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Experts Fear Global Food Crisis
Mar 19, 2014

UN experts and climatologists say, 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. Varying degrees of drought are hitting almost two-thirds of the limited arable land across Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Iraq. 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. 

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.

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.

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. In Jordan 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. 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.

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. 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 tons. Drought that peaked in severity during 2008 and 2009 but persisted into 2010 was blamed for the soaring food prices that aggravated social tensions and in turn triggered the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

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 the region will eventually have less rain and more frequent droughts.


 


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