Northern Africa is characterized by mostly arid areas, yet land resources play a pivotal role in its development and the well-being of its people.


The main three land-use categories are cultivated land, forests and rangelands. Agricultural land constitutes 233 590 ha, which is nearly 28.8 per cent of the total land area (FAOSTAT 2005).

Figure 5: Northern Africa: arable land Arable land in Northern Africa is of varied soil characteristics, which belong to the Aridisol group. Aside from the alluvial soils of the river basins, the desert soils are of inferior chemical, physical and nutritional properties. In general, soil resilience is rather weak with rapid responses to development and degradation.

The extent of use of arable land varies considerably among the countries. Some countries have already fully utilized the land resources available to them, while others are still to fully utilize them. In Sudan, for example, there are vast areas of potential arable land yet to be developed. The extent to which irrigation is used varies dramatically, with 99.94 per cent of all agricultural land in Egypt being under irrigation, compared with less than 1.5 per cent in Algeria and Sudan (FAOSTAT 2005).

Over the past 50 years, the traditional systems of cultivation and conservation have broken down. Productivity has declined as soil erosion from overcultivation and overgrazed lands has reduced soil fertility. Coupled with naturally inadequate drainage, this has led to the accumulation of high levels of soluble salts, especially in Egypt and Sudan. In Egypt 3.4 million ha of all agricultural land is irrigated (FAOSTAT 2005). About one million hectares are suffering from primary or secondary salinization (Goossens and others 1994). This is in part due to the use of saline drainage water and brackish water in irrigation.

More than 57 per cent of the total land of Northern Africa is threatened by desertification (CAMRE and others 1996).


The continued expansion of the oil sector contributed to an overall growth rate of 4.8 per cent in 2004, close to that in 2003 (ECA 2005). Gross Domestic Product was projected to be 5.2 per cent for 2005, led by growth in the agricultural sector, assuming good weather conditions and continued gains from oil through foreign investment inflows to oil-related activities in Libya, Mauritania and Sudan (ECA 2005).

Growth in tourism in Morocco and Tunisia offers opportunities for development. In Egypt, tourism continues to be an important industry and a key factor in its sustained growth of 3.2 per cent in 2004 (ECA 2005).

Figure 6: Northern Africa countries: agricultural area (as per cent of land area) Land cultivation is becoming increasingly dualistic in nature. A high technology agribusiness sector is developing alongside traditional smallholder agriculture. The cultivable land covers between 22 and 25 per cent of the total land area. The percentage of agricultural land (including arable, forests and rangeland) to the total land area ranges from 2.6 per cent in Egypt to 77.4 per cent in Morocco. The percentage of irrigated land as a percentage of arable land varies between nearly 100 per cent in Egypt, where rain-fed agriculture is almost negligible, to around 15 per cent in Morocco and Sudan, where arable rain-fed areas amount to 16.1 per cent and 3.32 per cent respectively. The expansion and intensification of land use in marginal dry areas has greatly exacerbated the risk of land degradation.


Land resources are affected by population dynamics. Since 1970, the population size has doubled and is continuing to grow at an average of 2 per cent per year. Population growth, coupled with the resulting higher consumption of food commodities, places new pressures on resources (Miladi 1999).

Despite the increase in agricultural land resources, the rapid population increase has caused a decline of the per capita share of cultivated land. High population in coastal towns, such as Alexandria in Egypt, is resulting in pollution-related degradation and thus threatens the tourism industry as well as local livelihoods.

Degradation processes of the available land resources are varied and widespread. The main pressures include rapid population growth, climatic stresses, drought and overgrazing. The resulting impacts include serious losses of soil through wind and water erosion, loss of soil fertility, loss of biodiversity through degradation of natural plant cover and deforestation, pollution of land and water resources, increased soil salinity and waterlogging, and social impacts including increased poverty and rural-urban migration.

Combating such degradation processes is of paramount importance for the sustainable development of the land resources, improving agricultural productivity and food security, securing a safe environment and enhancing socioeconomic benefits. In response to the various adverse impacts of degradation processes, the countries of Northern Africa are carrying out various activities to assess and monitor the degradation processes.

Lack of secure land tenure has been reported as a major constraint to land development (FAO 1993). Lack of secure property rights is a hindrance to land development and improvement, and does not support the development of trade. It may be a factor in environmental degradation.

Earthquakes are one of the natural disasters faced by Northern African countries. Establishing a regional network of seismic stations is necessary if the Earthquake Prognostics Strategy is to be implemented. Other tasks of high priority are:

  • Studying the relation between the modern tectonic movements and the seismic activity to make micro- zonation maps which may be applied to better designed buildings, dams and power plants;
  • Increasing public awareness and preparedness for earthquakes in threatened areas; and
  • Facilitating insurance and the development of technologies which provide physical defence against the negative impacts of earthquakes.