Save Yourselves

Southern Romania Is Being Swallowed By Desert

Communism and climate change created a dustbowl. Now, locals are fighting to bring the water back.

by Ioana Moldoveanu; photos by Mircea Topoleanu
07 October 2019, 1:52pm

In Dăbuleni, the dead rest in sand.

This article originally appeared on VICE Romania.

In Oltenia, Romania's driest region, temperatures reach 29 degrees celsius in September – two or three degrees hotter than half a century ago. Some areas don't see a drop of rain in months. The air is dry and dusty.

When the rain comes, it's heavy, but there's never enough to work its way deep into the earth. The wind blows sand onto crops, into people's yards and lungs. In spring, the wind tears up roofs, destroys trees and causes power cuts, leaving entire sections of cities in the dark.

In the fields we visit, hundreds of hectares of grapes haven't ripened. Sixty percent of Oltenia's population works in agriculture, and for many the success of their crops is hard to predict.

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Alexandru Ionescu's vineyard in Grojdibodu, Romania. He got nothing out of it this year.

Romania is one of eight European countries, along with Spain, Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Malta and Hungary, which will be most affected by climate change-related drought, according to a 2009 EU report. Already, to be able to water their crops farmers must dig a well at least 40 feet deep.

Last month, the president of the Academy of Agricultural and Sylvan Sciences, Valeriu Tabără, declared that 70 percent of Romania’s land was on its way to becoming desert, and called for farmers to adapt.

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A map from The National Strategy for Controlling Desertification, 2008.

"In southern Romania, sand swallows over 1,000 hectares per year. If action is not taken, all the fertile land could be completely covered [by sand] in the next 50 years," says Anca-Luiza Stănilă, a researcher at The Institute for Pedology, Agricultural Chemistry and Ecology (ICPA).

Both Mother Nature and mankind are to blame for desertification in Romania. In the 1960s, dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu drained 26 percent of the country's water for farmland, including all five of Oltenia's natural water bodies and the 47-kilometre-long Potelu Lake.

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Above: Potelu Lake in 1927. Below: The area now. Maps via Jiu Pool Administration.

Alexandru Ionescu, 61, spent his childhood near the lake in the village of Grojibodu. "Mint grew on the lake shore and we played football around it," he says. "People survived by fishing. There were a lot of tourists, and drought rarely affected us. It used to rain a lot, the air was humid and clean."

And then the communist authorities came along, first building dams and then constructing a pumping station to dry out the lake.

"They cut down over 13,000 hectares of forest and replaced it with acacia trees to stop the wind and the sand," says Dan Popescu, who heads up the area's "Rebirth of the Forest" association. That's how they made room for the irrigation system covering 74,000 hectares of land, and the fishermen became farmers.

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Dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu's visit to the irrigation site in Padova-Corabia in 1974. Photo via the Online Photo Collection of Romanian Communism.

Workers at a research station in Dăbuleni, responsible for the success of crops and irrigation, taught the peasant fishermen to grow potatoes and watermelons. The communist regime insisted the region was prosperous and fed 800,000, but it was a lie. "There were no crops – what can you grow on sand?" asks Dan Popescu. "People would irrigate and, two days later, everything was dry again," adds local Ionescu.

"The first to disappear was the Băltărețu wind [a local name], which was warm and humid... and brought rain. Then in summer, air temperatures rose over 30 degrees and sand temperatures to over 70 degrees," says Popescu.

Rain became rarer, and people's lives became dustier than ever.

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The wind, nicknamed "Bankrupt" because it brings drought, unearths an electricity pylon.

Things only got worse after the 1989 revolution ousted the communist regime. The state returned the land to the people, but because they were afraid they would lose it again, owners cleared 30,000 hectares of forest, including the protective acacia canopies.

Individual landowners grew whatever they wanted, overwhelming the irrigation system, which was built to serve 500 hectares with a maximum of two kinds of crops. Without state support, efforts by farmers in the early 2000s to irrigate the fields themselves failed. The system lay unused and was eventually dismantled by scrap iron thieves.

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Alexandru Ionescu says the land is becoming more and more sandy.

In 2006 a dam broke, causing disaster in dozens of towns in Oltenia, filling the perimeter of the old lake. But there was a positive side to the breaking of the dam. "Fishermen were coming here from all across the country," recalls Ionescu. "There were so many fish you couldn't believe your eyes: pike, catfish, carp. We didn't breathe in dust. The climate was milder."

Locals got rich fast, and their morale was boosted. Excited, Ionescu applied for fisherman permits. "We never caught less than 28 pikes. The whole country fished here. It took nine months for the authorities to get the water out of the lake again. A lot of fish died," he said.

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The sandy reality of Oltenia.

Suddenly, they were poor again. "[Locals] mostly cultivate animal feed and they live with the hope they will be flooded again next spring," says Ionescu. "We lead a tough life. The workforce is growing old, more than 20 percent of the houses are abandoned. The youngsters prefer to rent out their houses and ask for welfare, or leave the country."

In 2007, Ionescu wrote to authorities, asking them to fill the lake again so young people could come back and work. After nine years of solo effort, things finally started to change when World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Romania got involved. At present, the NGO is working on the documentation for the ecological reconstruction of the lake, with European funds.

"The inhabitants want to have the water closer to them. If they can find ways to rebuild the underground water system as well as the lake, the agriculture in the area will be revived," said a WWF Romania representative.

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The state of the VICE car, after a trip through Oltenia.

In 2019, and still without an active irrigation system or government funding, the Dăbuleni farmers' crops are in danger.

"The original underground water network is polluted by nitrites and nitrates – the result of intensive agriculture," says forester Dan Popescu. "Even at the school in Grojdibodu [a community of about 3,000 in Oltenia], they dug an 80-metre deep well and the water was still not drinkable," adds Alexandru Ionescu.

While Ionescu was petitioning authorities, Dan Popescu was planting drought-resistant acacia trees. He had a plan: to persuade the people in Oltenia to unite, and convince them that letting the state plant trees on their land wasn't going to result in them losing it again.

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Foresting has been in the Popescu family since 1896.

"Because of the intensive agriculture, the land is polluted. Only the forest can clean the underground," he says.

Popescu spoke with people at the church, in schools and in community centres. "I told them: 'You have land that you do nothing with and you pay taxes for. There is this programme, the state pays for it, it gives you the land back, but you are obligated to introduce native trees and take care of them.' If people understand and are guided in the right direction, they are willing to do the right thing."

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The now-fertile land where the owner associations planted trees, versus those who didn't join the movement.

By 2009, almost 10,000 families had reforested more than 3,000 hectares of land. "The sand absorbed some water, the air is more humid and the environment healthier," says Popescu. A guest house opened with ponds for fishing. But in 2010, the Romanian government introduced laws that curbed reforestation efforts with impossible paperwork.

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The trees planted by Dan Popescu and other locals – a drop in the ocean of desert.

Still, with or without the government’s help, Dan Popescu hopes to plant trees on what's left of the land, which first needs to be treated so it's fertile once again.

In communist times, the Dăbuleni research station taught locals to grow watermelons. This year, people in the region started cultivating plants that thrive in sand, such as Chinese date trees, peanuts, sweet potatoes, kiwi, blackcurrant, olive trees and almond trees.

According to Roxana Bojariu, director of the Climate Department of The National Meteorology Agency, Oltenia will only get drier and hotter in the coming decades. "The worst case scenario is a temperature rise by five degrees," she says.

The prediction makes the work of people like Dan Popescu even more vital.

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