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Desertification of Romania - Mihael Gubas

The price of sunflower seeds has risen staggeringly due to a dual phenomenon that rarely attracts attention, especially now that the focus is on a pandemic. This year, Romania (and other countries in the region) witnessed the worst drought in 150 years. Record high temperatures further complicated the absence of rainfall. Agricultural production is facing a natural disaster. For example, 30 percent of sunflower crops became extinct, leading to shortages and soaring oil and seed prices. As Romania is one of the largest sunflower producers in the EU, the consequences have been felt across the continent.

Already hit hard by problems in the spring, farmers hit rock bottom in late September when the state had to intervene and distribute compensations. As is usually the case, large landowners (usually large foreign companies) profited the most, while small producers were forced to face bankruptcy. The situation is serious because no agricultural crop is safe from drought. Maize crops, which are otherwise considered notoriously resistant, have also been hit hard. Experts estimate that the consequence of this will be manifested next year, when the full effect of this year's crisis will be felt by most of the population, in the form of twice the price of bread. Monthly food price inflation is already high. For example, in the case of fresh fruit, it is a staggering 30 percent. The pandemic and drought created the conditions for the perfect storm.

The almost complete absence of irrigation infrastructure is responsible for such huge consequences of the drought. Brutally dismantled after 1989, when the land was returned to its previous owners, the current infrastructure is insignificant compared to the needs. Farmers are reluctant to engage in such infrastructure investments that would eat up their profits due to high costs, while the state is not ready to do so. That paradoxical situation escalated this fall when the state paid more compensation to farmers than it would have originally invested in upgrading infrastructure. The fundamental problem here lies in the two criteria: safety nets for private entrepreneurs (companies) and temporary compensation to farmers when the situation becomes acute.

This ultimately perpetuates the problem. Occasional state intervention - when the situation becomes unbearable - only works in the short term. The lack of a strategy does not cure the problem in the long run. On the contrary, ignoring it makes it bigger because droughts are our new normality. The state will not be able to compensate for the destroyed crops for a long time. It is unsustainable in the long run, especially in the increasingly unstable climate witnessed by the current epidemic that requires constant state financial injections. This year is also an election year, so the current government tried to find new political allies in farmers with bailouts. But next year is unelected, and perhaps with a lack of political interest, there will be no funds for the bailout of agriculture. Either way, the current arrangement will surely face the end of its terminal state.

To make matters worse, drought is not a unique problem or an extremely rare natural phenomenon. It is a symptom of something much more ominous: the planetary climate crisis. Its effects are already visible: almost a third of Romania's territory (mostly in the south) is already affected by desertification, or desert expansion, or such a development is expected soon. The 2018 EU report warned Urbi et Orbi of desertification dangers that threaten six EU countries, including Romania. Such a process can have unpredictable social and economic consequences.

Historic Romanian regions such as Oltenia and Dobruja have changed dramatically over the last 30 years or less. Once known for its watermelons, the area south of Oltenia is now a desert. When the winds blow, the dust from there travels to Bucharest, which is more than 200 kilometers north. Impoverished and desperate local growers have abandoned traditional crops in hopes of succeeding in growing exotic plants such as kiwis, dates, or olives. The process is hampered by expected obstacles, the biggest of which is desertification, forcing people to move to more temperate climates.

The situation in Dobruja is much worse. The previously drought-prone area between the Danube and the Black Sea was unsuitable for large-scale agricultural production. Sheep farming and wine production were the most characteristic activities ensuring the population's livelihood, which could not grow anything more than vegetables in their private gardens. Chronic water scarcity now puts many poor people in an even worse position. Drought accompanied by record temperatures leads to the drying of wells and even lakes (see picture). If these conditions continue, this region, otherwise home to a million people, is on the brink of uninhabitability in its rural areas.

It would be easy to dismiss the desert expansion in the south of the country as "natural," but that would be a completely wrong assessment. Leaving aside all the broad and complex causes of the climate crisis, Romania's desertification has very clearly known causes, all related to the political economy of transition. As I have already mentioned, the irrigation system was dismantled in the process of privatizing the country. The owners then cut down the forests to expand the arable land, which they would then extensively pump to produce the maximum amount of crops to maximize profits. All logical, except that deforestation, was mostly done illegally, so deforestation has become an increasingly intense problem in Romania in recent decades. Such an attitude towards land has led to progressive land degradation that has absorbed excessive amounts of pesticides in the agricultural process. The drought has only exacerbated the existing problems of the agricultural sector subordinated to large landowners' interests eager for massive monoculture crops for export. Desert expansion, i.e., desertification, in Romania, is ultimately the result of very concrete political decisions and perhaps one of the least discussed consequences of the reforms implemented in the last 30 years.

Unfortunately, this problem is not the least bit easy to solve, especially since it is a systemic problem, i.e., that the entire economic-agricultural process is not based on sound foundations. Several heartfelt environmental activists routinely take it upon themselves to plant trees in the affected areas to stop the desert expansion process. Their actions deserve praise, yet they are difficult to characterize other than as symbolic. It would be of fundamental importance to drastically change current agricultural practices, seriously related to generating profits as quickly as possible in one production cycle and fast sales. Since no farmer will do so voluntarily, the state should intervene, but it lacks the capacity and political will. It is predicted that the cycle will be interrupted when production becomes physically impossible and profits melt in the barren land. That moment is not far away.

Long-term effects pose additional challenges for agriculture. A trip to rural Dobruja gives us an insight into the future. Entire villages are deserted, some even resembling ghost settlements. As life becomes unsustainable in many areas, migration will increase, and so will the pressure on limited available resources.


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