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Climate change is likely to cause agricultural losses in the Middle East and North Africa, threatening the food security of many countries, the UN has warned.

A report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), released at a conference in Cairo, Egypt, this week (1–5 March), reviews studies and models of predicted climate-change impacts over the period 1980–99 and for 2080–99 — including reports from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

According to the report, more than 80 per cent of models show that water availability in the regions will decrease by up to 40 millimetres per year. With rainfall decreasing, growing seasons will be shorter for farmers.

The FAO says that a temperature increase of 3–4 degrees Celsius could cause

crop yields to fall by 15–35 per cent in Africa and west Asia and by 25–35 per cent in the Middle East.

The report highlights Yemen as being particularly vulnerable because of poverty, a rapidly growing population and existing water shortages.

But in other areas, the report says, rising sea levels will cause flooding —particularly the Nile Delta and the Gulf coast of the Arabian Peninsula.

The distribution and transmission patterns of livestock pests and disease might be altered, carrying an "almost certain" risk of epidemics.

The report puts the loss of gross domestic product for these regions at around 2.5 per cent, emphasising the importance of agriculture in reducing atmospheric greenhouse gases.

It also stresses the need for careful assessment of the impact of bioenergy development on food security before any major moves are made in the area.

Better water management for crops and more efficient use of fertiliser are called for — overuse of nitrogen is viewed as an "indication of inefficient farming".

The report points out that, although many areas in the region cannot grow forests to participate in the UN Clean Development Mechanism, there are "large expanses of degraded land that could be reforested if grazing is controlled". Egypt, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates are "building solid experience in afforestation and reclamation of desert areas, using sewage water for irrigation". 

Nasredin Hag Elamin, policy officer at the FAO Regional Office for the Near East in Cairo, says the probable future impact on agriculture is "very worrying and disrupting".

He calls upon agriculture policy-makers to take the report seriously and to implement its recommendations in a coordinated manner at both the national and regional levels.

Link to the full report [PDF 139kB]