Recent rain eases farmers’ concerns in the Maghreb

Friday 22/01/2016
Tunisians praying for rain at a mosque in the capital Tunis, on January 17th.

Tunis - Farmer Hedi Nefzi pointed to vast green wheat and barley fields in Tunisia’s northern grain belt as he walked down a dirt road wet from mid-January rain.
“That is good for the farming sea­son. There is plenty of rain. Look at the soaked soil. It is good for the development of wheat and barley plants,” Nefzi said as he poked a fin­ger into the brown soil of his field outside Medjez el Bab, 60km north-west of Tunis.
Recent rain brought about a big change in the mood of the region’s farmers. Muslims had held mass prayer services asking for rainfall across the Maghreb.
The dry period in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco was seen as an omi­nous portent of severe drought. Un­seasonably sunny weather stretched well into January, leaving parts of the usually green cereal fields yel­low.
Dry conditions were prevalent across the Maghreb — from the wheat basin in Beja in northern Tu­nisia to Cheliff plains in western Al­geria, where grain and potatoes are grown, to Morocco’s cereal-growing Telda and Chaouia plains.
Recent rain at lower elevations and snow, which coated the Djurd­jura mountains and other areas in northern Algeria, at higher climes, however, will boost supplies in wa­ter tables and dams. But that is only making up for precipitation missed early in the growing season. Con­sistent rain is needed to avoid an agricultural crisis.
Officials said the Maghreb needed more rain to make for a shortfall of an average 180mm for Algeria and 400mm for Morocco.
“This rainy weather is encour­aging,” Nefzi said. “As soon as the weather permits we will spray ferti­liser on the fields to help the cereal plants develop better. It is too early to talk about a good crop. We need good levels of rainfall in February, March and early April, ”
Morocco’s economy depends on farming, which accounts for 14.6% of its gross domestic product (GDP). Agriculture employs about 4 million people, 40% of the total workforce. Half of the 10 million hectares of arable land is planted with cereals, which produced an annual average of 7 million tonnes over the past decade.
Rainfall levels were 50% lower than average and the country need­ed substantial rain until April to make up the shortfall. State weather service forecasts predict mostly sunny weather for most of January, however.
The Agriculture Ministry said dam reservoirs were at 63% capac­ity. That water could be issued for ir­rigation. Morocco has spent heavily on building dams over the past 40 years to alleviate water shortages.
But dams can satisfy only 15% of farmers’ needs. Nearly three-quar­ters of the farms are smaller than five hectares, too small to make much more than a subsistence liv­ing off the land. The country plans to spend $40 billion by 2050 to up­grade its farming sector.
Elhassan Mohammed Ben Abdel­lah, chairman of the National Fed­eration of Date Producers, pointed out that in Morocco’s central region of Errachidia, where most Moroccan dates are grown, the situation was complicated as the lack of rainfall caused water table levels to drop.
Morocco will have one of the world’s first drought early warning systems that integrates remotely sensed data from NASA and other US agencies into an agricultural drought indicator.
The Moroccan Composite Drought Index (MCDI) was developed with backing from the World Bank and with technical assistance from the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) and Center for Advanced Land Management Information Technologies (CALMIT), both based at the University of Nebraska-Lin­coln, and from the University of Maryland, College Park.
Algeria has been striving to de­velop its farming sector as part of its economic diversification. Oil and gas account for 95% of exports and more than half of the state budget.
It has become an exporter of barley but it is a major importer of wheat. The farming sector has a key role in social stability with food ac­counting for more than half of the consumer inflation gauge. Algeri­ans in recent weeks protested in the north-eastern region of Tizi Ouzou, venting anger over the rising cost of living.
Experts said recent rainfall made up for the shortfall of 180mm for December and early January period. The rain boosted reservoirs behind the country’s dams to about 67% capacity, making it unlikely authori­ties will ration water.
Tunisia has yet to feel the pain of drought as authorities have ef­ficiently managed scarce water re­sources since the 1990s. Recent rain eased worries of farmers about the coming season.
Sowing of 2016 winter grains oc­curred under irregular but average cumulative rainfall. About 1.4 mil­lion hectares are estimated to have been planted with cereals. Most of the grain produced is wheat, which in 2015 totalled about 900,000 tonnes, a decrease of 40% com­pared to the previous year’s above-average harvest. In Tunisia, crop production varies markedly from year to year depending on rainfall variations. Irrigated fields repre­sent less than 15% of the total wheat crops planted.
Tunisia relies heavily on grain imports, even in good production years. Cereal import requirements in the current marketing year are put at about 3.5 million tonnes, about 20% higher than in 2015 and 15% higher than the five‑year aver­age.
Agriculture accounts for about 8% of GDP and 10% of exports.