The Middle East’s driest winter in several decades could pose a threat to global food prices, with local crops depleted and farmers’ livelihoods blighted, UN experts and climatologists say.
Varying degrees of drought are hitting almost two-thirds of the limited arable land across Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Iraq. “Going back to the last 100 years, I don’t think you can get a five-year span that’s been as dry,” said Mohammad Raafi Hossain, a UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) environmental economist.
The dry season has already hurt prospects for the cereal harvest. Several of the countries under pressure are already significant buyers of grain from international markets.
“When governments that are responsible for importing basic foodstuffs have shortages in production, they will go to outside markets, where the extra demand will push global food prices higher,” said Nakd Khamis, seed expert and consultant to the FAO.
The Standard Precipitation Index (SPI) shows the region has not had such low rainfall since at least 1970. This was part of the initial findings of a joint technical study on Drought Risk Management undertaken by several UN agencies, including the FAO, UNDP and UNESCO, Hossain said.
Water and agriculture authorities, alongside specialist UN agencies, have begun preparing plans to officially declare a state of drought that spreads beyond the Eastern Middle East to Morocco and as far south as Yemen, climatologists and officials say.
Drought is becoming more severe in parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and Iraq, while Syria, having seen several droughts in recent decades, is again being hit hard, said Mohamad Khawlie, a natural resources expert with Planinc, an international consultancy focused on geospatial studies in the Middle East and Africa (MENA) region.
In Jordan, Hazem al-Nasser, minister of water and irrigation, told Reuters precipitation levels were the lowest since records began 60 years ago.
In Lebanon, where climate change has stripped its mountains of the snow needed to recharge groundwater basins, rain is “below average”, said Beirut-based ecosystem and livelihoods consultant Fady Asmar, who works with UN agencies. He said the stress on water resources was exacerbated by the presence of nearly a million refugees since the Syrian civil war began in 2011.
Only Israel will not face acute problems, helped by its long-term investment in desalination plants and pioneering water management techniques.
In Iraq, which once boasted the largest tracts of fertile land in the region, it is only three years since the last cycle of drought ended, which covered more than 73 per cent of the country.
Extracts from a soon-to-be released UN-commissioned study says drought in Iraq will persist, increasing in severity from 2017 to 2026, increasing further the dependence on foreign food imports by one of the top grains importers in the world.
The extracts say Turkey, where much of Iraq and Syria’s water resources originate, has cut the volume of water flowing into the Euphrates and Tigris rivers by dam construction to meet their own growing domestic needs.
A poor rain season in Syria has already hit its 2014 wheat outlook in the main rain-fed areas in the north-eastern parts, Syrian agriculturalists say. Even if late heavy rain comes in March, it is not expected to save the cereal harvest, which farmers are resigned to relegating to animal fodder.
The drought and war could slash total wheat output to less than a third of its pre-crisis harvest of around 3.5 million tonnes.
Drought that peaked in severity during 2008 and 2009 but persisted into 2010 was blamed by some experts in Syria for the soaring food prices that aggravated social tensions and in turn triggered the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
“Prior to the protests, food costs were soaring. In fact, because of these food costs, the protests were instigated,” said FAO’s Hossain.
Middle-Eastern experts predict more frequent drought cycles in coming years, accompanied by delayed winter rainy seasons that damage fruits by promoting premature flowering and prevent cereal crops growing to full maturity.
“The climate change cycles are now shorter, which means … we will eventually have less rain and more frequent droughts,” Fady Asmar said.
Until the wells run dry
A small community north of Los Angeles is running dry amid a deep California drought even though residents are changing water habits
People in the mountain town Lake of the Woods, California, straddling the San Andreas Fault are used to scrapping for water. The lake for which it is named went dry 40 years ago. But now, this tiny community is dealing with its most unsettling threat yet: It could run out of water by summer.
So far, nothing has seemed to have helped: not the yearlong ban on watering lawns and washing cars, not running the washing machine once a week, not the conscientious homeowners who clean their dishes in the sink and reuse the gray water on trees, not even the three inches of rain that soaked the area last weekend. Three attempts to drill new wells, going down 500 feet, have failed.
But for 17 small communities in California, the absence of rain is posing a fundamental threat to the most basic of services: drinking water. And Lake of the Woods, a middle-class enclave 80 miles from Los Angeles, a mix of commuters, retirees and weekend residents, is one of the most seriously threatened. Signs along its dusty roadways offer stark red-on-white warnings of a “Water Emergency,” and plead for conservation.
For a while, Lake of the Woods bought water from Frazier Park, five miles up the road, but that community halted sales as its water table dropped through the winter. Now the community is trying to line up alternatives, and fast. State officials predict that the existing water supply will last no more than three months.
The town, which has a population of about 900, says it is prepared to truck in water should the wells run dry, an expensive remedy it employed briefly last year and which now looms as a potential fact of life. NYT
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