Middle East drought a threat to global food prices

Sheep walk on a road as they graze in Palestinian village of al-Auja, near the West Bank city of Jericho March 7, 2014

(Reuters) – 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, U.N. 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 U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) environmental economist.

The dry season has already hurt prospects for the cereal harvest in areas of Syria and to a lesser extent Iraq. 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 no doubt push global food prices higher,” said Nakd Khamis, seed expert and consultant to the FAO.

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People fish in the Jerash water stream, which flows into the King Talal Dam, near Jerash March 6, 2014

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 U.N. agencies, including the FAO, UNDP and UNESCO, that would be formally published later this month, Hossain said.

Water and agriculture authorities, alongside specialist U.N. 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.

Reservoir of the King Talal Dam in 2011

In Jordan, among the 10 countries facing the worst water shortages globally, Hazem al-Nasser, minister of water and irrigation, told Reuters precipitation levels were the lowest since records began 60 years ago.

Even after an exceptionally heavy snow storm that hit the region in mid-December, the kingdom’s dams are still only 42% full, down from 80% last year, officials say.

In Lebanon, where climate change has stripped its mountain slopes of the snow needed to recharge groundwater basins, rain is “way below the average”, said Beirut-based ecosystem and livelihoods consultant Fady Asmar, who works with U.N. agencies.

He said the stress on water resources from prodigal usage was exacerbated by the presence of nearly a million registered 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…