Desertification in the Dobrogea: Romania’s agricultural lands are eroding away

Environment | Grasslands

By Andrei Mihail, Freelance Writer

Published February 19th, 2022

As one of the biggest agricultural producers of Europe, Romania now faces the wrath of climate change, with large areas of the country experiencing desertification. Drought is now becoming the norm, water becoming scarce, and tornadoes have struck for the first time; local communities are getting desperate.

Dobrogea is a region of Romania bordering the Black Sea. It has historically benefited from a mild climate and rich soil favouring agriculture. Today, around 300,000 people live in its surrounding rural areas, with many practising farming. For the past few years, however, yields have decreased and their land seems to be turning to sand. The reason? Desertification.

Map of Romania showing areas of desertification. | Clima României / Administrația Națională de Meteorologie

Desertification is defined as the process of land degradation specific to arid and semi-arid areas, which turn productive soils into non-productive deserts. The arid steppe climate has always been present in Romania, but it used to be confined to a few kilometres inland from the sea. It now covers a significant portion of the country’s land and it is expanding fast.

In the county of Gorj alone, in southwestern Romania, over 10,000 hectares a year are approximated to no longer meet the criteria for economically viable agriculture. In as soon as 30 years, over a third of the country could be classified as arid steppe.

‘Over a third of Romania could become unsuitable for agriculture, Dobrogea being hit the worst’.

Romania is considered to have a temperate continental climate, which features the classic four seasons and no dry season. According to EU statistics, Romania has one of the highest potentials for agriculture and historically has been called ‘the Granary of Europe.’ But that will soon change; the summer of 2020 brought 132 Red Alerts for high temperature, the most in recorded history.

Higher temperature, less rain, stronger wind

The average surface temperature in Romania is already higher than historical averages. Since preindustrial times, global temperatures have risen by roughly 1.2°C. This increases drought risk and makes the soil more susceptible to erosion. According to a 2009 study, the content of nutrients and organic matter in soil has already greatly diminished compared to 1957 levels.

Corn growing out of reddish sand. | Razvan Dima / Greenpeace Romania

The rising temperature is due to climate change, a global phenomenon which Romania is contributing to by being an exporter of oil and natural gases. However, the effects are exacerbated by poor land management practises.

Lack of windbreaks or irrigation systems, inefficient crop rotation and intensive use of fertilisers and pesticides are just some of the aggravating factors. Moreover, as land loses vegetation cover, the effects of raindrop impact on erosion, surface runoff, and wind erosion are accentuated.

Lost harvests and demographic shift

All over Romania, despite investment initiatives and subsidies, crop yields are either stagnating or falling. This forces many subsistence farmers to sell their land or seek additional work to cover their expenses. Many lack the necessary qualifications to seek work in the competitive job markets of the big cities, so they prefer to find seasonal unqualified work abroad, in Italy, Spain and the UK.

Entire villages are often almost empty, except for children and their grandparents, while their parents try to earn a living elsewhere. In search of a better life, many Romanians choose to leave the country altogether. The demographic shift is telling; Romania is expected to be the first EU country to have a larger diaspora than the domestic population.

A brief history of windbreaks: monarchy, communism, democracy

Land management was historically supported by state projects. The monarchy planted forest barriers (windbreaks) during the beginning of the 20th century, as was popular in many kingdoms at the time. According to historians, the standard was two hectares of trees for every 40 hectares of field.

These windbreaks provided shade to field workers and created a stable microclimate. Moreover, as the name implies, they slowed the powerful winds specific to Dobrogea, helping to avoid land erosion.

A drone’s view of the border between Bulgaria and Romania, the Bulgarian border has windbreaks separating fields, while the Romanian one does not. | Greenpeace Romania

Eventually, the socialist regime started a process of quick industrialisation. This process erased many traditional land management practises and replaced them with standardised ones. Many local adaptations and inventions were destroyed and replaced with an infrastructure megaproject: a national irrigation network able to supply water to more than three million hectares of arable land.

The drive for maximum efficiency led to a cut down of the windbreaks. The socialist regime considered that science-based management of land and the use of chemical fertilisers and artificial irrigation rendered the windbreaks obsolete. After the revolution of 1989, most of the land was sold and the irrigation system was scrapped.

Underfunding, corruption and inefficient land management made it so that during the 2020 drought, one of the worst in Romanian history, a meagre 200,000 hectares were irrigated countrywide.

‘The drive for maximum efficiency led to a cut down of the windbreaks.’

Today, with the windbreaks long gone and the irrigation system scrapped, small farmers struggle to get by. They had previously benefited from the moisture retention of the windbreak or from the easy access to water that the irrigation system offered. The rain is getting rarer, and most Romanian farmers do not have the funds to adopt new systems of irrigation.

By 2050, it is expected that there will be a significant increase in streamflow during winter (due to the melting of glaciers and the change from snow into rain). The increase of streamflow can lead to flooding in late summer and autumn, which consequently can increase severe droughts during the remainder of the season.

Overall, there is a good chance that a significant part of Romania’s rural population will essentially be stuck in a cycle of droughts and floods, without the necessary funds to adapt. While the state and insurance agencies cover losses, as the climate crisis worsens, funds will run thin一this is why climate adaptation is vital.

Flat regions in Romania have seen tornadoes in recent years. | Rebart Imagine / Unsplash

New challenges for Dobrogea

Dobrogea has always had strong winds, which plays a part in local folklore, art and traditions. ‘Twisters’一miniature tornadoes unable to do more than lift dust一are not unusual sights. However, the increase in temperature due to climate change has made the area susceptible to a new danger: tornadoes.

Dobrogea is a mostly flat region, and the recent climatic changes make it more likely for tornadoes to form. As seen in the image above, in 2019, a tornado destroyed 120 hectares of forest in an area near Dobrogea.

Greenpeace’s ‘Green Barriers’ and new hopes

Pressure on the government to act is mounting. Individual farmers are banding together with NGOs and engineers to try and find solutions.

Promising to repair the national irrigation system is essentially a political tradition for most Romanian political parties, with little to show for it. In an underreported corruption scandal, it has been found that about a fifth of the funds meant to repair, expand and maintain the system went to ‘security’, which included allegedly guarding the areas that are considered irrecoverable.

Romania’s agricultural land is at risk of erosion and desertification due to land mismanagement and the destruction of windbreak forests. | Lawrence Chismorie / Unsplash

The aforementioned windbreaks might be the ecological solution Romania needs. Greenpeace Romania has started a campaign to create the ‘Green Barrier’, a series of natural windbreaks which would greatly improve water retention and create a more stable microclimate.

This new initiative by Greenpeace collected over 100,000 signatures, garnered media attention and is now being discussed in Parliament, with many politicians coming up in support. According to Greenpeace, the benefits are immense; converting only 3% of the worst-hit areas would increase yields by up to 300%, by preventing droughts and protecting the soil. Despite the massive public support, politicians have yet to act and time is running out.

‘This might be the biggest attempt yet to stop an ongoing desertification progress’.

Dobrogea is one of the fastest and most visibly changing areas in Europe. Yet, if the attempts to prevent desertification are successful, both ecologically and socially, then it might be one of the most resounding victories against climate change, providing a model that can be scaled up and applied in different nations.

Featured Image: Mihai Lucîț | Flickr

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