Algeria, The Burning Rights. Who Must Be Held Accountable for the Wildfires - Climate Change or the Government?
Researcher on Environment and Human Rights, Global Human Rights Defense.
The summer of 2021 impressively demonstrates the link between extreme weather events and climate change. Heat waves, floods and wildfires alarm international actors, governments, climate change activists and people around the globe. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report made it clear: climate change is exacerbating the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.
The Mediterranean has become a flashpoint with raging fires in Turkey, Italy, Greece, and Algeria. Temperatures soared to 50°C, with Syracuse, Sicily reporting the highest temperature recorded in Europe at 48.8°C. While heat alone is not a trigger of wildfires, climate change is increasing the likelihood of hot, dry conditions in which wildfires thrive.
Fires can easily cause harm and deprive people of their fundamental rights. The close correlation between environmental degradation and people’s access to human rights has become clear over the last two decades. The impacts of the wildfires affect physical and mental health, livelihoods, and ecosystems. The role of government is irreplaceable in preventing and mitigating these potential impacts. Through a good management system, governments prepare to respond to fires and provide resources and personnel to mitigate the consequences afterwards. A country's failure to protect the natural environment, and the resulting harm to humans, can be considered as far as a human rights violation.
The fires in Algeria this summer were the most devastating and resulted in the death of at least 90 people. What are the causes of the fires and the reasons why the country could not prevent a high death toll? What can be done to prevent a recurrence? Where does Global Human Rights Defense stand?
Wildfires in Algeria. Main facts 2021
Summer wildfires have always been a part of life in Algeria – every summer about 10 million acres of forests are affected. This summer, wildfires have been affecting the mountainous areas of the Kabylia Region, northern Algeria since 9th of August (Figure 1). So far, 127,829 ha of land has been burned. According to the Relief Web portal, the highest number of fires occurred in the wilayas of Bejaia and Tizi Ouzou with 1.502 and 1.733 fires respectively. These are the regions with the highest population density - above 210,000 people live near the fires.
Figure 1. Fire outbreaks in Algeria. 11 August 2021. Source: Nasa Earth Observation.
Local reports indicate that at least 90 people died due to the fires, including 33 soldiers who died during rescue operations. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) reports 107 injured, 5000 displaced, and 6850 affected persons, 2000 of whom are being assisted. The people of the Kabylia region are experiencing life threatening conditions, including limited access to water and forced displacement.
The death toll is unprecedented and much higher than in other countries in the Mediterranean region which experienced similar fires. This raises the questions of the origins of the fires and effectiveness of authorities’ response.
The role of climate change in the Algerian wildfires
A recent study on fire activity in Mediterranean forests and specifically in Algeria during the period 2000-2019 shows that the main cause of forest fires throughout Algeria is man-made fires. Fires intentionally set or associated with agricultural and forestry activities account for 53% of all fires with a known cause. There are a variety of reasons for starting fires: land speculation, charcoal production, urbanization, arson, and security reasons. The Algerian presidency has blamed two groups it recently classified as terrorist organizations for the devastating forest fires. So far, authorities have detained more than 60 people suspected of starting the fires. However, the investigation is still ongoing.
In Algeria, the temperature reached 49°C on several days in August. While this is indeed a rather normal temperature for the region during peak months, this year's burned area indicator is twice as high as the full year average from 2008 to 2020 (127,829 ha compared to 66,480 ha). The risk of wildfire depends on a number of factors which are directly or indirectly related to climate change: temperature, soil moisture, and the presence of trees, shrubs, and other potential fuels.
Weather phenomena are rarely the cause of fire ignition (cases involving lightning), but rather have a catalytic effect. While it is not possible to finitely establish the extent to which climate change exacerbated the fires in Algeria, it makes fires more likely and more severe through hotter and longer heat waves and prolonged droughts.
Government response to the wildfires
In response to the fires, the Algerian Government mobilized the People National Army including over 900 men and 12 fire engines. As stated earlier, at least 33 soldiers died due to the lack of necessary equipment or training. The reason for sending the Army to fight the fires was the failure of firefighters to handle the crisis on their own. The lack of equipment, such as firefighting aircrafts, prevented successful emergency response in the mountainous region to the fires of this magnitude with only fire engines.
The government requested assistance from the international community in response to the fires. The Algerian Red Cross has been working together with the government in supporting affected people by distribution of household items and food. The European Union (EU) has contributed to firefighting efforts through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism with two Canadair aircrafts, which successfully contained the fires in Tizi Ouzou and Bejaia.
Although it is almost impossible to obtain budgetary data for firefighting in Algeria, it can be deduced from the facts that not enough had been invested in forestry, otherwise the fire would have been contained more effectively (e.g. the government could have responded immediately if they had firefighting aircrafts in possession and could have possibly prevented soldiers' death if they had the possibility to deploy a sufficient number of well-trained firefighters). Moreover, the international community showed relative indifference to the situation in Algeria. The two factors together played the central role in the deterioration of the fires.
What must be done
The Algerian government now has two main tasks to accomplish. First, it must identify the causes of the fires. Upon the completion of the investigation, the government has the responsibility to take the necessary measures to prevent a recurrence, regardless of whether the causes are criminal, natural, or agricultural. The international community and Human Rights organizations must work closely with the Algerian government to ensure appropriate and effective actions.
Secondly, the government must commit to environmental protection and emergency response enhancement and provide necessary financial and human resources to the disposal of the Ministry of Agriculture, which has full responsibility for development of the forestry sector. In the recent United Nations Global Forest Goals Report 2021, Algeria has made a promising claim by declaring “Improving fire prevention and suppression” as its official objective. In the country where forest fires are yearly phenomena, the government must be able to provide firefighters, aircraft, and equipment to assist the population in need.
Global Human Rights Defense stands next to those affected by the wildfires in Algeria. Through advocacy and reporting, Global Human Rights Defense aims to raise awareness of the correlation between the impact of climate change on people's access to human rights and the role of governments in ensuring these rights.