbalance in the tilt of the land, and blocking the course of these torrents and not paying attention to the rainwater sewers forced it to seek another path to end. It has severe torrential rains that are destroying residential communities.

Map: Al Jabal Al akhdar and changes to it (Changes in the forests of Jabal Akhdar over the years)

Many regions in Libya have been vulnerable to torrential torrents, the most recent of which was the floods in Tanaks village in October 2021, which destroyed homes and swept away many cars. The 2019 floods also resulted in the devastation of properties and the loss of two lives. Floods suddenly rushed over the Al-Bayada neighbourhood in 2018, drowning most of the residences and causing damage and material losses. The Security Directorate declared a state of emergency in Jabal Al-Akhdar in November 2020 as a result of the high amount of rainfall and the occurrence of torrential rains, which resulted in only material damages, as notified by the Directorate.

Photo credit: Mohamed Ali Khalifa

According to Muhammad Khalifa, the head of the Department of Forestry and Range at Omar Al-Mukhtar University, flood losses do not stop at the soil and the severe rains are causing farmers to lose their domestic animals, which are their main source of income.

Rare plants are about to extinction

In the Jabal Al Akhdar region, several rare plants and trees grow solely in these places and are utilized for medical purposes.

According to environmental activist Abdulsalam Agwaida, the risk of rare plants is that they are only found in one section of the world, Al- Jabal Al Akhdar region. If the climate changes, it will cause a change in the needs of this plant, such as its need for rainwater, temperatures, and other environmental requirements, resulting in the deterioration of the plant’s state and eventual extinction.

According to Dr. Muhammad Ali Khalifa, Al Jabal Al Akhdar region has lost about 60% of its vegetative cover of endemic (rare) plants and trees due to climatic changes and human causes.

Because of the high temperatures in the summer and the increased rainfall in the winter, pests, and insects that play a major role in rotting and dying trees multiplied, forcing farmers to shift their agricultural activity to a tourist one.

Khalifa sees the impact of this on the production of bee honey, which depends on the Arbutus Pavari trees that are found only in Al Jabal Al Akhdar region, which led to a decline in production due to the change in the season of flowers and flower production, and this had a direct economic impact on beekeepers.

Photo credit: Mohamed Ali Khalifa

Abdulsalam Agwaida, an environmental activist, agrees with him. He claims that high temperatures have an economic impact on the region’s beehives, where bee activity has been reduced due to their inability to collect enough nectar, particularly in the afternoon, resulting in a fall in the amount of honey produced.

He goes on to say that temperatures in Al-Jabal Al-Akhdar region vary in relation to the location’s elevation. Temperatures in some areas of Al Jabal Al Akhdar may reach higher than normal levels in the summer, when the maximum temperature exceeds 40 degrees Celsius, despite the fact that they are high mountainous areas, but the length of the heatwave has increased in recent years from several days to several weeks.

 This is evident in the forest fires, according to Agwaida, who sees that it has become a feature of the summer season, which has repeatedly occurred during the past years, especially in the hot days in which the active dry southern winds prevail at times. In 2013, several fires broke out, the largest of them in terms of the area were the Al-Wasita Shahhat fires with an area of ​​5400 hectares, followed by the Battah and Wadi Haboun fires with an area of ​​907 hectares, as well as the fires in the Ras al-Hilal area with an area of ​​250, which led to losses in natural vegetation cover and other property losses in addition to eliminating species Lots of wildlife and their habitats destroyed. Then the fires continued in several places, many in Jabal Al-Akhdar, until this year 2021.

Was the war a contributing factor to the deterioration of the situation?

Dr. Muhammad Ali Khalifa says that some believe that the war does not affect climatic changes in Al Jabal Al Akhdar region, and this is, of course, wrong, because the war affected a very important factor, which is the weakness of the state, the application of the law, the weakness of the security services and the spread of weapons among citizens, which made the attacks on trees increase in an unprecedented manner in Al Jabal Al Akhdar region, and no one can deter them or stop them because they possess white and heavy weapons.

This story was originally published on Arab Lite, with the support of Climate Tracker.

Eman Mounir
Eman is an independent investigative journalist from Egypt. Keenly interested in scientific, environmental, and feminist stories, she’s received an award in New Media from the University of Bournemouth in the UK, and other award in scientific journalism from the German Goethe Institute. She’s currently nominated for the True Story Prize in Switzerland, and previously nominated for Thomson Foundation’s Young Journalist Award. Eman studied Data Journalism with a 6-month diploma by ICFJ and ARIJ Network for Investigative Journalism. Currently, she is a fellow to ONE WORLD MEDIA foundation in United Kingdom.