Weak governance exacerbates the deepening land crisis in the Middle East and North Africa region, according to a new World Bank report that urges broad reforms to improve land use and access amid increasing stress from climate change and population growth.
Titled “Land Matters: Can Better Governance and Management of Scarcity Prevent a Looming Crisis in the Middle East and North Africa?”, the report shows how continuing land deterioration in a region that is 84 percent desert worsens water scarcity issues that threaten food security and economic development.
“Now is the time to examine the impact of land issues that loom large in many public policy decisions but aren’t always explicitly acknowledged,” said Ferid Belhaj, the World Bank Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa. “Quite simply, land matters. MENA’s growing population and the impact of climate change add urgency to addressing the land crisis.”
The report uses satellite imagery data to show that cropland in MENA countries decreased by 2.4 percent over the 15-year period from 2003-2018, which was the world’s sharpest drop in a region that already had the lowest cropland per capita and little margin for agricultural expansion. During the same period, the MENA population increased by 35 percent and is estimated to expand by another 40 percent to 650 million people in 2050.
Comparing land cover data with statistics on wealth inequality and other indicators, the report shows a correlation between land degradation and poor governance. In addition, state ownership of land is highest in the MENA region, but governments fail to manage land assets in ways that generate public revenues, the report says, while access to land is a severe constraint for 23 percent of firms in the manufacturing and service sectors.
Also impeding land access are social norms and laws regarding property that are more unfavorable for women in the MENA region compared to other regions, according to the report. In particular, women in MENA countries come under strong social pressure to renounce their inheritance rights over property, often without fair compensation.
“You cannot achieve sustainable economic and social development if people and businesses lack proper access to land,” said Harris Selod, a World Bank senior economist and co-author of the report.
Reforms proposed by the report include establishing transparent market-driven processes to value and transfer land, as well as developing complete inventories of public land and improving the registration of land rights. These are necessary steps to support more efficient land use and land management decisions and to ensure that land serves social, economic and fiscal functions in a region where property taxes represent less than one percent of GDP.
Land policies can also help reduce gender inequalities. A tax on male beneficiaries when women renounce their inheritance rights to property could help reduce the gender gap, with the money collected funding initiatives promoting women’s empowerment, the report says.
“Increasing land scarcity leads to strategic trade-offs about the best use of land to meet competing economic, social, and sustainability objectives,” said Anna Corsi, a World Bank senior land administration specialist and co-author of the report. “However, the holistic approach needed to address core development issues of land policy is critically lacking in the MENA region.”
The report notes that land scarcity and governance issues vary throughout the region, with countries requiring approaches that are tailored to their unique challenges. For example, wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council countries face severe land scarcity but have better land administration, while the Maghreb countries as well as Iran, Iraq, and Syria are more seriously challenged by land governance issues with less severe land scarcity. A third group — Djibouti, Egypt, Yemen, and the West Bank and Gaza — faces serious challenges in both governance and scarcity of land.
In stressing that “land matters”, the report argues that urgently addressing the MENA land crisis now exacerbated by climate change and population growth is essential for the region’s sustainable economic and social development.