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After winning independence from France in 1969, the Islamic Republic of Mauritania annexed what is now Western Sahara, but was forced to cede the territory in response to repeated guerilla raids. After a coup in 1984 unseated the existing government, steps were taken to broaden political power. Although a free election was held in 2001, a bloodless coup in 2005 transferred power to a military government that pledged to move Mauritania toward democracy and away from the autocracy that still exists.
With a per capita income of $2,000, Mauritania is ranked 182nd in world incomes. Half of the workforce is engaged in agriculture, although less than one percent of land area is arable. One-fifth of Mauritanians are unemployed.
Forty percent of the people in Mauritania live below the official poverty line, and there is considerable income disparity. The richest 10 percent of Mauritanians share 30.2 percent of the wealth, while the poorest 10 percent claim only 2.5 percent of resources. The United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Reports rank Mauritania 152 of 232 countries on overall quality of life issues.
In addition to iron ore, which comprises 40 percent of export income, other natural resources include gypsum, copper, phosphate, diamonds, gold, and oil. Fishing has traditionally made up an essential element of the economy, but overexploitation by visitors to the country is threatening this important resource. Oil production is estimated at 75,000 barrels a day. Mauritania is still struggling with heavy debts and qualified for the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative in 2000.
Bordering on the North Atlantic Ocean, Mauritania has a 754 kilometer coastline. Land borders are shared with Algeria, Mali, Senegal, and Western Sahara. With the exception of a few hills in the central part of the county, Mauritania is generally comprised of the barren, flat plains of the Sahara Desert and the desert climate is hot and dry.
Drought may occur with devastating results in Mauritania at any time of the year. From March to April, the sirocco winds-which are hot, dry, and laden with dust-blow over Mauritania, creating major environmental damage. Elevations range from five meters at Sebkhet Te-n-Dghamcha to 915 meters at Kediet Ijill.
Environmental health is a major issue in Mauritania just as it is in other poor countries of Africa. Only 63 percent of urban residents and 45 percent of rural residents have sustained access to safe drinking water. While 64 percent of urban residents have access to improved sanitation, only nine percent of rural residents have similar access.
The population of 3,177,388 people is at very high risk for contracting food and waterborne diseases that include bacterial and protozoal diarrhea, hepatitis A, typhoid fever, and the respiratory disease meningococcal meningitis. In some areas, the people also have a high risk of contracting malaria and Rift Valley fever. Women are particularly at risk from the fertility rate of six children each. The dissemination of birth control and other environmental health information is hampered by a literacy rate of 31.9 percent for females and 51.8 percent for males.
Deforestation, which occurs at a rate of 2.7 percent annually, is a result of the population’s demand for fuel and construction materials and the traditional practice of clearing the land for agricultural use by slash-and-burn tactics. These methods have produced extensive soil erosion, and agricultural mismanagement has led to overgrazing.
When these processes are combined with frequent drought, increasing desertification is a foregone conclusion. The entire country is subject to locust infestation. Outside the area surrounding the Senegal River, fresh water resources are limited. For this reason, the population is concentrated around Nouakchott and Nouadhibou in southern Mauritania, resulting in a 61.7 percent rate of urbanization. Water pollution has been caused by dumping raw sewage into waterways, along with agricultural runoff and industrial effluents and oil spills. A project is in the works to build a dam on the Senegal River intended to deal with the shortage of water for human consumption and agricultural usage.
In 2006, scientists at Yale University ranked Mauritania second from the bottom of all countries scored on environmental performance, significantly below the relevant income and geographic groups. Particularly low scores were assigned in the categories of biodiversity and habitat, air quality, and environmental health. Between 1980 and 2002, levels of carbon dioxide emissions jumped from 0.4 to 1.1 per capita metric tons. The decrease in forested land is leading to major loss of biodiversity. Only 1.7 percent of all land area is protected by the government. Of 61 identified mammal species, 10 are endangered, as are two of 172 bird species.
In the late 1980s, the Mauritanian government began working toward developing a national program to deal with mounting environmental problems. Subsequently, the Ministry of Rural Development and Environment prepared the National Work Plan for the Environment, and policies were instituted to work toward achieving the goals of promoting sustainable development, achieving food self-sufficiency, rehabilitating problem areas, ensuring the rights of inhabitants to remain in their homes, checking rates of deforestation and desertification, and instituting water and power programs. The National Council for Environment and Development was also created to coordinate environmental issues. Mauritania participates in the following international agreements on the environment: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Desertification, Endangered Species, Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, and Wetlands..
- Timothy Doyle, Environmental Movements in Minority and Majority Worlds: A Global Perspective (Rutgers University Press, 2005);
- Kevin Hillstrom and Laurie Collier Hillstrom, Africa and the Middle East: A Continental Overview of Environmental Issues (ABC-CLIO, 2003);
- Valentine Udoh James, Africa’s Ecology: Sustaining the Biological and Environmental Diversity of a Continent (McFarland, 1993).