MAHER MEZAHI and ZAHRA RAHMOUNI
THE Sahara desert is synonymous with Algeria. It covers more than 80% of its national territory and is responsible for producing most of its wealth through agriculture, natural gas and crude oil. Those populations living in the deepest corners of the desert and most in need of help paradoxically remain the most marginalised.
Nowhere is that truer than in the province of Adrar, where it is not uncommon for temperatures to exceed 50°C during the infernal summer months. Local meteorologists have even drawn what they call the “triangle of fire” between the provincial cities of Adrar and Reggane, and the city of In Salah, about 280km away. The province, spread out over 424 948km2 in the southwestern corner of the Algerian Sahara, falls in one of the hottest regions in the world.
It is evident that matters are grim when Mother Nature’s pall-bearer commits suicide. Locals in Adrar claim that a number of crows have killed themselves in the province. Zoologists around the world are yet to determine whether the birds are capable of voluntarily taking their own lives, but eyewitness accounts have them torpedoing straight into the ground. Preliminary theories say the phenomenon could be occurring because of dehydration, or perhaps the crows are being duped by a mirage. But it is further proof that the summer months in Adrar are difficult for any living being.
Hotter more often
According to experts in climatology, the effects of climate change only worsen the already harsh living conditions in Adrar. Abdelkader Laaboudi, director of the Algeria National Institute of Agronomic Research’s experimental station in Adrar, says blistering temperatures are being observed more often. “We have recorded temperatures of around 49°C during the summer since the 1940s, but that was very infrequent – perhaps one or two days in a month. In recent years, it is the number of days per month where [such] maximum temperatures are recorded which are increasing.”
The station recorded minimum and maximum temperatures for Adrar province between 1980 and 2017. Between 1980 and 2000, the average minimum temperature for January was -0.18°C, rising to 1.77°C between 2000 and 2017. The average maximum temperature in July also increased by half a degree centigrade during those same periods.
In 2018, Adrar went viral in Algerian cyberspace when a Facebook photo emerged of a resident stepping outside in the sun and photographing a thermometer, which showed it was a mind-blowing 65°C. If it had been corroborated, the reading would have set a world record, but standard measuring conditions stipulate that temperature gauges must be shielded from sunlight. On 8 July 2018, it was 54°C in Adrar – a new national record for Algeria.
Effects on education
After eight years of teaching in the province of Adrar, Leila Assas decided to move to the capital of Algiers to dabble in social entrepreneurship instead. The Oran native worked in the tiny village of Azgar, 70km from the picturesque oasis of Timimoun. She had been in pursuit of adventure when she first arrived in Azgar, and was quite surprised when she managed to find a job teaching French in a primary school. Many regions in the southern Sahara lack language school teachers, and the government even supplements salaries with hefty bonuses to attract qualified candidates.
Assas says Azgar lies in a rural area “where the inhabitants live along the rhythm of the seasons”. She, too, soon began to understand how climate change interfered with her work. “I observed climate change when sandstorms occurred more often and they became increasingly unpredictable,” she said. “The seriousness of the issue really hit me when I saw how the elder ladies of the village were shocked by them, because it is not good for the harvest.”
Apart from agriculture, education has been the most affected by the change in climate. The province of Adrar has historically recorded the lowest literacy rates in Algeria. In the most recent census, which took place in 2008, 19.2% of men had never had a formal education and 34.9% of women had never been to school. As a result, 26.3% of the population is illiterate, according to the National Office of Statistics.
Assas says poor government decisions contribute to such low literacy rates. With education being managed from the capital, the impact of the hot weather in far-flung locations such as Azgar is not taken into consideration. “Everything is centralised in Algiers, so we start the school year at the same time as everyone else in the country,” Assas explained.
“School generally starts in the first week of September. Here it is very, very hot during the first week of September. Some kids become ill or have nosebleeds or faint. The situation is not viable so we start school at 6:30am and do half-days for a couple of weeks, even if this is done without authorisation. Everyone is tired, but we make up the time lost throughout the year.”
The end of the year is as problematic as the beginning, says Assas. “We practically finish the school year at the end of April. The first year I was shocked, but then I understood we were waiting for laws that conform to our specific conditions. We finish the school year two months ahead of time, even though we officially sign out on 4 July like everyone else.”
Cities can’t stand the heat
A long-time resident of Adrar, Mustapha Abdelhak, says poor planning and unsuitable infrastructure are aggravating the problems of living in such heat. “There is no urban planning,” said the father of three. “We used to have small spaces between housing projects where there were drafts of air, but everything is becoming congested. For example, the neighbour in front of our house built a second floor and blocked the wind that comes from the north. Then we built a third floor and blocked the neighbour behind us.”
According to some estimates, the population of the province has more than doubled since the 1990s, and the urban planning that followed has prioritised a housing crisis instead of intelligent city design. “When I first moved to Adrar in 1988, we would not turn on the air conditioning until the end of May. Nowadays, we turn them on from the beginning of May,” said Abdelhak.
Assas says the construction materials used to build schools are unsuitable for hot temperatures. “Our classrooms are not adapted to the heat. They are built with cinder blocks and industrial bricks that heat quickly. We start to feel the heat from the springtime. Sometimes we have three or four air conditioning units in one classroom of 20m2 and it is still not enough.”
Another problem in Adrar is that transport is unreliable, which is especially problematic for students who travel long distances to school. It is not uncommon for a student in Adrar to travel up to 30km each day for a secondary or tertiary education. “School buses are very, very old. When they arrived, some of my students would break into laughter because of the macabre sounds they made,” said Assas.
Though Algeria has made undeniable progress in boosting its population’s literacy rates since independence in 1962, residents in Adrar believe the government in Algiers must start taking the effects of climate change into account when making education decisions. The same applies to much of the planning that affects their living conditions. – NEW FRAME