By Louise Sarant, IWMI consultant, MENAdrought
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has been plagued with a water deficit for centuries, and is recognized as the driest region in the world. Despite a high water variability among countries in the region, with some receiving more rainfall and others better equipped to capitalize on their available water resources, water allocated to municipal, agricultural and industrial uses has dwindled.
While droughts have occurred for millennia, their severity and ability to cause extensive loss and damage have escalated due to climate change. Few countries have management plans in place to mitigate the impacts of droughts. In fact, once a drought settles in long enough to start affecting food production, water resources and municipal water provision, decision-makers often fall back on costly, and largely inefficient, crisis management responses.
The main aim of the MENAdrought project is to empower decision-makers across Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco to anticipate, prepare for and mitigate drought impacts in a context of increasing climate change, in order to reduce risks of food and water insecurity. Led by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the project is conducted in partnership with the University of Nebraska. The project will also aim to give each country full ownership of their drought management and mitigation strategies, as this ensures that it becomes part of everyday operations.
The ability of Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco to cope with a major drought event, and to rebound from it, is tied to their specific socioeconomic contexts, agricultural bases, geography, topography, and water management systems. The various activities undertaken by the project will also take these factors into consideration. In Morocco, managing the grazing of nomadic herding communities during droughts is a major issue, due to the damage caused to valuable crops, and the increasing effect on argan and oases farmers.
The 2014 drought in Lebanon is fresh in the minds of many. Many Lebanese farmers in the fertile Bekaa Valley had tilled the land and sowed the seeds when the municipality had to cut water supply services due to low reservoir levels, with disastrous economic consequences. The drought was the most severe in 60 years. While it only lasted for 4 months, it caused great losses in the agriculture and tourism sectors, and real hardship for those living in towns and cities who were forced to purchase water from tankers.
Historically, a drought would swoop down on Morocco once every decade or so. This cycle was well understood by farmers, who could count on a rebound in production during the following cropping season. However, the situation across the Kingdom has worsened significantly over the past 60 years, with drought episodes occurring twice or even three times per decade, with greater severity and wider distribution.
The case of Jordan is by far the most extreme, with the country considered to be the world’s second most water-deprived country. For Jordan, establishing a functioning drought plan will help better manage its meager and strained water resources during periods of drought, and also in non-drought years.
As part of its strategy, the MENAdrought project works hand-in-hand with experts, technicians and policy-makers across the three countries to deliver enhanced drought mapping and an early warning system to detect where droughts are having impacts. To develop these drought maps tailored to the local conditions of Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco, the project is training engineers in meteorology, agriculture, water and the environment on its Enhanced Operational Composite Drought Indicator (CDI). For each country, the CDI, developed by the project, captures the nature and characteristics of current drought conditions at the regional, basin and country levels. In order to generate clear nationwide and regional drought maps, the project relies on satellite data and ground observations to measure meteorological, hydrological, agricultural or socioeconomic variables to account for drought-related stress. For example, the maps developed using the CDI of key agricultural areas affected by the flash drought event in Jordan in 2014 are shown below.
Maps showing the key agricultural areas of Jordan that were affected during the flash drought event in 2014.
A training workshop on the MENAdrought project’s Enhanced Operational Composite Drought Indicator (CDI) was held at IWMI’s regional office in Cairo, Egypt, on March 1-3, 2020. Five engineers affiliated with the Jordanian Ministry of Water and Irrigation, Jordan Meteorological Department, and the Moroccan Ministry of Agriculture flew into Egypt to participate in the workshop, which was coordinated by Karim Bergaoui (Climate and Water Modeling Scientist, MENAdrought project) and Makram Belhaj Fraj (Cropping Systems Agronomist).
Bergaoui explained that drought maps are crucial to the development of a comprehensive drought action plan, as they trigger the responses by the various ministries that have already agreed to participate in the development of drought plans. These maps, therefore, play a critical role in reducing the impacts of droughts on the ecosystems and communities of Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco, as they initiate timely responses.
Ali Ghanem, an engineer at the Jordanian Ministry of Water and Irrigation, is the head of the country’s drought monitoring unit. To him, studying drought is the only way for Jordan to manage it and limit its impacts. “We need to study drought not just at a national scale but at the river basin level to help us make decisions on how to reallocate water among the sectors,” he explained. Ghanem is particularly interested in the early warning system that will be delivered by the MENAdrought project, which will help countries to decide on the actions to be taken prior to the onset of drought. In addition to its impacts on agricultural production, drought in Morocco creates tension between farmers and herders. Fares Yahia, an engineer at the Ministry of Agriculture, Rural Development, Water and Forests, explains that having data on climate conditions in rural areas could help Morocco anticipate its effects on animal herds. “Having forecast maps down the line would be the dream,” he said.