When thinking about Romania’s geography, the Danube delta and the ancient forests of the majestic Carpathian mountains first come to mind. These are followed by cultural associations: the colorful traditional clothes of Romanian people, and Transylvania, a historical and pop-cultural landmark. It is there, in the castle of Vlad the Impaler, that the legend of Count Dracula started.
However, “a desert” is really not the term that will occur to anyone. In fact, it pretty much contradicts everything listed above. Interestingly, there are deserts and semi-deserts in Romania, and they are getting bigger. They are not a completely natural phenomenon, but a part of the expanding process of desertification.
What is Desertification?
By definition, desertification is “the process by which fertile land becomes desert, typically as a result of drought, deforestation, or inappropriate agriculture”. (Oxford Dictionary) Areas that are predisposed to desertification are usually those located in warm, semi-arid or arid climates. The same areas are attractive for agricultural investments because of the long growing season and the opportunity to farm praised thermophilic cultures. As the original plant and forest cover is removed and water bodies are drained or dammed, the climate becomes even drier and precipitation levels decline, further driving the desertification process.
That is precisely the case with Romania’s southern and south-eastern counties. In their Sixth National Communication on Climate Change and First Biennial Report from 2013, the Romanian authorities estimated that the area affected by desertification makes up for about 30% of the country’s total area – more than 27.500 sq miles (~ 71.000 sq km). Desertification occurs mostly in the regions Dobrogea, Moldavia, the south of the Romanian Plain and the Western Plain.
Oltenia region has been hardest hit by the process and is a good example of how human intervention and climate change can make way for massive land degradation and environmental destruction, hand in hand.
The intensive state-governed development during the rule of the infamous Nicolae Ceaușescu saw 26 percent of the country’s rich water bodies drained and turned into agricultural land. Oltenia was the worst hit by planned draining and lost all of its five natural aquatic bodies, including the 29 miles long Potelu Lake.
The newly gained agricultural land was utilized for vineyards and other economically important crops. The locals, who were traditionally fishermen relying on the abundance of the Danube and the Black Sea, were forced to turn to agriculture – today, 60 percent of Oltenia’s population depends on work in the farmlands.
However, the program was not as successful as the regime had hoped – the soil was too sandy, and the area was getting drier. Instalment of a massive irrigation system between Sadova and Corabia had helped but was not a sustainable solution.
After the Romanian revolution in 1989, in which Ceaușescu was killed, the already struggling economy of the country sunk even deeper and the demanding irrigation systems had gone defunct. Along with deforestation, increasing temperatures and frequent droughts characteristic of climate change, the perfect storm for desertification was here.
Today, the desertification in the Oltenia region is rampant. The area between Craiova, Calafat and Corabia called ‘Sahara of Oltenia’ astoundingly covers about 100,000 hectares (~ 386 sq mi). The local agricultural community had to adapt and has started to grow sand-tolerant cultures such as sweet potato, peanuts, olives, kiwi, and others.
To add to the trouble, decades of agriculture polluted the significantly depleted groundwater below the porous soil. The local forester and a reforestation activist Dan Popescu says that “The original underground water network is polluted by nitrites and nitrates – the result of intensive agriculture.”
Alexandru Ionescu, a resident of Grojdibodu, a 3,000 people-strong community in Oltenia, adds that “Even at the school in Grojdibodu, they dug an 80-metre deep well and the water was still not drinkable.“
Ironically, all of this is happening along the shorelines of Europe’s largest river, in a place that used to be abundant in plant and animal life.
The Romanian government has been developing strategies and taken a number of concrete steps to combat desertification, particularly since the country became a member of the European Union in 2007.
However, the issue is that the EU doesn’t have a unified soil degradation strategy to fight desertification. Instead, the soil degradation mitigation projects are financed through agriculture, forestry and environmental projects, somewhat limiting the effectiveness of initiatives.
Other European countries affected by desertification are Spain, Greece, Italy, and Portugal.
In Romania, local initiatives such as aforestation are also taking root, but in the climate that is only expected to get warmer, much more needs to be done to stop the spread of ‘Romanian Sahara’, and prevent other localities from suffering the same fate.
Romania’s desertified landscapes tell a cautionary tale about what happens when ambitious development disregards the pivotal elements of ecological balance.
Combating desertification in the EU: a growing threat in need of more action. European Court of Auditors. 2018 https://op.europa.eu/webpub/eca/special-reports/desertification-33-2018/en/
Desertification process intensifies in southern Romania region. Romania Insider. 13 April 2018. https://www.romania-insider.com/desertification-process-southern-romania
Southern Romania Is Being Swallowed By Desert. Vice UK. 7 October 2019 https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/9ke3nz/southern-romania-drought-desert
Visit the startling Deserts of Europe. Travelhouse UK. 28 October 2015 https://www.travelhouseuk.co.uk/news/destinations/visit-the-startling-deserts-of-europe.htm#:~:text=Oltenia%20Sahara%2C%20Romania%3A,excessive%20deforestation%20after%20the%201960’s.