Original publication: March 2018
Author: Carmen-Paz Marti, Seconded National Expert
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Geography and geopolitics
Mauritania’s official name is the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. The country is one of two Islamic republics in Africa, the other being The Gambia. It is located in North-West Africa, in the Sahel (Map 1). It has a total area of 1 030 700 square kilometres.
Sahel (from the Arabic word meaning flat land) is the name given to a belt of land in Africa that marks the transition between the Sahara to the north, and the Sudanese Savannah, with its substantial levels of rainfall, to the south. It extends from the Atlantic in the west to the Red Sea in the east. The area defined as being part of the Sahel varies substantially, generally including the land to the south of the Sahara.
With a 754 km coastline, the Atlantic Ocean forms Mauritania’s western frontier. To the southwest, the Senegal River forms an 813 km border with Senegal. The country’s longest border (2 237 km) separates it from Mali to the east and south-east. Mauritania also borders Algeria (a 463 km border) to the north-east and Western Sahara (a 1 561 km border) to the north and north-west (Map 2). In 1976, Mauritania occupied the southern third of Western Sahara but withdrew in 1979.
Precipitation is very low and generally does not exceed 100 millimetres per year. The Sahara desert occupies almost the whole country, with the exception of a narrow coastal area. In spite of this, the coastal area is known as the Atlantic Coastal Desert. Rainfall is almost nonexistent, but the fog brought about by the Canary Current in the Atlantic Ocean provides some moisture which allows lichen and other plants that require little water to grow. To the south of Mauritania, a savannah of acacia forest is the predominant ecosystem. Since the 1960s, the Sahara desert has been spreading progressively, due to intensive and recurrent droughts. These repeated droughts forced Mauritania to develop its interest in the fisheries sector from the 1970s onwards.
The country’s highest point is 910 m above sea level, at Kediet ej Jill, near to the border with Western Sahara and the lowest point is 5 m below sea level, at the salt pans of Sebkhet Te-n-Dghamcha to the north of Nouakchott.
Mauritania is part of the Maghreb (‘land of the setting sun’), a region located in northern Africa and the western part of the Arab world corresponding to the Arab-Berber cultural area that lies between the Mediterranean Sea, the Sahel belt and Egypt (Map 3). In 1989 an attempt to bring about political and economic integration was initiated with the creation of the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA).
Like the rest of the Sahel region, Mauritania is part of the group of countries that have not contributed significantly to global CO2 emissions, but will be hit very hard by the consequences. Rising temperatures in the Sahel will have devastating consequences if action is not taken.
Built in the 1950s to house 8 000 people, the city of Nouakchott now has over one million inhabitants. A combination of rising sea levels, the erosion of coastal areas, the destruction of mangrove swamps and flooding means that more than 80 % of the city could be under water within 10 to 20 years.
Order No 88/120 of 1988 defines the territorial waters, contiguous zone and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Mauritania. Mauritania’s EEZ is bordered to the north by the waters of Western Sahara at Ras Nouadhibou (latitude 20° 36’ N); to the south by the EEZ of Senegal (parallel 16° 04’ N); and to the west by the EEZ of Cape Verde. These limits have not been contested. Mauritania’s EEZ therefore covers an area of 234 000 km2, of which around 16 % corresponds to the continental shelf.
Between Ras Nouadhibou and Cap Timiris, the continental shelf extends 80 miles from the coast, whereas to the south it only extends 30 miles.
The 39 000 km2 continental shelf offers a great diversity of fishery resources. Approximately 600 species have been identified, 200 of which can be commercially exploited.
The Mauritanian waters are highly productive because they are very rich in fishery resources due to nutrients carried by the Canary Current and cold water upwelling.
Productivity varies over the course of the year. It is generally higher in May and June, and particularly in October and November. It remains at a higher and more constant level in the northern zone, from Ras Nouadhibou to Cap Timiris.
Other currents, such as the Guinea Current, are weaker than the Canary Current. However, they have an important role to play in the upwelling of water from the seabed. These upwellings are very important in terms of the productivity of Mauritanian waters and the abundance of the main target species. The offshore winds also have a considerable impact in terms of the intensity of the upwellings. As a result, there are significant seasonal and year-to-year variations, caused by the strength of the offshore winds, although the ocean currents also play a crucial role.
In Mauritania there are four Marine Protected Areas. Two of these, the Banc d’Arguin National Park and Ras Nouadhibou, are situated in the north on the coast, whereas Chat Tboul and Diawling are in the south, close to the border with Senegal.
The Banc d’Arguin National Park (PNBA) is the main marine protected area in Mauritania. It has a high level of protection, and entry into the park is restricted, except for the hundred or so inhabitants of the Imraguen tribe and the transit of caravans.
The PNBA was created in 1976 to protect a breeding area for endemic and migratory bird species. At that time, protection of the marine ecosystems was not included. The PNBA has enabled the continued fishing activity of the Imraguen, who fish for grey mullet by standing in the water and interacting with dolphins.
The Fisheries Partnership Agreement signed between the European Community and Mauritania in 2006 provides that, from the total financial contribution paid by the European Union, EUR 1 million per year must be used for the Banc d’Arguin National Park. Diawling National Park consists of wetland areas in the Senegal River delta. The alternating freshwater and seawater encourages huge biodiversity, and plays an important role in the reproduction of fish in the Senegal River.
Mauritania had an estimated population of over 3.5 million inhabitants in 2013, with high annual demographic growth of 2.77 %. In 2017, 61 % of the population lived in urban areas. At 3.4 inhabitants per km2, population density is very low. Life expectancy is 63 years.
As the country is largely made up of desert, most of the population is concentrated in the south, where average precipitation is slightly higher. On the Atlantic coast, the capital Nouakchott is home to one third of the population.
Mauritanians share the same religion, Islam, but are divided into three distinct ethnocultural groups.
The Arab-Berber Bidhan (meaning ‘white’ or ‘light skinned’) constitute less than one third of the country’s population, but dominate economically and politically. The Haratin, the largest group in the country, is made up of descendants of black Africans enslaved by the Bidhan. The West Africans or Black Mauritanians make up the third group in the country. Slavery was abolished in 1981 and in 2007 prison sentences of five to six years were introduced to punish any form of slavery.
The Bidhan are the descendants of Arab tribes that migrated from the Arabian Peninsula and settled in northwest Africa. They intermingled with and asserted their linguistic and cultural hegemony over the indigenous Berber groups, and converted them to Islam. The new societies that emerged from this encounter engaged in commerce with their black neighbours to the south, but also led to wars of enslavement. The society that these groups established is highly hierarchical and tribal. The Bidhan of Mauritania are organised into around 150 different tribes that are linked by a complex web of social relations, based on solidarities, alliances and rivalries that have helped them to remain a dominant force in all aspects of political and economic life in Mauritania.
The capital is Nouakchott, but a large part of the economic activity is concentrated in Nouadhibou.
Both cities are located on the Atlantic coast. In the country’s interior, the main cities are Tidjikja, Atar and Chinguetti. The official language is Arabic, although other languages are also spoken.
Fula, Soninké and Wolof are recognised as national languages. A large part of the population also speaks French.
Administratively, Mauritania is divided into 12 regions, which are subdivided into 52 departments (moughataa). The capital, Nouakchott, also has its own district (Map 4).
Link to the full study: http://bit.ly/617-458
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