After a Dry Spring, Northwest Africa Braces for Disruptive Crop Failures

Courtesy of RANE Worldview, analysis of how – after a dry Spring – Northwest Africa braces for disruptive crop failures:

As the summer harvest season begins in agriculture-dependent North Africa, severe drought will lead to crop failures that will increase risks of political uncertainty, social unrest and economic instability. Northwest Africa’s Maghreb region, which includes Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, is among the most arid in the world. And amid a pre-existing drought, scarce rainfall in 2023 is exacerbating conditions like drained groundwater, lower water tables at regional dams, and an over-use of the scant available water resources. With summer harvests of cereal grain crops just beginning, this dry environment has led regional farmers and U.N. observers to forecast that crop yields will be poorer than expected. And since Maghreb is heavily dependent on agriculture, which accounts for roughly 12-13% of its countries’ GDP, the impact of these poor harvests will be manifold.

  • According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the Middle East and North Africa is the most water-stressed region in the world, and 85% of the region’s freshwater is used in agriculture. 
  • In a report published on May 10, the European Union’s Science Hub said that ”prolonged and intensified drought conditions in the Iberian Peninsula and the Maghreb region severely affected crop yield potentials.” The May 22 EU Joint Research Center’s Monitoring Agricultural Resources (MARS) bulletin characterized Northwest Africa’s current drought as ”the worst seasonal drought in recent decades.” 
  • In March, the Global Agricultural Monitoring Group for the G-20 Agricultural Market Information System included Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia in a list of countries that have experienced below-average rainfall this year. Slight rainfall in Morocco and Algeria in May helped refill some dams, but it came too late in the growing season for most cereal grains to help crop output.
  • In March, the European Drought Observatory reported that huge swaths of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia were under ”vegetation stress following soil moisture deficit.”

Lower harvest yields will increase the need for grain imports, further straining regional economies and forcing governments to depend more on external partners. North Africa’s ongoing drought was especially severe in March, which is usually when wheat and barley crops begin flowering. Given the lack of rainfall at this crucial development stage, large swaths of these cereal crops are expected to fail when they’re harvested this summer — especially in Morocco and Tunisia, which saw very little rainfall over the winter and spring. For Maghreb countries, the anticipated poor crop yields mean there will not only be less grain available for making bread (a key staple of North African cuisine), but that what little grain is available will be more expensive. To make up for the looming domestic deficit, North African governments are slated to import a record 31.7 million tons of wheat and barley this year. But the concurrent drop in agricultural exports (which in Morocco generated $7 billion worth of revenue in 2022,) means they’ll also have less cash to purchase those grain shipments, which have been made all the more expensive by the war-related disruptions to Ukrainian and Russian wheat supplies over the past year. Maghreb governments may thus have little choice but to spend more than budgeted on food supplies and imports in the near term, detracting from their long-term financial stability at a time when they’re already facing foreign currency reserve shortages (especially in Tunisia) and high debt liabilities (especially in Morocco). Securing enough funding to purchase more wheat and barley imports will also force Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia to seek out economic aid from wealthy countries in Europe, as well as those in the Arab Gulf (which often attach political conditions to their loans and grants, like aligning with Saudi Arabia against Iran). 

  • The EU Joint Research Center’s MARS bulletin forecast that 2023 wheat yields in the Maghreb region will be down 24-17% from the last five-year average and that barley yields will be down 30-10% from the same.
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Algeria and Morocco will be among the world’s top wheat importers for 2023 due to drought conditions. 

Water shortages, increased food insecurity and the impact on agricultural workers will exacerbate anti-government sentiment across North Africa, increasing the risk of protests. The governments of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia will likely deploy what financial resources they can to cover cash transfers and benefits to help alleviate the drought’s impact on their citizens’ everyday lives. But the worsening drought conditions are now forcing North African governments to start rationing water and even food, which will nonetheless increase anti-government sentiment and protests — especially among farmers and other agricultural workers whose pocketbooks will be hit hard by this year’s poor crop yields. Such anger could pose a particularly potent threat to Morocco’s billionaire prime minister, Aziz Akhannouch, who’s already facing growing calls to resign due to his handling of the country’s cost-of-living crisis and the perception that his vast wealth prevents him from understanding the plight of average Moroccans. Drought-fueled frustrations could also create more headaches for Tunisia’s strongman president Kais Saied, who is struggling to placate the many civil society groups who want to oust him from power after his controversial attempts to consolidate power over the past two years. 

  • The agricultural sector employs roughly 35%, 20% and 16% of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia’s workforces, respectively.
  • Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria have all introduced water rationing in recent months. In Tunisia, authorities have even advised people cut back on their bread consumption due to wheat shortages.

By showcasing the region’s likely future amid climate change, the current drought will push Maghreb countries to gradually implement more sustainable, less water-intensive agricultural practices. The current crisis offers a preview of a new normal in North Africa, which is expected to see increasingly severe droughts and water shortages in the coming decades due to rising global temperatures. This new reality is unlikely to push Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria to move away from agriculture as a huge component of their economies. But continued water stress is prompting the public and private sectors in all three countries to focus on efficient water usage in agriculture. These efforts will help conserve resources in the long term if the region can source sufficient financial investment to support the new ideas and projects.

  • In Morocco, Prime Minister Akhannouch recently announced a revamp of the country’s 2008 Green Plan, which seeks to direct domestic and foreign investment toward new, less water-intensive technologies in the agricultural sector to accelerate its growth. 
  • Algeria’s 2020-24 Agriculture Roadmap includes a focus on developing staple wheat, corn, sugar and oilseed crops to reduce the country’s reliance on imports of these ”strategic commodities.” The roadmap also includes a plan to ”mitigate water stress” by modernizing Algeria’s irrigation system. 
  • In Tunisia, a rash of new start-up companies have cropped up in recent years that are focused on using solar energy, condensation and humidity in the air to better utilize existing water resources in agriculture. 

The severe drought and the likelihood of future ones could also increase North African countries’ support for global climate change initiatives. As the Maghreb region develops new technologies to address water shortages, it will need sufficient energy to fuel these efforts. As a result, these governments will grow increasingly interested in cost-effective renewable energy options, especially those that rely on solar power since these countries have abundant sunshine. This means Maghreb countries could be more receptive to progressive climate change solutions discussed at the 2023 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Dubai, as long as they can also source sufficient domestic and foreign investment to fund new technologies and projects.

  • Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia are all seeking foreign investment in projects that will help them preserve water resources. But of these three countries, Morocco is the most likely to secure investment interest, as Tunisia has an unstable political environment and Algeria is historically less open to foreign investment (although that is increasingly changing).

This entry was posted on Saturday, May 27th, 2023 at 3:40 am and is filed under Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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