This article was first published on The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy https://timep.org/commentary/analysis/how-the-tragic-algeria-wildfires-illuminate-state-deficiencies/
Wildfires during the summer in Algeria are commonplace, with thousands of hectares lost annually as temperatures soar in the Mediterranean. However the more than 70 fires that began on August 9 and devastated the northern Kabylia region of the country, claiming the lives of at least 69 civilians and 28 military personnel, were some of the worst recorded since independence in 1962.
As pictures and videos spread through social media detailing the terrifying extent of the infernos engulfing the mountainous province of Tizi Ouzou, worry turned into shock at unfolding scenes of locals putting out the fires with no protective gear in sight.
The extent of just how ill-prepared the state was in its response to the wildfires was reflected in the cries of its young conscripts for safety after being sent in as reinforcements despite having no training or protection to fight the fires.
With Algeria’s death toll remaining the highest from the forest fires that were recorded in the region, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune decreed three days of national mourning for the victims, promising to compensate them for the loss to property and livestock.
With the fires now tamed, but the government in crisis and still reeling from the toll of the coronavirus pandemic, there are now a mountain of questions over that state’s mistake-laden response, in addition to the plethora of other grievances that have dealt blows to its legitimacy for many Algerians.
Between 1985 and 2010, 42,555 forest fires were recorded in Algeria with an annual average of 1,637 fires and loss of around 35,000 hectares of land. The Kabylie region, which undergoes an annual drought period between June and September, suffers from particularly high afforestation rates due to its ideal conditions for regular wildfires.
Despite this and the fact that fires in the Mediterranean are due primarily to the effects of climate change, Algerian authorities were quick to start the blame with no proof to merit claims.
Prime Minister Aymen Benabderrahmane was one of the first to comment, stating that the blazes appeared to be “highly synchronized” which would lead “one to believe these were criminal acts.” It was a sentiment that was echoed by Tebboune and Minister of Interior Kamel Beldjoud, who blamed “criminals filled with hatred against our country” for the fires.
The scapegoats became clear, in the forms of the Paris-based Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylie (MAK), as well as the London-founded Rachad movement.
Both organizations are classified as terrorist groups by Algeria’s High Security Council, a move which reflects increasing concerns of the intelligence services over what they perceive is the growing influence of MAK in the Kabylie region, and to a lesser extent Rachad, whose scope of influence is concentrated mainly abroad.
Tebboune went as far as to direct blame towards Morocco, whom it accused of supporting MAK and Rachad, as part of “hostile acts” that Rabat had perpetrated against Algeria over the last year, causing the recent rupture in diplomatic relations.
The consequences of stoking long-held ideological tensions — blaming Kabyles and Islamists — proved to be tragically consequential when artist and activist Djamel Ben Ismail was lynched on August 11 by a mob after being falsely accused of being one of the arsonists who authorities alleged had started the fires.
Ben Ismail had in fact travelled to the region to help put out the fires but was instead arrested and then brutally removed from a police van and murdered by a frenzied mob driven to act on vicious rumors and unidentified claims put forward by senior officials.
In the days that followed and despite the dignified attitude of Ben Ismail’s father who called for peace, social media networks were flooded with racist remarks against Kabyles and calls for revenge and threats of violence, temporarily redirecting anger directed at authorities culpable for the tragedy in the first place.
Meanwhile, the weakened Hirak movement, which, since last year, has been forced off the streets by the regime, banded together, on a scale not seen since the devastating earthquake in Algiers in 2003, to collect funds and essential items to distribute to those affected.
The unity and organized mobilization — both domestically and abroad — was nothing short of déjà vu from the days of the Hirak.
Since the lynching, 83 people have been placed in police custody and several others arrested in Oran and Annaba for inciting racial hatred, including an individual who faces five years in prison for posting a video calling for Kabyle to be “wiped off the map.”
Algeria attempted to strengthen its legal arsenal by adopting a law against discrimination and hate speech in February 2020 which carries a ten year sentence for those found guilty.
The law created of a national observatory for the prevention of discrimination and hate speech under the authority of the president. However, many observers consider the law to be particularly vague, giving judges who lack independence ample space for interpretation.
However many of those spewing racist vitriol online or in person continue to operate with impunity which raises questions on how exactly this law is being used aside from targeting free speech involving those speaking out against the regime.
Lessons to be learned
The current forest fire prevention strategy in place in Algeria is based on the principle of “minimum damage,” reflecting the lack of firefighting resource capabilities that ensures forested lands are protected.
Alert systems, communication, and preventive measures in high risk areas are in desperate need of development, alongside the creation of wildfire risk maps. The existing infrastructure on fire management protection programs and trained personnel also requires maintenance, along with an efficient wildfire management program that Algeria currently severely lacks.
Algeria does not have Canadairs — firefighting planes — the possession of which would have prevented such an unprecedented number of victims and the fires from spreading so rapidly. Wildfires often start in the mountainous terrain that make up the Kabylie region, inaccessible for fire engines and other forms of ground transportation.
Forever suspicious of the international community, the state also took far too long to admit it needed international assistance for the unfolding tragedy, shunning Morocco’s offer of two firefighter jets and instead accepting help from the European Union.
Foreign actors, the target of initial blames, eventually helped authorities control the blazes. While questions remain about how the international community’s response could have been better (nine planes and 1,000 firefighters were deployed to Greece alone, for example), the fact that the fires were only tamed after European Canadair planes were deployed is further evidence that had the state been adequately prepared for a commonplace phenomenon the situation would not have likely ended so tragically.
The first positive sign of progress has been the announcement made by the Algerian Ministry of Defense that it intends to buy eight Russian Beriev Be-200 Altair firefighting planes to tackle future fires which would be the quickest route available in acquiring the necessary fleets.
The lack of an institutionalized program of investigations into the causes of these fires is also a key contributing factor in why any prevention programs would prove ineffective currently. Data on fire statistics and maintenance of fire databases need to be in place in order to better provide necessary information that can guide the decision making process when it comes to the critically underfunded firefighting sector.
With fire risk remaining high in Algeria for the foreseeable future, it is imperative for the safety of its citizens that the state reform its strategy and investigate its failures in order to avoid repeating the same costly mistakes so that citizens, already planning reforestation efforts, are protected and supported.