Lebanon News

Drought damaging, but part of natural cycle

Women harvest cabbage crops in a field in the southern village of Wazzani, Saturday, March 15, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Zaatari)

BEIRUT: The recent drought brought on by a lack of rain and snow has taken a significant toll on the flora and fauna in Lebanon, but it is unlikely to last and is only part of a natural cycle that occurs every few decades, experts say.

According to Mounir Abi Said, professor of biodiversity management at the American University of Beirut, it is the first time Lebanon has experienced such a drought for years, and the phenomenon will “have no big effect” in the long run.

“I am not that worried,” Abi Said told The Daily Star, adding that the drought was part of “a recurrent cycle.” However, he warned, “if this keeps going, it will be a problem.”

Beirut has so far had 402 millimeters of rain since December, the meteorological department at the Rafik Hariri International Airport told The Daily Star Sunday, as opposed to 823 mm this time last year.

Agriculture Minister Akram Chehayeb said last week that the rainfall was only a third of the annual average.

“It is expected that in March and April, under the best circumstances, the amount of precipitation will not surpass 45 to 50 percent of the annual average,” Chehayeb said at a news conference.

The head of agricultural resources at the Agriculture Ministry, Mohammad Abou Zeid, also told The Daily Star that Lebanon had witnessed a similar drought before.

“It should be an alarm for people, so they can equip themselves and be ready,” he said. “But our situation in Lebanon is much better than others.”

“This is a cycle that happens every 10 to 15 years,” Abou Zeid said, adding that the drought was only temporary and recent rainfall had helped the crops to a certain extent.

“But this year’s average is lower,” he said, admitting that the drought had had a significant effect on rain-fed agriculture, a farming practice which relies heavily on precipitation in order to irrigate winter crops.

“The problem lies in the amount and its timing,” Abou Zeid said. “Both are important to the plant’s life cycle to produce good crops. “

The type of farming most heavily affected by water shortages, however, is irrigated agriculture, which depends on aboveground water and water from wells. When there is not much water, both production and quality are drastically affected.

Nabil Nemer, head of the Agricultural Sciences Department at the Holy Spirit University in Kaslik, also stressed that Lebanon had gone through a similar period of drought before, and, like his counterparts, said it was all part of a natural cycle.

Nevertheless, “the consequences are negative,” Nemer added.

He said Lebanon needed “five or six” more weeks of rain and snowfall similar to last week.

“The biggest issue, which is widespread now, is that fruits at high altitudes ripened a month-and-a-half early,” he said. This prevents pollination from occurring, and in turn disrupts the fruit-setting process, resulting in little to no fruit on the plant.

Additionally, most farmers have only planted half the amount they normally do due to a lack of water for irrigation.

Also distressing is the impact of the lack of rainfall on the country’s fauna, particularly farm animals.

“Livestock are affected by the drought because this makes food unavailable to them,” Abou Zeid said. “This in turn impacts both the milk and the meat.”

Domestic animals such as sheep usually graze at medium altitude during winter and move to the higher pastures on the outskirts of the mountains during summer. But this winter, they have had to go straight to the higher altitudes as a result of a lack of grasslands lower down.

A shepherd then “allows his sheep to graze haphazardly and nearly everywhere,” Nemer said.

Abi Said added that domestic animals also relied on water pools to drink, pools that are now scarce and somewhat dried up. Even more feral animals, such as the wild boar, will be affected by the lack of drinking water come summer.

Climate change also puts stress on the animals, experts agreed. For example, reptiles may be waking up earlier than usual because of the warmth but may now have to go back into hibernation because it is getting cold again, Abi Said said.

“Even bats have come out now, even though they don’t usually appear until April,” he said.

If the drought persists, it may even eventually threaten fish, Abi Said added.

In fact, Nemer said that fish that spend their lives in rivers or lakes have already been affected due to a lack of the type of freshwater they need to live.

Another phenomenon that Lebanon has witnessed so far this winter is the spread of wildfires, Nemer confirmed.

“It is unusual that there are such fires at such a time,” he said. “The fire keeps spreading, and it is difficult to put it out because the earth lacks water and the plants are dry.”

Hot, dry and sand-filled winds contributed to a number of fires across Lebanon earlier this month.

But while experts said they did not have particular concerns over this year’s drought and any long-term effects, they cautioned that this would not be the case if the drought dragged on.

“The fear is that the situation will stay like this, then it will affect biodiversity,” Abi Said noted.

For Nemer, it was still “too early to speak of long-term effects,” but he added that things would change “if we have a minimum of three to five years like this.”

“If we have a number of years like this, it will lead to the extermination of some types of plants and loss of biodiversity,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 17, 2014, on page 4.




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